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’s “Think 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!

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Etsy handmade and vintage

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


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… Read more »


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.

Catherine N

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.

Diana Choksey

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… Read more »

Support Human Rights

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.

Beth Terry

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 myself. For now, I will remove the Soda Stream badge from the sidebar. I admit I… Read more »


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..

Beth Terry

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.

Katie Ostrich

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… Read more »

Katie Ostrich

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Catherine N

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…

Beth Terry

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.

Beth Terry

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?


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? :-)

Beth Terry

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… Read more »


”…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… Read more »


@EcoCatLady @Beth Terry 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.


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.


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… Read more »

Beth Terry

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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Aleesha Wayman

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


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