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Plastic lasts more than a lifetime, and that’s the problem
In the 70 years that plastic has been around, humans have created 9 billion tons of it -- most of which still exists. Are the existing strategies for tackling plastic pollution -- namely reusing and recycling -- really making any difference? Amna Nawaz and producer Lorna Baldwin make stops in three states to take a look at some innovative ideas aimed at reducing plastic waste.
Now to our series on the plastics problem around the world.
As we said last night, one of the biggest problems is actually how to recycle the material in the U.S. In this country, the rate of recycling plastics is just 9 percent. That compares to 30 percent in Europe.
Amna is back with a report that took her to three states, exploring innovative ideas aimed at reducing plastic waste. It's part of our Breakthroughs reporting on invention and innovation for our series the Leading Edge of science.
For over 40 years, this is one of the ways we have tried to tackle our growing plastic problem, sorting, weeding out, and sorting some more, like in this Seattle facility.
Every day, an estimated 750 tons of material go through this process. And every step along the way, just like this one, is designed to remove one more material.
For an ultra-durable material like plastic, the goal of this system was to get us to use less by reusing what we'd already made. Today, new innovative ways of recirculating our plastic are being road-tested, literally in this case.
This is the very first plastic road in the U.S., on the University of California-San Diego's campus.
Toby McCartney is behind MacRebur a British start-up that mixes recycled plastic pellets into asphalt to make longer-lasting and cheaper roads.
The downside to waste plastics is, it lasts for so long. A bottle will last for maybe 500 years.
What we're using is the ability of those plastics, because they last so long, but in our roads. We want our roads to last so long before they need any maintenance.
But are reusing and recycling really making a difference?
I would say that the way we recycle plastic at the moment is not part of the solution. I would even go as far as saying it's part of the problem.
Roland Geyer is an industrial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says that in the 70 years plastic has been around, we have created nine billion tons of it, most of which still exists.
The only plastic that does not need to be disposed of is plastic that was never made. So even recycled material, you can't cycle it forever.
Not all plastics are created equal.
Becca Fong of Seattle Public Utilities walked us through the city's impressive and growing recycling effort. Still, she says, the process isn't perfect.
It's geared to capture certain types of plastics of certain sizes. And if it doesn't fit into those categories, it's not really recoverable.
So, speaking of certain sizes, something like this, a tiny little plastic straw, where does something like that straw fit?
The fact that it made it here is pretty impressive. But the vast majority of small items are going to fall through the machinery and not be able to be recovered to be recycled.
So, Seattle started small and in July became the first major city in the U.S. to ban all plastic straws.
It is that piece of material that is so small and so nuanced and actually kind of an extra for a lot of people, that it actually makes people stop and think, do I really need to have this straw? And that's probably the bigger impact.
A straw that I use today in Seattle can end up in the Pacific Ocean and last there for thousands of years, or it can return back to your plate in 10 years as microplastics embedded in some fish.
Mami Hara heads up Seattle Public Utilities.
Before her team could implement and enforce the straw ban, which also includes plastic utensils, they had to get local businesses on board.
For a lot of businesses, it hasn't been a hard sell. For those who are concerned about the price point, we try to work with them to find viable alternatives that don't impact their purse too much.
We will buy about a million straws this year, and the cost of straws has tripled.
Bob Donegan is the president of Ivar's, an 80-year-old Seattle seafood institution.
We don't routinely put a straw in a drink. We ask everybody, would you like a straw? And they can always have one. And these are the new compostable straws. They are made from plants.
But the compostable straws don't work for him in other ways.
So I challenge you to suck a milkshake through that straw and see if you can make it.
That's not easy.
It's pretty hard.
So he spent more money and ordered bigger straws.
Since the ban, costs have gone up. But Donegan says he budgeted around them by buying goods early and in bulk. So there's no use, he says, in complaining.
Put on your big boy pants and get used to it. Everything the government does isn't fair. But our customers expect it of us, and we want to do what our customers want.
Not only are we saying that the environment is important to us. This is a way for us to put our money where our mouth is.
Wes Benson at Taco Time, another area food chain, says they took Seattle's straw and utensil ban one step further. Today, every single item they give customers, from utensils and cups to plates and bowls, is fully compostable, meaning they're made of natural materials and can be turned into compost after being tossed.
One of the nice things about being 100 percent compostable is, you can make it a part of your story. And we're a local company. The environment is important to us. And we're willing to pay five times as much for our packaging.
Seattle's efforts to cut back on plastic extends beyond restaurants. Behind the scenes at Safeco Field, we get a look at the stacks of compostable items they now require food vendors to use.
Last year, the park managed to recycle or compost 96 percent of all waste.
Trevor Gooby runs operations at the ballpark.
It definitely is more work to sort through the trash that we have after the game and to do these type of things. But, again, we feel it's really important for our business. And it's important because our fans are asking us to do it.
All those compostable items end up in piles like these, at facilities like this, run by Jason Lenz and his family outside of Seattle.
For what you guys do, how much of a problem do plastics present?
I would say it's a you know it's not insurmountable. At the same time, it's — it's definitely a problem.
Even hear, bits of plastic need to be sorted out. Lenz has been in this business since 2008, after expanding his sand and gravel company.
So, without the city asking this of you or showing that there was a demand for this, you guys likely wouldn't be doing this?
Seattle is a big pusher of organics diversion for compost, yes, so that's why we're in this business.
Lenz's company now turns out hundreds of thousands of tons of compost a year and sells it to everyone from soil companies, to local governments, to home gardeners.
What is in here?
So these are bags of dirt that I collected from various sites around the Houston area.
Reed College student Morgan Vague had a hunch. If plastic really is everywhere, maybe, in heavily polluted areas, bacteria have evolved to eat it. And maybe those bacteria could take a bite out of our plastic problem. So she collected samples from some of the dirtiest places around her hometown of Houston, Texas, like sites of past oil spills and sites deemed contaminated by the EPA, and brought them back to the lab.
So, you identify the bacteria you want to take a closer look at. And then you put them in these test tubes.
And the only food you give them, basically, is these plastics.
Yes, exactly. And we're fortunate to find some that did a pretty good job.
But Vague found that the bacteria works much too slowly to be useful just yet.
What a lot of our research is focused on is sort of like, how can we speed up this process a bit? How can we kind of scale this up and get it to an applicable kind of stage? Because, you know, right now, it's just bugs in a tube.
Vague says yes, it's just one study in very early stages, but she's excited for where it could lead.
All little girls want to change the world when they grow up, right? I think we need more of these kind of grassroots efforts and kind of thinking outside the box, or outside the plastic bottle, and kind of saying what sort of solutions we can find.
Without meaningful solutions, experts warn, our trajectory means more and more plastic on our land and in our water.
According to one study, if current production trends continue, by the year 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
Geyer says one way to fix it, get rid of all single-use packaging, things like bag, straws and bottles, that make up 40 percent of our plastic.
That would make a huge difference. That will be — and I think it's really doable. Lots of people are at a point where they don't like what they see, that there's real willingness to change behavior, to do things differently. And I think there are many, many ways we can do it, then still allow us to have the good life.
To do that, experts say it will take governments, companies and individuals working together, each taking small steps to bring about big change.
For the "PBS NewsHour" in Santa Barbara, California, I'm Amna Nawaz.
And, tomorrow, we will take a look at why China is no longer accepting much of our recycling, including plastics, and the impact that's having.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz serves as PBS NewsHour's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
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