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'I want to say one word to you': Bioplastics

The push-back against popular yet polluting consumer materials has begun

In Mike Nichols's 1967 film, The Graduate, a disillusioned college grad, Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, is taken aside at a party by a family friend, Mr. McGuire.

"I want to say one word to you, just one word," Mr. McGuire tells him.

"Yes, sir."

"Are you listening?" "Yes, I am," Ben says, nodding.


"Exactly how do you mean?" Ben asks.

"There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?" The "plastics" quote became the film's best-known line and one of the best known in American cinema. And you know what? Mr. McGuire was right.

In the 1960s, plastics were mostly used for durable goods, from car seats to sleek, Italiandesigned kitchenware. Shortly thereafter, the use of single-use, throwaway plastic for beverages, food, shopping bags and containers exploded, creating fortunes for the petrochemicals companies that would churn out hundreds of millions of tonnes of polyethylene, the most common and cheapest of the plastics.

Today, production is still soaring, but plastics are no longer seen as merely convenient consumer products. They also have a new status: enemy of the planet.

Anyone watching Sir David Attenborough's new documentary series on the BBC, Blue Planet II, can only be horrified by the images of plastics polluting the oceans and killing fish and sea mammals. The American photographer Chris Jordan has made a career of snapping pictures of the plastic waste produced by mass consumption. His photos of decayed birds, their stomachs filled with small bits of plastic, are shocking.

What can be done about it?

In the near term, sadly, not much. The plastics business is an enormous global industry with enormous global lobbying power. It invests a lot and it has created a lot of jobs. In Europe alone, the petrochemicals industry has about 300,000 direct employees, according to Petrochemicals Europe, the association of producers. The even-more powerful oil and natural gas industry is tied to the petrochemicals business. The fossil-fuel producers supply feedstock to the latter.

For the oil-and-gas companies, petrochemicals are a lovely hedge. When oil-and-gas prices are down, petrochemicals companies can produce more at less cost, raising demand for everything from Saran plastic wrap and garden hoses to beach buckets and drinking straws. Anything that is cheap and durable finds lots of customers.

According to a recent Bloomberg Gadfly column, plastic packaging alone - the throwaway stuff - is a $290-billion (U.S.) a year business. Incredibly, more than half of all plastics production has happened since the turn of the century. Population growth and wealthier economies everywhere pretty much guarantee plastics production and demand will remain strong. Sales are expected to grow by 4 per cent a year, according to the British research firm Smithers Pira.

Most plastic is not recycled. It goes into landfills or is dumped elsewhere. An appalling amount makes its way into the oceans.

Various estimates say the mass of plastic in the oceans will exceed the mass of fish by 2050, according to a joint study produced by the World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co.

The good news is that the push-back has begun. Many countries and cities, for instance, are forcing retailers to charge a small fee for plastic-shopping bags.

This week, British Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years and is urging supermarkets to install "plastic-free" aisles. The British supermarket chain Tesco supports a plastic-bottle depositand-return scheme, to encourage recycling. Bioplastics - plastics made from renewable organic material, such as cornstarch - are trickling into the market. Bioplastics degrade fairly quickly, causing little pollution, while the plastic-shopping bag you might use for 20 minutes can take centuries to break down.

However, all of these efforts amount to virtually nothing compared with the mountains of plastics tossed casually into the environment.

To end this travesty, both business and consumers have to admit they are huge parts of the problem.

Businesses, such as supermarkets, like to blame consumers for the plastics mania. The supermarkets will argue that plastic food wrapping keeps food fresher and prevents damage during transportation, benefiting the consumer. But that wrapping also makes life easier for them: Supermarkets use vast quantities of plastic because it suits them.

Most durable plastics will never go away. TVs will never be made of steel or wood or cornstarch. But single-use plastics, from shopping bags to coffee cups, could easily be taxed out of existence. Sure, the petrochemicals industry would lose some income were that to happen, but it's a small price to pay for the health of the oceans.

© The Globe and Mail

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