Industry insider defends material’s growing use to Rhode Island task force charged with reducing state’s reliance on single-use plastics by noting that trash floating in the ocean isn’t all plastic
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Videos by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The meeting’s first speaker, a representative of the plastics industry, knew exactly where to place the blame: on foreigners and on alternatives to petroleum products.
Citing a study published in Science and a story in The Wall Street Journal, Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets for the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division, said the problem with marine debris and plastics in the ocean comes from a lack of waste management in "rapidly developing countries in Asia.” He specifically called out China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
During his nearly 30-minute presentation, however, Christman never mentioned the fact that for decades many developed countries, including the United States, sent massive amounts of plastic waste to Asia instead of recycling it on their own.
For instance, about 106 million metric tons — nearly 45 percent — of the world’s plastics collected for recycling have been exported to China since reporting to the U.N. Comtrade Database began in 1992.
Christman left it to others at a Jan. 17 subcommittee meeting of the Task Force to Tackle Plastics, held at Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) headquarters, to note this relevant piece of information. He also forgot to mention that during the past few years China and other Asian countries have begun banning plastic waste from being imported.
The Task Force to Tackle Plastics was created last year to reduce reliance on single-use plastics that often end up in Rhode Island’s waters and washed up along the Ocean State’s coastline.
The world’s plastic problem is immense, and Rhode Island alone won’t solve it. Our 21st-century society has become much too reliant on single-use plastics. Changes are needed.
Selling hard-boiled eggs in plastic packaging perfectly exemplifies this over-reliance. One of the world’s largest organic consumer brands sells hard-boiled eggs swaddled in plastic, marketing this “convenient, grab-and-go organic snack option” as “one you can feel good about.” It probably takes as much time to open the plastic packaging as it does to peel off the eggs’ natural packaging.
Christman offered some other foods that benefit by being wrapped in plastic, to reduce food waste and effectively feed people around the globe, he said. He mentioned bananas, potatoes, grapes, and cucumbers. (Potatoes, for one, can last about 3-5 weeks in the pantry and 3-4 months in the refrigerator.)
He claimed grape waste is reduced by 20 percent by just putting them in packaging, as opposed to providing them loose. “Also you reduce the hazard of people slipping and falling on grapes,” he added. He claimed studies have shown that a cucumber will last three days on a grocery store shelf or in a refrigerator “before you have to throw it away, before it looks like it’s getting all shriveled up and you don’t want to eat it anymore.”
Wrapped in plastic, Christman said, that same cucumber will last 14 days.
The 27-year American Chemistry Council lobbyist also noted that alternatives to plastics come with higher costs, such as greater greenhouse-gas emissions and more replacement litter. He said reducing the use of plastics and switching to alternatives “is clearly not the best approach.” He noted that the trash coming down rivers and floating in the ocean isn’t all plastic.
“The reality is the alternatives have about four times more environmental costs as plastics does,” Christman said. “Plastics use about one-fourth of the material. You get about one-fourth of the environmental impacts. You need to be very careful about anything that would switch to alternatives.”
He also noted that expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) — commonly referred to as Styrofoam — is lightweight, contains very little plastic, is mostly air, and uses less energy and water than comparable paper-based alternatives.
He neglected to mention that plastics, including EPS, photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller pieces and marine animals easily mistake these bits for food. Polystyrene residues have been found in samples of human fat tissue and plastics have been found in human stool samples. Styrene exposure increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma and is a neurotoxin. The Food and Drug Administration has determined that the styrene concentration in bottled drinking water shouldn’t exceed 0.1 parts per million.
“There are challenges out there but of course we also need to think about what are the benefits and sustainability attributes of plastics to begin with,” Christman said. “That’s something that’s very important when you consider potential policies. There is great potential for unintended consequences if you aren’t careful with policy development.”
American Chemistry Council Plastic Division members include Chevron Phillips, ExxonMobil, Shell, DuPont, and Dow. The council’s corporate members have kicked in $1.5 billion over five years to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, to help developing countries in Asia build better waste systems.
The global plastics market is expected to reach $654.4 billion by 2020, according to recent research by Grand View Research Inc. The industry’s global market size in 2017 was valued at $522.7 billion. This country’s throw-away society helps create the industry’s rich bottom line.
The recent meeting of the task force’s innovation subcommittee featured a second speaker, Victor Bell, who was introduced as “DEM’s recycling pioneer.” For the past 20 years, however, Bell has run Jamestown-based Environmental Packaging International, a consulting business that specializes in environmental compliance, product stewardship, and sustainability goals related to packaging.
While his half-hour presentation acknowledged the environmental, public health, and societal benefits of plastics, he didn’t spend the entire time defending its growing use or its omnipresence.
“Plastics are a good material. It’s very useful for what we do. It makes a lot of sense,” Bell said. “But somehow in the last 20 years they sort of lost their license, because they let pieces get out of control.”
Plastic production is increasing by some 9 percent annually, and this ever-growing heap of material is accumulating in the environment, most notably in the world’s oceans. It's degrading both human and environmental health.
More shoreline cleanups and better recycling won’t make a dent in reducing the estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, from the 269,000 tons afloat on the surface to some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer in the deep sea.
The numbers associated with single-use plastics, which currently account for about 40 percent of all plastic use, are staggering: some 500 billion retail plastic bags are used annually worldwide; some 25 billion Styrofoam cups are thrown out annually in the United States alone; nearly 3 million plastic bottles, every hour of every day, are used in the United States; more than 300 million plastic straws are used daily in the United States.
Bell noted that the recycling material the United States had been shipping to Asia for more than 20 years wasn’t all repurposed — probably only 65 percent to 70 percent, he said.
“We have to come up with solutions in this country,” the longtime Rhode Islander said.
To better address the problem of plastic waste, Bell mentioned several solutions: more bottle bills (Rhode Island and New Hampshire are the only New England states without one); better regulations, such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 and the Save Our Seas Act of 2017; a nationwide extended producer responsibility law; better enforcement of existing laws; design standards for packaging; waste-stream infrastructure improvements.
In Rhode Island, the state could also use the litter tax, which was once a restricted account used to fund clean-up work, as originally intended. Instead, that tax money was long ago rolled into the state’s general fund.
While there are 616 state and local laws nationwide — including 243 in California, 110 in Massachusetts, 10 in Rhode Island, and five in Connecticut — that place restrictions or fees on plastic items, a handful of states, including Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, have passed laws that ban local plastics bans.
But even in states with such laws, Bell said enforcement can be lax, or, like in Rhode Island with the litter tax, money earmarked for a specific purpose is used to fill budget holes.
Bell also said Rhode Island should get onboard with the The New Plastics Economy. He doesn’t recommend the use of biodegradable or oxo-degradable plastics. He and some task force members noted that, “We can’t recycle our way out of this problem.”
The American Chemistry Council’s Christman responded (video below) to Bell’s recommendations for how to reduce plastics consumption by diminishing the idea of extended producer responsibility and by telling task force members to be leery about driving up the use of paper bags by initiating a plastic bag ban. He didn’t say anything about reusable bags, or mention the fact paper bags are compostable.
The task force’s four working groups, including the innovation subcommittee, must complete their reports by Feb. 1. On Feb. 14, the main task force is scheduled hold a public discussion of a draft report that includes the findings. A final report is expected to be sent to Gov. Gina Raimondo by Feb. 18.
The next meeting of the entire task force is scheduled for Feb. 5 from 1-2:30 p.m. at DEM headquarters, 235 Promenade St., Room 300.