Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We are surrounded by plastic 24/7. It's in our Band-Aids, our cups at Joe2Go, the aglets on our shoelaces, you know, those little plastic things at the ends of the strings, even the speakers you're using to listen to this show right now. While a lot of those items are single-use, at least you can recycle them, right?
Rebecca Altman: Straws, zipper bags, plastic wrap, or cling wrap, bubble wrap, zip ties, bread on tortilla bags, those cannot be recycled either.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A new Greenpeace report finds that US households generate 51 million tons of plastic waste each year, but the amount of that actually getting recycled is only 2.4 million, 51, 2.4. It's not because people aren't doing their part. We're trying hard. It's because the vast majority of plastics literally cannot be recycled. What a dumpster fire. For more on this, I spoke with a very smart person.
Rebecca Altman: My name is Rebecca Altman. I'm an environmental sociologist by training, but I write for the public about plastics. I'm working on a book, An Intimate History of Plastics. The conversation around plastics needs to be bigger because plastics are not just a waste problem. They pose toxicity issues up and down the supply chain from communities where these facilities are hosted, all the way through to the millions of informal waste workers around the world who are sorting through the globe's discards to remove whatever recoverable plastics are there with health consequences. That is because plastics are not just their polymer backbones, they're a host of chemicals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Plastic is a big part of so much of what's around us. In ways I think that-- I know for me as a consumer at first wasn't aware of, then became aware of, and then have felt so very virtuous for all of my recycling of plastics but it turns out maybe I'm not so virtuous as I think I am.
Rebecca Altman: If I can, as a sociologist, the way I think about this is at the level of societies. I think we have a system set up for us not necessarily to be successful at addressing what is really a global issue. For me, that's particularly relevant because my dad made plastics. I'm the daughter of a plastics maker, and after he left plastics, he went on to found recycling programs in the ‘80s. This is the context of my growing up and what I went on to study.
I grew up as an avid recycler. He had us take it to the nth degree. I can understand and have felt it myself, this eroding or wearing a way of a deeply felt ethos about what it meant to be a good person, a good citizen and that was dutifully even washing out the last scrap of peanut butter from the jar before putting it on curb. He would have us stomp down the [unintelligible 00:03:26] pieces of the cans, recap, re-lid every bottle.
We followed all the rules to realize within I'd say the last decade or so that what gets carted to the curb doesn't necessarily go where many of us think. That has been, I think, difficult for many people but I can also speak from personal experience of that revelation as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why is it that so much plastic can't be recycled or is unrecyclable?
Rebecca Altman: We think of plastics as this monolith, but in reality, it's actually hundreds of different substances. That level of complexity is very difficult to sort and then to process into reusable materials. One other dimension to this is a design one. A more effective recycling system would have products that were designed with the end in mind and they weren't. That means we have multi-layered, multi-material products. A typical cup of coffee you think it's paper, but it actually has an interior plastic lining.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Has something gone wrong or was it always designed to actually not be able to be recycled and reused in the ways I think the consumers might think that it can be?
Rebecca Altman: You have to go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s as, for example, in the United States. Our whole environmental policy and regulation apparatus was being laid in place at that time. Solid waste is a major issue. Toxics are becoming a major issue. From industry documents, the industry itself felt quite bleakered from multiple angles. States and other local entities were starting to look at the solid waste issue and they were suggesting bans on particular classes of products, they were suggesting bottle bills to ensure recovery.
If you look at the industry documents themselves, they'll tell two stories. The public-facing story is that recycling is something we can all participate in to help move materials through the system and divert them from the landfill. The internal story is that there needs to be some evidence that this industry is putting forth its best effort to look like they're doing something about it to relieve some of the regulatory pressure.
Laura Sullivan from NPR actually dug up some of the records from an archives in Syracuse and went and got some of the former executives on the record saying, “Yes, we did put huge ad buys in to convince the public that recycling was going to solve the waste crisis that was evident in the ‘70s, and that has only accelerated since with plastics production going gangbusters just over the last two decades in particular.”
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stay with us folks. The Takeaway will be right back.
You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I've been talking with environmental sociologist, Rebecca Altman about the problem of plastic waste. Rebecca reframed this as more than just a recycling issue. The myriad chemical components that make up various plastics could also cause toxicity and health concerns up and down the entire supply chain.
Rebecca Altman: Modern plastics are predominantly made from fossil fuels. From there, these chemicals move into a network of petrochemical and plastics plants. In the United States, some of our big quotas of production are in Appalachia and along the Gulf Coast, and the 80 to 100-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. These are facilities that bought out old plantations, built gigantic petrochemical and plastics plants on the grounds of those plantations and descendants of formerly enslaved populations are now wedged in between these gigantic facilities.
This is a region of the country, this Mississippi River corridor that is called Cancer Alley, just based on regular chronic exposures that are coming off of these plants to produce either plastics or the suite of petrochemicals required to make plastics possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That framework of plastic plantations, that's pretty brutal.
Rebecca Altman: Yes. There's some remarkable mapping, historical layered mapping done to see that layered history, places where sugar, cotton, indigo were cultivated using enslaved labor systems being overlaid by the next generation kind of plantation, these petrochemical plants, and yet again, constraining the life and livelihood of descendants. It's unconscionable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you've been talking about the global context, you brought us down to that very local, which I so appreciate, especially the framework that you've given me here is really powerful. Talk to me now on the global level. COP 27 is still going on. Will plastics be part of that global conversation?
Rebecca Altman: Yes, and this is actually quite exciting. Last March, the UN held a series of meetings in which at least 175, it might be more than that now, nations voted that the world would like to move towards negotiating a global plastics treaty. The official negotiations for that actually start this month. What that's going to look like is an open question, but it is a broad mandate to address “plastic pollution”.
There are countries and experts on board and lined up and ready to support the nations who want to think really dynamically about what plastic pollution is because how it's framed and how it's named defines what solutions seem possible. If we can really think about plastics as a complex material, chemically complex, how can we intervene as a global body to alter the way plastics are produced for what uses in ways that could facilitate their recycling down the line and create a safer circular economy, safer jobs, safer communities for those who live nearby?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that we got to a place that has a little bit of enthusiasm, hopefulness. What do I do with this plastic- -my environment? Do I bother to keep recycling it? Is it worth it?
Rebecca Altman: There are markets to reuse certain kinds of plastics. If you flip over your container, you'll see a little code on the bottom, and those are called the resin identification codes and they are there to tell you what kind of plastic this is made from. We know that there are better rates for ones and twos. One is your water bottle, polyethylene terephthalate, and twos are the high-density polyethylene. Think about it like a detergent bottle.
I also encourage you, your listeners, all of us to just see this not as a moment to be better recyclers or better consumers, but to really step into the role of citizens and think about how can we help push for a different relation to plastics and its production and for opportunities for reuse and opportunities for reduction at levels that are meaningful. At levels when you can scale up one beyond yourself. What are the circles of influence that you have? Whether that's a religious institution or at a job or at a university or at a hospital, so that we can change purchasing practices and institutional policy while we get the global situation worked out. That's my takeaway for your takeaway. [laughs]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rebecca Altman is an environmental sociologist, an author of a forthcoming book on the intimate history of plastics. Thank you for joining The Takeaway.
Rebecca Altman: Wonderful to be with you.
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