Plastic Wars | Frontline PBS. March, 2020
DAVID ALLAWAY: Science tells us that we need to significantly reduce our use of materials overall, and yet for the most part, the policymakers are still focused with laserlike intensity on recycling. There’s nothing wrong with promoting recycling except when recycling sucks all the oxygen out of the room and we never do anything else. For the last 40 years, the conversation in this country has been about the recycle part of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
LAURA SULLIVAN: That wasn’t an accident.
DAVID ALLAWAY: No, it was not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured.
As I sat down to watch this documentary, a topic about which I care deeply, and one in which I need further education, I took a quick picture of my desk, and labeled everything I could see just within the image that was made with or of plastic. I can’t tell whether this image is blatant hypocrisy or deflated concession. You can draw your own conclusions and perhaps even arm-chair psychologize my predicament. I’ll spare you the dozens of other items in my office that ought to be implicated as well.
I was expecting to have my righteous anger at the oil companies fully justified in watching this documentary. After all, their unscrupulous, iniquitous, and successful disinformation campaign against the public regarding C02 is condemnable enough. Now that they’ve ultimately failed, and the end of burning fossil fuels is coming soon (though not quickly enough), their pivot to plastics–and specifically, “single-use” plastics–would simply add to my already infuriated feelings. It doesn’t help that I have a friend who has a friend in the oil industry, who smugly boasted with that cocky and unseemly smirk, “Ah, I love single-use plastics.”
I just finished the film. Expectations met. Anger, justified.
Let’s make a few concessions. Yes, plastics have made improvements to people’s lives. There are legitimate arguments to be had that the methane released into the atmosphere due to the spoiling of food has been greatly mitigated by the preservation of our leftovers by plastics. The mere weight of plastics in comparison to glass saves energy in production and transportation. Practically speaking, plastics have a high strength-to-weight ratio, are resistant to corrosion, are generally non-toxic, and are extremely inexpensive. In the grand scheme of things, plastics are the next logical step in the long history of human innovation, advancements that make life better and more prosperous.
However, none of that justifies misleading, misinforming, and misdirecting the public on the truth of the full life cycle of the materials and products we produce and use. This film documents the plastic industry’s (and oil company’s) recycling of an old strategy (pun, eh, intended?) in drawing the public’s attention towards individual responsibility and a system of recycling, an emphasis they know is not working. In order for their business to be successful at extracting wealth, they have shown that they will continue to pivot and propagandize through all avenues of permissibility.
As we become more and more aware of the imperative to shift from the strategic foundations of extraction to the moral foundations of regeneration, sustainability, and care, we must also become more and more aware of just how culpable these industries are for their sins against the environment and humanity. As such, while I believe the tools of innovation can help us dig our way out of this plastic heap we’re in, this is fundamentally not a technological problem. As with climate, this is a moral problem, demanding the moral convictions of truthfulness, honesty, care, and the moral tools of accountability, legislation, and journalism.
And what makes this even more frustrating is that truth could liberate us all, saving our future lives and our industries. Humans have proven themselves to be just as innovative as we are corrupt. Knowing the truth could advance new technologies and innovative solutions, rather than just “kicking the plastic can” down to the poorest and most marginalized of our global societies. We get to choose which avenue we follow, which path we walk. The challenge, of course, is that corruption is ultimately more profitable in the short-term, and makes us feel good. Innovation requires humility, collaboration, and a bit of self-reflection, which does not feel as good. But what I would plead to those gripped by their contexts of profit and share-holders is that saving the planet, bringing life to the world feels great.
The depths of human depravity can be mined through the valley of greed. The heights of human triumph will be flown on the wings of our moral courage.
I’m now going to walk to the grocery store and recycle my plastic bag, and put my hard plastics in the recycling bin. I can only pray that greater innovations will meet them by the time they arrive.
[March 21, 2021 update, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did this:]