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Resources on Plastics in the Environment (June 2022): Summary and Conclusion

By Margaret Manion

Summary and Conclusion

The premise of Jack Buffington’s Peak Plastic (mentioned above) is that with half of all plastic existing in the world having been produced only within the previous thirteen years, and with half of that now lying in waste, the world’s approach to “peak plastic” (considered by this author as the tipping point of no return) is most likely to occur around 2030, when the benefits of plastic will be exceeded by its costs to society and the environment. This text for general audiences calls attention to some of the lesser-known sources of plastic pollution, including additives. Buffington examines the contemporary supply chain system and, along with other authors, discredits the notion that recycling by itself can solve the problem of plastic pollution.  Buffington does not advocate eliminating plastic, but instead focuses on changing the worldwide supply chain system to, as he sees it, link the natural world to the synthetic one. Solutions discussed by Buffington range from “open-source capitalism” to a closed-loop system similar to the circular economy proposed by other sources. In The Recycling Myth, Buffington further argues that recycling alone will not resolve the disastrous effects of plastics pollution, observing that although a higher percentage of existing plastic bottles are now recycled than ever before, this has been more than offset by a huge increase in the production of new plastic bottles. He notes that unlike in nature, where “composers” have evolved in harmony with “decomposers,” man-made plastic simply persists, and that if and when humans were to become extinct, the load of plastics existing in the world at the time would outlast the final survivor. In sum, Buffington contends that economic growth does not require the continued production of vast numbers of single-use plastic items, and advocates for a radically different supply chain configuration. He looks for nations to recognize that achieving zero waste will benefit both the environment and the economy.

As discussed above, Erica Cirino has effectively depicted the throwaway mindset that lies behind plastic pollution in Thicker than Water. Her account of visits to polluted sites and contested industrial expansions offers testament to the contribution that can come from citizen advocacy, while also clearly pointing out the relationship between plastics and harms-inducing petrochemical processing. In Plastic Waste and Recycling (also discussed above), editor Trevor Letcher advises that despite public awareness, current efforts to remove plastic litter are having limited impact. Among the changes called for are greatly reduced production of plastics, substitution of more sustainable materials for plastic, improved municipal waste collection and recycling, and increased investments in research and development on biodegradation. Letcher notes that all these will require still greater public awareness, more government actions, and new economic incentives. As people become more cognizant of the potentially catastrophic damage caused by the wicked problem of plastics pollution, perhaps they are starting to recognize the absurdity of acquiring so many single-use plastic items in their daily lives. Interested readers may wish to better understand the possibilities for corporate and civil governance that lie beyond their own personal efforts through behavioral change and advocacy. As one illustration, Susan Wingfield and Melisa Lim offer their analysis of the United Nations Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal in their chapter contributed to Microplastic in the Environment (edited by Michael Bank, discussed above). Overall, the resources gathered here confirm that changes in consumer behavior, improvements in waste collection and recycling, scaled-down use of single-use plastics, and support through government actions and smart/green policy changes affecting global trade are all indeed necessary, but they also raise the unsettling question of whether such changes, even if effectively achieved, will ever be sufficient. All told, undoing the damaging effects of plastics in the environment will be neither quick nor easy, but is a crucial concern for everyone who is alive today.

Works Cited