In the last 110 years, plastic has risen as the noble “material of a thousand uses.” It is difficult to go an entire day without using, touching or purchasing the pliable necessity. The lifecycle of the substance is extensive, and the root of a variety of environmental and human health problems.
Once plastic is produced it never biodegrades. Most plastic is disposed through landfilling or incinerating, both of which have severe consequences for the environment. Landfills, for example, emit methane, a greenhouse gas more intense than carbon dioxide, and account for a third of methane emissions in the United States. Even the most well-managed landfills risk contaminating soil and groundwater in the area around them.
Incineration, an alternative to landfills, produces its own problems. It reduces the amount of plastic present in landfills, but it still emits hazardous toxins that contribute to heightened air pollution and illness. Plastics are created with a variety of lead, phthalates — chemicals used to make plastic more flexible — and other carcinogens that are released in the incineration process, and they are detrimental to human health. Incineration does allow us to recover energy from waste, but it is not an ideal option because of the environmental and health consequences from burning plastic to produce energy. The disposal harms are not accounted for in the plastic production process, but they could be.
Ecologist Barry Commoner was the first to expose this misinterpreted “away” as an ineffective waste management solution. “There is no such thing as free lunch,” he explains in his 1971 book “ The Closing Circle.” Nothing truly can be consumed without cost. We can save $10 for lunch if someone else pays for us, but no lunch comes truly free. Unlike a slice of pizza, plastics cannot be disposed of by human consumption or compost. When we get a free plastic bag after buying groceries, it does not void the cost of extracting, producing, transporting and disposing of that plastic.
One might encourage that the elimination of plastic altogether might serve as the only viable solution. This may sound appealing, but humans would not be nearly as evolved and technologically advanced as we would be without plastic. Society’s relationship with plastic dates back to when Mesoamericans discovered the usefulness of natural rubber. This relationship has exploded since World War II, and it has provided many benefits to society.
Plastic helps provide access to clean water and the cleanliness of medical equipment and surgical tools. Plastic helps lower food prices by providing cheap packaging and keeping food fresh longer. Plastic has helped create conditions for advancements in technology and electronics that allow information to travel at a fast pace and reach more people. The benefits of plastic outweigh the environmental costs, so eliminating plastic as a solution would be superficial and unrealistic.
Of course, there is an alternative to dumping and incinerating: recycling. It’s what we’ve been taught since grade school, yet only 6.5 percent of the plastic discarded in the United States gets recycled. This is the reality not because of people are ignorant or misinformed but because it takes time, effort and money to recycle. It’s simply more convenient to throw “away.”
Maine has proven that when recycling is incentivized, more material is recycled. Incentives such as the Maine Bottle Bill have the potential to get more plastics into recycling centers because people can see the value — 5 cents or 15 cents, depending on the bottle — in recycling it.
But waste is inevitable because of the demand for plastic in the modern world. A tax on virgin plastic could encourage manufacturers to use more recycled plastic in products by making virgin plastic more expensive. It has the potential to account for the true environmental and disposal cost of plastic and make it easier for plastic waste to be put to use in new materials and away from the “away.”
Emily Soderberg is an environment studies student at the University of Vermont. She lives in Caribou.