Linda Schuyler Horning: About ‘plastics’
Linda Schuyler Horning
“One word: plastics.” This line spoken to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, in the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” was meant as valuable career advice.
It would anchor Ben firmly in the materialistic world of his upper middle class parents. He wasn’t having any of it, steeped as Benjamin was in his own quest for meaning amidst ritualized conformity and mass industrial fabrication.
Others of Benjamin’s generation did take that advice, and 50 years later we find ourselves in a world threatened by mass extinctions and drowning in a sea of plastic waste. While the oil and petrochemical industries grew larger and stronger by the day, our environment and air quality suffered.
Under normal circumstances, whenever a trend seems headed for disaster, the government steps in to limit growth. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established during the administration of Richard Nixon. It limited the environmental hazards endemic with petroleum refining and protected our air and water. Now, after years of “interference” in the affairs of the petroleum industry, the EPA has itself come under fire.
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Several Republican leaders have threatened to weaken or abolish the agency established by one of their own.
According to a report issued by Research and Markets.com, the global petrochemical market size is projected to reach USD $958.8 billion by 2025 due largely to increased global demand and favorable support by governments around the world. With this kind of an outlook, you may be thinking, what impact could I possibly have, if I tried to stop it? Well, as American consumers, we should be careful not to sell ourselves short.
Hidden in the bowels of the above-named report was a statement that betrays the power of the Western consumer. It reads, “Petrochemical manufacturers are involved in developing bio-based products to address environmental issues … especially in North America and Europe.”
We are having an effect, but perhaps we are being too gentle, given the urgency of the issues with which we are faced. As Greta Thunberg, has stated, “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” — World Economic Forum, Davos, January 2019.
What if, for instance, instead of merely talking about these issues, we decide to take action? What if we expand the idea of cloth shopping bags to everything we buy in a store? If it’s encased in plastic, we leave it on the shelf. Many of you are already doing this. What would happen if everyone did? It is less convenient, to be sure, but to continue buying plastic at the rate we are today is sending the wrong message.
Too busy to boycott? Then pick a day, any day, and for that one day, we change our behavior. More effective, though, is a group strategy. Earth Day arrives on April 22, and offers multiple opportunities to get involved. Mother’s Day follows soon after on May 10. How many different ways can we think of to show our love for Mother Earth?
The carbon footprint of plastics is relatively small when compared to the burning of fossil fuels, but still measured at 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2015 and has grown an estimated 22% since then. The nonprofit Citizen’s Climate Lobby prefers a climate change solution that puts a price on carbon pollution and allocates the proceeds to American citizens. The bill (H.R. 763) was reintroduced into the House of Representatives in 2019. If it wins passage through Congress, the system would reduce carbon emissions by at least 40% while adding 2.1 million jobs to the American Economy. A Regional Economic Models, Inc. report prepared in Washington, D.C. at the behest of the lobby includes a table of GDP by Industry. Rubber and plastics decline under the bill, resulting in a loss in market value in America of about $1,900 million by 2035. Petroleum and coals manufacturing would decline $35,000 million during the same time period.
Researchers Suh and Zheng at the University of California Santa Barbara say there is no room for increasing greenhouse gases from any source if we want to keep mean global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. They offer a four-pronged strategy for reducing emissions from plastics. First is recycling, followed by bio-based plastics, slowing demand, and replacing fossil-based energy with renewable sources.
Ultimately, that one word, “Plastics” has become a curse for an entire generation. How do we stop them, and how do we learn to live without them when they’re gone? That’s a whole new challenge for today’s graduates.
Linda Schuyler Horning lives in Nevada City.
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