Monday, September 12, 2011

Folks, can we get over "green plastic" already? Please?

I try to avoid the usual environmentalists I-hate-plastic routine because I think it’s lame –there’s nothing wrong with using of plastic, it’s using it indiscriminately that’s the problem. The best way to “green” plastic is cutting its excessive use, using longer lasting products that aren’t constantly thrown away, and increasing our use of plastic for things like medical devices that save lives.

So all of Brazil’s talk of green plastic has got me rolling my eyeballs. Brazil’s really excited about sugar cane ethanol revolution, and OK, I’ll hand it to them, I think it’s pretty cool because they’ve replaced a huge amount of gasoline with biofuels (I’m gonna skip the food vs. fuels debate for the moment). So now scientists and researchers are teaming up with Braskem, Latin America’s largest petrochemicals company, to make polyethylene plastic out of sugar cane ethanol. According to newspaper Brasil Economico (a great paper, by the way, for anyone remotely interested in sustainability issues), a clothing chain called Pompeia in the state of Rio Grande do Sul has started distributing plastic bags with made from green polyethylene.

The problems with recklessly discarding plastic are unfortunately not solved by changing what it’s made out of. Green plastic will still clog storm drains and will still litter beaches if it is not disposed of appropriately. A lot of people are convinced that plastic made out of organic material is better for the environment because after it gets thrown away, it will biodegrade in a landfill. This is one of the most staid an aggravating misconceptions that’s repeated more times than I can count, and each time gives me a nails-on-a-chalkboard sensation for the following reason:

Nothing biodegrades in a landfill.

This is precisely the reason nobody wants a landfill in their backyard, or even anywhere near them. Because landfills are not harmless piles of mulch like the compost pile in your hippie friends’ backyard. They’re exceedingly toxic piles of partially degraded organic material, lead from batteries, mercury from junked electronics, and carcinogenic compounds from fire extinguishers, all soaking in foul-smelling and dangerous garbage juice called leachate. Yes, I will admit, there are instances in which a concerted change in organizational culture can allow plastic can be composted – but this sort of thing works only if the organic plastic ends up getting separated out through a conscientious effort to change behavior. The big hurdle here is changing people’s behavior. Inventing our way out of problems is the easy way to do things, and it’s one of the big contributors the mess we’ve got right now. Absent that concerted effort, green plastic is going into the trash just like its hydrocarbon-derived cousins. And green plastic that gets thrown in the trash will slowly decay, and in the process release methane – a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide.

In the United States we have much the same campaign, only instead of sugar we use corn to make plastic. And again, most of that will end up in a landfill. The answer here is not to change the feedstock for the plastic. The answer is to stop doing so much dumb shit with plastic.

Ok, the Braskem and Brazilian green plastics advocates will tell me, but we’re cutting the use of oil to make plastics but using sugar-derived fuel instead. But this one doesn’t convince me either, because the sugar is already being used for something else – in fact it’s already being used to make sugar cane ethanol, which is in turn displacing gasoline. Divert sugar to make plastic and you either have to make more sugar for ethanol or use more gasoline, which is what you’re supposedly displacing. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. It doesn’t make sense for much the same reasons that this plan doesn’t make sense.

One of the biggest challenges for the environment, and for human beings, is that it is almost always easier to create a new whiz-bang gizmo gadget or contrive new technology than to simply changing people’s behavior. Should we fill the entire American mid-west with corn to be used in ethanol, or maybe just fill out tires, obey the speed limit, and not accelerate toward red lights and then screech to a halt? According to the Environmental Working Group, the two give us approximately the same result. Common sense tells us which one is more logical. Reality tells us something else. I think its pretty clear what common sense would tell us about green plastic.

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