Frontline Documentary Plastic Wars Highlights the Problem of Plastic Waste

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

The mountain of plastic waste grows ever faster. Even with recycling, most plastic ends up in landfills. In the meantime, industry sells recycling as a solution. It isn't. The only real solution is using less and restructuring how we produce, use, and discard plastic waste.

Plastic waste is a huge problem, as a Frontline documentary titled Plastic Wars discusses. Broadcast at the end of March, the documentary convinces me that recycling is not enough to solve the problem.

How did we come to this moment? How has the plastic industry flourished and grown in the face of a growing crisis? Those are questions the Frontline documentary seeks to answer. One thing is hard to hear and that is the role that Americans like you and me play in the problem. The U.S. is one of the world’s largest plastic producers. “Industry is investing tens of billions of dollars in new plastic plants.” The global production of plastic by 2050 will triple, according to estimates.

“Many problems we face today were set in motion by many of the companies that make plastics today,” the documentary proclaims. Dupont is one of those companies, and it is one of the world’s largest plastic manufacturers. And recycling seemed to solve a problem for them. But the push for recycling did little to deal with the root cause, what Frontline calls the “unchecked growth in household waste.” Americans discard more trash than anywhere else.

Recycling is just not enough of a solution

The solution to the growing plastic problem for decades has been recycling. Oregon has aggressively pursued recycling. The documentary shows how a recycling plant in Oregon must separate all the different types of plastic. Some plastics are too hard to recycle and sell so it piles up. The camera pans on a room full of plastic waste. Things like clamshells and food wrappers, or what the industry calls mixed plastics, are what end up in landfills. When we throw mixed plastics into the recycling bin we don’t realize that they wind up in landfills, rotting and giving off methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 30 times carbon dioxide.

Go into grocery stores and you see many foods, including some produce, packaged in plastic. And while it is possible to recycle much of that plastic, it is not economically feasible to recycle. Let’s consider the numbers on the bottom of containers. They leave the impression that anything with a code is being recycled. While the plastics labeled number one is the most recycled, the others don’t fare as well. Take plastics labeled with the number four, which are used for bags. The website Recycle Coach advises consumers not to put plastic bags in recycling bins because “most facilities don’t have the personnel and equipment they would need to process them.”

Frontline mentions the Council for Solid Waste Solutions. Created by the Society of the Plastics Industry, its members include plastic manufacturers like Dupont and oil manufacturers like ExxonMobil. Plastic is made from oil, so it makes sense why plastic manufacturers and oil companies push the idea that recycling solves the problem. As a result, many consumers think dumping plastic into the recycling bin is the answer to the plastic problem.

But not all consumers think recycling is the answer. In 2015, a marine biologist discovered a sea turtle in distress. Her video of the encounter went viral, attracting more than 35 million viewers and focusing attention on what the documentary calls a “growing problem.” As a result of videos like that one, global anti-plastic movement is growing. Yet, the plastic industry keeps growing. “Despite the backlash, the industry that makes plastic is expanding...plentiful supplies of oil are driving down the cost,” Frontline stated.

So, what is a concerned consumer to do to contribute less to the plastic problem? As Frontline points out, the key for the consumer is to focus on how to reduce the use of plastics. We can begin by ditching single-use bags. Use reusable bags at the grocery store and for bulk bins. Sprouts sells small canvas bags to use in its bulk bins. I use them at other stores that have bulk bins. We can also stop buying bottled water. Invest in reusable water bottles.

What are the ways you are reducing your use of plastics? Let us know in the comments. 

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