The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
December 11, 2012

What Will It Take To Solve the Plastic Pollution Problem?

I had lunch today with Pam Marcus, the founder of Lifefactory, a company that makes reusable glass water bottles and baby bottles.   She is also one of the organizers of the Plastic Pollution Coalition’sThink Beyond Plastic Innovation Competition.”  There is a $50,000 prize at stake for the best idea for reducing plastic pollution, whether it’s the invention of a new material or a technology or a process or… whatever.  And I got to thinking… what will it really take for us to reverse this mess we have gotten ourselves into?

Look, it’s all well and good for us to reduce the amount of plastic we personally use in our daily lives.  And that has been my project for my own life, and this blog, and my talks, and my book for over 5 years.  But are our personal actions enough to stem the tide of new plastic that is being dumped onto the earth every day?  Are they even enough to keep each of us safe from toxic chemicals if so many chemicals are still produced every day and escape into the environment?  I believe that the actions we take every day–bringing our own containers, mugs, and utensils; buying from bulk bins; refusing single use disposables; finding alternative products–are vitally important.  But they are not enough.  We do have to tackle this problem from all angles because the truth is that not everyone is going to change.

That is why I have made a point of interviewing entrepreneurs for this blog and for my book–people who have gone beyond personal change to invent new products and new ways of doing things.  The store in.gredients in Austin, TX, is a good example.  It is a bulk food store where you bring your own bags and containers.  But they are not simply concerned with what we as consumers see when we walk in.  They are also doing what they can to reduce the disposable packaging throughout their supply chain, working with local vendors who deliver their products in reusable containers and take them back to refill with each delivery–the packaging behind the scenes that most of us never see.

Or companies like Life Without Plastic that started out because a mom and dad were concerned about feeding their baby from plastic bottles and ended up turning that fear into a whole business dedicated to plastic-free alternatives.

But what about the huge amounts of plastic in cars or airplanes or buildings?  What about all the incredible amounts of plastic used in the healthcare industry (which Pam witnessed firsthand working at Kaiser Permanente, which was the impetus for her to start Lifefactory in the first place)?  What about all the walls we run up against when we are trying to reduce plastic in our own lives and realize that the system makes it nearly impossible?

We do need innovation.  And not just innovation that deals with part of the problem.  It’s not enough to develop a new way to recycle plastic when the stuff is made from fossil fuels with toxic chemicals and is hazardous at all stages of its life cycle.  It’s not enough to add a degradable additive to make fossil-based plastics break down, or to remove the BPA and replace it with something equally as harmful, or to call your new plant-based plastic safe and refuse to disclose all the ingredients in it.  I would love to see some truly green chemistry.  And I hope that contests like the Think Beyond Plastic Competition will help to encourage that kind of thought.

So what do you think?  Are you an entrepreneur or know someone who is?  Have you been secretly working on a new product or material or process to help seriously reduce plastic pollution?  Or if not, what do you think we need?  What, in your wildest dreams, would you like someone to invent?  And why not invent it yourself?  If you’re just starting out, it might be too late for this year’s competition (the due date is January 6, 2013.)  But the organizers hope to hold it every year.  So why not get started now?  Leave a comment with your wish list for what a perfect plastic-free world would look like.  I’d love to hear your ideas!

29 Responses to “What Will It Take To Solve the Plastic Pollution Problem?”

  1. Brian says:

    Our first changes should be in one time item packaging. Things like car dashboards, bumpers, plane interiors, etc. may not be alterable.

  2. Brian says:

    Much of it has to come from manufacturers, they create the stuff. It doesnt have to be dealt with if never made to begin with. At Whole Foods Market, I can buy milk in returnable glass bottles, meat in butcher paper. We need to write manufacturers and tell them our concerns. i am going to write General Mills and suggest they find a substitute for their inner bag in cereal boxes, Wax paper perhaps. The question to ask is what did they wrap it in before plastic became available? In the kitchen, dont use plastic wrap. Use wax paper. you can seal it with cellophane tape. Real cellophane tape(shiny stuff not dull stuff) is an organic product. For food storage use the glass containers with a sealable lid. Its better anyway as glass doesnt absorb food odors like plastic does. Stay away from bottled water, rip off and a scam. We dont need our water privatized by soda industries who want to make a killing at our expense.

  3. Noemidlp says:

    If we can link “plastic avoidance” to weight loss or hair loss, we will recruit most Americans to the plastic free lifestyle. Check out recent articles in New York Times “Eat like a Mennonite” (Florence Williams) and “Warning From a Flabby Mouse” (Nicholas Kristof) that actually do link plastics in our environment and food chain to obesity. That would definitely reduce future plastic consumption.

  4. Catherine N says:

    I shop at Costco much of the time, in the winter, and so have *some* less waste.  However, all fruits and veggies seem to come encased in plastic, meats in plastic, cheese in plastic.   Even at the Farmer’s Markets, all the meat comes frozen in plastic.   I suspect a huge amount of plastic is created by/for the meat industry.

  5. Diana Choksey says:

    Thanks for getting the word out regarding this competition Beth. You’re absolutely right, we do need innovation and it’s great to get the word out about competitions like these that encourage innovation. I recently saw a really great Ted Talk about how people are using mycellium (mushrooms) to create materials that can substitute for styrofoam and was so inspired by the innovation. While I am not an entrepreneur, I have requested the information about the competition to be posted on my alma mater College of the Atlantic’s Facebook page. COA is an environmental liberal arts college in Bar Harbor Maine that is doing much work in area and I think students, faculty and alum would be thrilled to know about the competition. Thanks again for your post!

  6. Please remove SodaStream from your list of recommended products.  It is made in an illegal Israeli settlement on stolen Palestinian land in violation of international law.  There is nothing green about Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.  The Methodist and Presbyterian churches are calling for boycotts of products like SodaStream that are made in illegal settlements.  For more info: and http://www.HolidaySodaStreamBoycott.wordpress.coomFor alternatives to SodaStream, check out:

    • BethTerry says:

      @sabeelsacramento Hi. Thank you for letting me know about this issue.  I have sent Primo Waters a bunch of questions about their alternative soda maker, since it is similar to Soda Stream.  I am not interested in promoting the other soda makers on the list, as they come with single-use disposable cartridges.  I have also emailed Global Exchange for more information and will write a blog post about this issue as soon as I feel comfortable that I understand it and the alternatives well enough my self.  For now, I will remove the Soda Stream badge from the sidebar.   I admit I don’t know a whole lot about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, although there is a regular reader of this blog, Clif, who is as interested in that as I am in plastic.  I’ll email him about it too and get his response.  Once again, thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  7. Jo says:

    When I was a child (late 70s) there was a truck which came around each week/month and delivered a milk crate full of your preferred soft drink in glass bottles. As you used them up, you popped them back in the crate, and then the truck came back and swapped your used crate for a full one, taking the bottles back to be refilled at the (local) soft drink plant. What a good idea for trendy little microbreweries, dairies (we have a local organic one which refills glass bottles), or indeed, soft drinks..

    • BethTerry says:

      In the Bay Area and other places, there are still local dairies that bottle in returnable glass, which gets refilled instead of recycled.  Very few of them still deliver, but I do believe there are a handful of dairies and possibly soda makers in the country that deliver glass bottles.  I linked to some resources in my book, but I’m not at home in front of my computer and can’t look it up right now.  But Google “glass milk bottle delivery” or “glass soda bottle delivery” and see what you find.

  8. Katie Ostrich says:

    How about a better labeling system to better educate? I thought myself pretty knowledgeable about environmental stuff and I still learned SO much from your book.
    As a fisheries biologist, I work with formalin to preserve specimens. When I told a co-worker that formalin is used in the production of plastic, (something I learned from your book) she was appalled. Enough to swear never to store food in plastic again. It didn’t matter how small the amount was, her personal experience with the nastiness of formalin meant she didn’t want it anywhere near her food, even in minute quantities. Her first obstacle to reducing plastic use wasn’t the lack of alternative (although that is a doozie), it was a lack of knowledge. Plastic works, why demand something else?
    I think we need to increase demand for sustainability, so that it bursts out of urban-center bubbles and spreads to suburbia and beyond (cue Star Trek theme)! So that it spreads to advertising at big corporations and laws in big and small government. It’s already started and a new labeling system could help fill the gap. Cigarettes in Europe now come with captions like “smoking causes impotence”, why not packaging that says, “this packaging will last for 10,000 generations” etc? I’m sure others could think of better captions. Educational snippets, shocking enough to stick, but not too over the top. You’d need a bill passed to get them on products, but that’s what democracy is for.
    As for reducing demand on the planet by lowering the population, it’s been shown that the most effective way to reduce birth rates is through educating women. The longer a woman stays in school, the later she starts having kids. Education is the key to decreasing plastics use and abuse of the environment in general. Any tools/programs that forward that goal are going to make the greatest difference.

  9. Katie Ostrich says:

    How about a better labeling system to better educate? I thought myself pretty knowledgeable about environmental stuff and I still learned SO much from your book.
    As a fisheries biologist, I work with formalin to preserve specimens. When I told a co-worker that formalin is used in the production of plastic, (something I learned from your book) she was appalled. Enough to swear never to store food in plastic again. It didn’t matter how small the amount was, her personal experience with the nastiness of formalin meant she didn’t want it anywhere near her food, even in minute quantities.
    We talk about needing a cost structure that reflects the true price of plastic, and a political structure and economy that support sustainable rather than disposable products. To get there, I think we need to increase demand for sustainability, so that it bursts out of urban-center bubbles and spreads to suburbia and beyond. A new labeling system could help fill the gap. Cigarettes in Europe now come with captions like “smoking causes impotence”, why not packaging that says, “this packaging will last for 10,000 generations”, or “re-using this bottle will leach chemicals into your beverage known to contribute to breast cancer”. I’m sure others could think of snappier captions. Little educational snippets, shocking enough to stick, but not too over the top. Of course, you’d need a bill passed to get them on products, but one could be written and proposed to congress.
    As for reducing demand on the planet by lowering the population, it’s been shown that the most effective way to reduce birth rates is through education. Specifically, educating women. The longer a woman is in school, the later she starts having kids. So, I think education tools and programs would be the best contributors to lowering not just plastics use, but abuse of the environment in general. Can you tell I’m a feminist?

  10. BethTerry says:

    These are very thoughtful comments, but I’m wondering what kind of innovation an entrepreneur could come up with to make it easier for people to use less plastic or to reduce the amount of plastic pollution generated? There are those of us doing what we can personally, but not everyone will on their own. So what kinds of things or processes could be invented to make it easier?

    • EcoCatLady says:

      @BethTerry Ha! You are so diplomatic, Beth… you could have just said “Stop hijacking my post you nimrods!”
      How about some sort of inexpensive waterproof material constructed from carbon that has been captured from the atmosphere? That wouldn’t bee too hard, would it? :-)

      • BethTerry says:

        @EcoCatLady LOL.  I’m a lot nicer online than I am in person.  :-)  By the way, plastic is made from carbon.  It’s actually an organic material, chemically speaking.  In fact, some people advocate plastic as a way to capture carbon since the fossil fuel components used to make it are not being burned but are trapped in the plastic product.  But it would be nice if someone would invent a really effective waterproof material that is 1) made from fast-growing, nonfood plants, 2) contains no toxic chemicals, 3) will fully compost at the end of its life and not just create more methane gases to contribute to global warming.  Still, this material would probably potentially contribute to ocean plastic pollution because if its waterproof, by definition, it won’t break down in the ocean.  It’s all so confusing, but we have so many brilliant people on this planet, we just need some companies with the dollars and the actual will to fund alternatives.

        • EcoCatLady says:

          @BethTerry “…if its waterproof, by definition, it won’t break down in the ocean” a conundrum indeed.
          You know, here’s what I keep thinking. Not sure this is completely relevant or not, but I have an older brother who was, by all accounts, the most brilliant scientific mind our high school ever produced. He went off to MIT and then UC Berkeley for graduate work, and eventually he, like so many other “brilliant” science types, got funneled into the defense industry.
          He went in that direction partially out of his own interest in all things military, but also because that’s where the money and the opportunity was. It was the defense contractors who were offering big research grants, scholarships and support, so inevitably, that’s where so many of our country’s scientific types gravitate. 
          After 20 years in that environment, he’s become a right-wing conservative who thinks global warming is a hoax and that democrats are socialists hell bent on destroying the country – because in his world, any cuts to the defense budget are tantamount to treason. But he wasn’t like that when he was younger.
          I guess I just keep thinking that if we could find some way to harness our country’s scientific minds to work toward finding ways to help people rather than kill them, we’d all be so much better off. Perhaps this contest is a step in that direction.

        • Catladytoo says:

          @EcoCatLady @BethTerry I am full of pride and appreciation for our US Military who lay their lives down for my freedom. Thank you for your post to remind me to Thank a Vet today.

        • EcoCatLady says:

          @Catladytoo  @EcoCatLady  @BethTerry I have nothing but the deepest appreciation for our military. My father, my boyfriend and both of my grandfathers are veterans. It’s the military industrial complex that I have a problem with.

    • thecloudwalkingowl says:

      @BethTerry Sorry if I have offended, but the blog asked for ” for the best idea for reducing plastic pollution, whether it’s the invention of a new material or a technology or a process or… whatever”.  I would suggest that the best idea for doing so is to reduce demand, either by raising the price or shrinking the pool of consumers.  To my mind, the most realistic options are a carbon tax and population reduction by promoting the idea that excessive reproduction is unpatriotic/immoral.
      As for being an “entrepreneur”, well that pretty much describes what I’ve been doing as an environmental activist for the past 30 years.  People who organize community economic development projects, who organize community groups, who educate the public, are all “entrepeneurs”—-they just aren’t being paid.  
      Reading between the lines, it appears that what you are looking for is some sort of “technofix” that will make the problem of disposable plastic go away without having to make any significant change in our social arrangements.  I’m afraid that this type of thinking is why we cannot get rid of disposable plastic. Ultimately, it is magical thinking.   
      People who don’t know much about technology seem to think of it as some sort of black box that we can pull all sorts of amazing things out of—-if we just want to hard enough.  But the people who really do technology—engineers and scientists—live in a very different world.  That world is governed by mathematics and limits.  In that world many things are theoretically possible but functionally impossible because of the costs.  The great thing about plastic is that as long as we have cheap oil it allows us to create a huge amount of products that are so cheap that they can be used by almost everyone. 
      Remove that cheap oil and the technologies that flow from them, like plastic, and you dramatically lower people’s standard of living (but not, necessarily, their quality of life.)   That is why our economic and political systems will put up enormous opposition to any push that wants to get rid of disposable plastic.  
      I once sat at lunch with a deputy Minister in my province and he told me about the way the soft drink companies had pressured the government into giving up on refillable glass bottles.   As an inducement, they offered to fund a recycling program—which they stopped funding once we were totally committed to aluminium cans and PET bottles and couldn’t go back to refillable glass.   But if we hadn’t, then there would have been complaints over the free trade agreement and consumer outrage over the high price of refillables.  
      I am old enough to remember a little bit about what it was like to live in a world without plastic.  We raised and canned all our own food when I was a child. We had refillable bottles that we had to save and take back to the beer store, pop shop, etc.   There was a lot of work involved in that stuff that made a lot of other things not possible.  I personally think that the important things in life, the things that make it worth living, are not dependent on the convenience that flows from cheap plastic.  But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that we can live the same life we do now without cheap plastic. 
      As long as we keep looking for the “technofix” that keeps us from having to reassess how we live our lives, we are going to be stuck in the system that keeps bombarding us with stuff like disposable plastic.  
      I understand that this seems absolutely daunting to people.  That’s why so many folks are trying to make “baby steps” by focusing on one, small “doable thing”.  That’s fine, looking at the big picture can be bleak.  But so many folks are so fixated on the “baby steps” that they have totally forgotten about the “big picture”.  And for lots of bystanders, looking at and participating in the “baby steps” becomes a way of distracting themselves from the “big picture”.  At that point, the baby steps approach can become part of the problem.   Isn’t that a part of what “Green Washing” is?
      By all means, if someone has an idea of creating a particular product that will allow us to walk more lightly on the earth, fine.  But just be aware that while you are doing that, someone else is creating another product that stomp even harder on the earth.  That’s why we all need to be questioning big picture issues.
      If anyone is interested, James Howard Kunstler has written an entertaining book titled _Too Much Magic_ that deals with the problems of the technofix vision.  There’s also a very interesting blog titled “Do the Math” that is worth reading.  Written by a Physicist, it tries to explain to lay people how mathematical analysis shows that a great many commonly held ideas about our energy and environmental problems are totally unfeasible, if not flat out impossible.

      • BethTerry says:

        @thecloudwalkingowl No offense taken at all. I just wanted to narrow the focus of this particular blog post to the Think Beyond Plastic competition, which it sounds like I did not explain properly.  I agree with you, absolutely that we can’t simply look to a technofix to let us off the hook!   But I also think we need solutions from ALL corners… not just personal choice, not just government regulation.  Technology alone cannot solve this problem, but it has an important roll to play.  Technology is more than schemes to recycle plastic or to invent alternative materials so we can continue to overconsume.  Technology could also be an app that discloses to customers information about the products they are considering and gives them other options… like make it yourself or borrow it from a friend or find it for rent.  My book is a kind of technology.  So is this blog.  So is the new site called Yerdle that lets people swap and borrow things to avoid buying new stuff.  And so are alternative materials — because we do have to consume to survive — but let’s consume safer things.  There is a place for chemistry, engineering, computer programming, craftmaking, and just plain inventiveness.

  11. rlross49 says:

    I personally try to reduce as much plastic as possible in my life, but it is overwhelming at times because everything comes in plastic.  I do not ever take a plastic bag from a store – I always take a cloth bag or carry my purchase out without a bag.  This has taken a while to become a habit, but it also makes me more aware of everything else that doesn’t really need to be in plastic.  I went into a popular bath soap and lotions store and wanted to buy some bars of soap – nope, it’s all liquid in plastic bottles!  I realize it is convenient, but I grew up using bars and still do.  I like pretty little soap dishes with pretty bars of soap.  Please at least recycle any and all plastic you get.

    • Catherine N says:

      @rlross49 I went into Whole Paycheck the other day and was aghast.  Almost EVERYTHING was encased in plastic.  Grains, dairy, cheese, bread.  Beauty products, feminine products….   If someone could create some lightweight paper/compostable product to contain at least the grains/snacks/coffee…  I’m not sure what you’d do for dairy…

      • BethTerry says:

        @rlross49 Hi Catherine.  Do you shop the bulk bins?  You can bring your own bags and containers and avoid plastic packaging for nuts, snacks, coffee, etc.  Dairy is a tricky one.  You can buy milk in returnable glass bottles, but they do have a plastic cap.  Where do you live?  Out here in the Bay Area, there is even yogurt in returnable glass. But it’s also easy to make yogurt.

  12. thecloudwalkingowl says:

    There are only a few ways to stop the use of disposable plastic.
    1:  Raise the cost to the point where it changes behaviour.  This couldn’t happen without a tremendous disruption of the economy.  This means lots of people losing their jobs, business people losing their lives savings, people losing their homes, bankruptcy, governments losing tax revenues, so they would cut programs to help the poor and disadvantaged.
    2:  Pass laws that make disposable plastic illegal.  This would also cause big problems in the economy.  It would also cause big trade problems as free trade deals would be affected.  (My province’s refillable bottle law was destroyed because of free trade with the USA.)  Again, poverty, bankruptcy, etc.
    The reason why environmental problems are so damned intractable is because the free market is “free”, which means it doesn’t really give a good gosh darn about the environment.  But the free market is also really good at creating wealth for people—not just private wealth, but also public wealth that gets redistributed through the welfare state.  (The problems we have now with wealth stratification, etc, have come about because our democratic culture has become moribund and let the wealthy take over government—-I don’t think it’s an intrinsic feature of a liberal democracy, but Marxists would disagree.  But even Karl Marx believed that capitalism was the “goose that laid the golden egg”.)  This is why reactionaries have some truth on their side when they complain that environmentalists are all “socialists”.  There is an intractable contradiction between the free market and the environment. 
    How are we going to get rid of disposable plastic?  It will probably involve a very long struggle, or, a very quick change after an economic collapse.  I would suggest, however, that there are political and social solutions that will probably speed up the process.
    1  Bring in a carbon tax.  This will put a price on the cost of everything we do.  If you do that, you may eventually get people to change their behaviour.  People are finally buying energy efficient cars and taking public transit now that the cost of gasoline has gone up.
    2 Stop having children!!!!!!   There are far, far, far, far, far too many people in the world.  Population growth is an accelerant that makes all environmental problems worse.   I know that people’s hormones drive them into a reproductive frenzy, but our society has to create 
    pressure on individuals to stop the reproduction.   The only way I can think of to stop this behaviour (short of the Chinese option) is to start shaming people who have more than one child.    Having a second child is worse than driving a Hummer!!!!!!   Having none is better than riding a bike!!!!!
    3  Get off your asses and get involved in politics on the local, state and federal level.  Most environmentalists will not do this because they think of all negotiations and compromise as being “selling out”.  Really, what this is is an unwillingness to learn how to get along with other people.  The reason why we have to compromise is because other people look at things differently than you.  If you disagree, you have to roll up your sleeves and try to persuade them to change—-not walk away in a huff because “they don’t understand” or “they are knuckleheads”.  IT WILL NOT BE EASY, IT WILL BE A LIFE’S WORK, IT WILL NEVER BE FINISHED—-GET OVER IT.  THAT’S WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A HUMAN BEING RIGHT NOW.    
    Do all the other stuff that people will suggest too as much as you can—-.

    • EcoCatLady says:

      @thecloudwalkingowl In terms of the children thing… while I totally agree that there are too many people on this planet, I actually don’t think that encouraging people not to reproduce is necessary. If we could just make birth control readily available to everyone who wants it, the problem would pretty much take care of itself. I read recently that fully 50% of the pregnancies in the USA are unplanned…. FIFTY PERCENT!! In a country as “advanced” as ours?!? Imagine what that number is in places without the resources that we have.
      I say if you’re concerned about population, then work to make birth control available to everyone who wants it. Imagine if every pregnancy were planned and every child were wanted. Environmental concerns aside, it would be an earth shattering change.

      • thecloudwalkingowl says:

        @EcoCatLady  @thecloudwalkingowl 
        Certainly that comes under the heading of “Do all the other stuff people suggest—-“.  I’d also say that increased costs dramatically cut down on the number of people having children.  But having said that, I think that there needs to be something like a “culture war” around reproduction.  The big thing is that people see it as a personal choice when it really isn’t, it has huge impact on the planet.  
        I remember sitting in a diner listening to three elderly women talk about their children.  They were proud, proud, proud of the number of children and grand children they had.  I’m not trying to cast stones at these people, but there is a “meme” in society that says that having children is a very good thing and I think it needs to be actively discouraged.
        It would take a huge amount of heat off the environment if we had a dramatic population crash because of a collective decision to shrink family size.  It would also be a lot nicer for all and sundry than having a population crash because of famine, disease, war and general environmental collapse.

        • EcoCatLady says:

          @thecloudwalkingowl I hear you. But I think that the cultural change is already underway. Women generally want fewer kids, especially wealthier women. And the truth is that most developed countries already have falling birth rates – which would be falling much quicker if women (especially poor women) had better access to birth control.
          The bigger issue is in the developing world, where the economic and social systems are set up to require huge families. These also tend to be places where women have very little power or say over their own lives, and bodies. 
          It just seems like we’d get a lot farther by empowering poor women to limit their family size than by cajoling a few rich people into having fewer kids.

  13. Aleesha Wayman says:

    A time machine to go back and stop it starting in the first place!

  14. EcoCatLady says:

    I guess I’m sort of a pragmatic cynic when it comes to these big picture sorts of questions. As long as plastic is cheap and easy, people will continue to use it (“people” meaning both consumers and corporations – corporations are people after all – sorry, couldn’t resist.) The only way to curb the plastic problem is to somehow include the environmental cost in it’s sale & production. Until that happens there won’t be any real motivation to develop and/or adopt better alternatives. 
    Of course, I have no idea how to get the cost of plastic to reflect the true cost to our world, but I tend to believe this is mostly a political problem, not a technical one.

  15. AnnyMay says:

    I would invent a chip that is integrated into the human brain to become aware of everything that happens…