by Mark Van Streefkerk
Did you know that only 9% of plastic is actually recycled? That percentage even includes the wide range of plastics we put in the recycling bin. Plastic bottles are recycled consistently, but everything else — milk jugs, plastic wrappers, the clamshells that package your deli sandwich — ends up in landfills, incinerated, or shipped overseas to stagnate in heaps in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia or the Philippines.
Worldwide, plastic invariably ends up in oceans and waterways, polluting the ecosystem, consumed by fish and other sea animals, which in turn are eaten by us. Even if you don’t eat seafood, plastics are everywhere. In fact, there is so much plastic in the world that we literally eat, drink, and breathe in microplastics. It’s estimated that we could be ingesting up to a credit card-size of microplastics a week. What that plastic consumption means for our bodies is still undetermined, although plastic chemicals can act as endocrine disruptors and could have harmful effects on hormones and reproductive systems. It’s a sobering reminder that we can’t outrun or outsource our waste.
In this installment of our ongoing series on how to reduce our carbon footprint, we’ll take a look at what makes plastics so harmful, what the good news is, and how a group of South End youth are educating their neighbors on plastic waste.
The Injustice of Plastic
There are no innocent plastics. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and from the beginning to end of plastic production, the pollution generated disproportionately affects low-income and marginalized communities. Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington — a nonprofit that advocates for a waste-free state — explained that petrochemical industries “have massive impacts on frontline communities.”
“You have the initial disruption and health impacts on communities where fracking is occurring in the first place — to get the oil and gas to make the plastics — then you have the refineries which are majorly polluting industries and often concentrated in certain [areas]. Then you have the production, transport, the use, and the disposal, which is very challenging. A lot of the material is not recyclable and of the material that is, only a portion is getting recycled,” Trim said.
Trim referred to “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, a stretch on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, that has a concentrated amount of petrochemical facilities manufacturing ingredients for plastics, styrofoam, neoprene, and more. Mostly Black and low-income communities live there, and residents experience a higher rate of cancers and miscarriages that many are attributing to the plastic manufacturing plants.
Plastic also never really goes away, taking around 500 years to break down, turning into microplastics in the meantime, which at this point are in every nook and cranny in the world, including inside living organisms. Plastic waste that isn’t recycled (around 91%) ends up in landfills or incinerated in facilities located in areas where mainly BIPOC communities live.
Petrochemical Refineries in Washington
“More and more and more people are becoming aware of the injustices that are directly related to plastics,” Trim said. “If you were getting your plastic bag over here, you weren’t necessarily aware that it was coming from fracked gas and disrupting a community elsewhere and causing health impacts elsewhere.”
As media outlets increase their coverage of environmental justice, more people are realizing the harmful impact of plastic.
We might not have a “Cancer Alley” in Washington, but we do have petrochemical refineries, notably BP Cherry Point Refinery in Whatcom county, the biggest in the state. Mainly due to activism by the Lummi Nation, all new infrastructure for the Cherry Point Refinery has been blocked.
As more awareness is raised around climate change, more voices are calling to divest from coal, oil, and fracked gas. Trim said that recently two refineries were proposed for Tacoma and Kalama. The plan was to take fracked natural gas from the Midwest and move it through pipelines to the proposed Washington refineries where it would be made into methanol. The methanol would then be shipped to China, where it would be made into plastic. “The [proposed refinery] in Tacoma got defeated by climate activists, and the one in Kalama recently got defeated,” Trim said.
The Good News
Unlike seemingly abstract issues like toxic waste or air pollution, plastic waste is a quantifiable part of everyday life. Trim said that “most of the single-use plastic we’re using is not necessary and can be replaced by other alternatives. We’re often using this packaging for a few minutes and then disposing [of it].”
The widespread manufacturing of plastics has only been around since the 1950s. If there was a time before plastics, there can certainly be a future with reduced use.
“The best way to address [plastic pollution] is to reuse, or to not have it in the first place,” Trim said. “There’s a huge movement building up right now of going back to refillables. Going back to the way it was, the way of our grandparents: reusables, refillables … We have a lot of zero-waste stores cropping up. We have the ability to bring your own bag, bring your own thermos, bring your own water bottle.”
There are also important moves being made in state policy. Zero Waste Washington is working on a bill that would require all packaging sold or distributed in the state to be recyclable, compostable, or reusable by a certain date.
A statewide ban on single-use plastic bags was passed a year ago but delayed because of the pandemic. Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the single-use plastic bag ban would go into effect Oct. 1.
Zero Waste Washington and Duwamish Youth Corps
For the past few years, Zero Waste Washington has partnered with Duwamish Valley Youth Corps (DVYC), part of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, for a 12-week program. High school-age youth get hands-on training in leadership and job skills, as well as environmental justice. The recent cohort conducted litter assessments, learned about the impacts of plastics on their neighborhood, delivered a presentation on waste to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, and helped get information out about waste and recycling to their neighbors.
“Something I learned was a majority of the people don’t know how to recycle properly,” said Adrian Gomez, a youth with DVYC. “With a plastic container, I didn’t know you had to wash it before recycling it — cleaning it, letting it dry, and then putting it in the recycling bin.”
Alexis Sorm said, “One of the great things about this program is it really awakens your conscience about what you’re really putting into the different waste bins … I pass information on to other people and they pass that on to other people as well.”
Sorm and others in the cohort believe a zero-waste Washington is possible, but only if leaders and people in power listen to what the youth are saying. “We rely on people with more power, like adults or big corporations, to actually listen to what we say and our concerns, and take action. It’s not just for us, the new generation, it’s for the sake of them as well and the health of the whole world,” Sorm said.
Check out one of DVYC’s Public Service Announcements, produced by Latino Northwest Communications.
Reducing our reliance on single-use plastics is something that’s totally doable. Here are a few tips to get started:
- Ditch the plastic bottle. Get a reusable water bottle (secondhand stores are full of them), or even a few, fill them up with water at home, and store them in your fridge. It’s chilled water that you can easily grab on your way out. Forget to take your water bottle? More stores are selling “boxed” water or water in aluminum containers. Paper, aluminum, or glass are far better alternatives to plastic bottles and significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
- Look for a quick switch. Can you find the same thing without the plastic packaging? When it comes to health and beauty products like soap, razors, and even deodorant, more companies are packaging them in paper or cardstock containers. Shopping for produce usually means tearing off a few produce bags to store veggies. Consider a set of reusable, and washable, produce bags. Here’s a good sampling of some reusable options, which range from $5 to around $25.
- When you do have plastic, find out what kind it is. Most plastics have a recycle symbol on them somewhere. Usually that comes with a number 1–7. Trim said that plastics designated 1, 2, or 5 are more likely to be recycled. They will need to be washed and dried before putting into the recycling bin (labels are okay to be left on). The Three R’s still apply: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse!
- Get involved! Message your city councilmember to voice your support for reducing single-use plastics. Share your knowledge of plastic waste with others. There are many ways to advocate for a zero-waste Washington, but this link is a great place to start.
This climate change series is made possible with support from Nia Tero.
📸 Featured Image: Members of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps (DVYC) during the filming of the music video “Turn It Around Be Conscious!” produced by Latino Northwest Communications. (Photo: Latino Northwest Communications)
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