Plastic Graduation: We are All in it Now

When Dustin Hoffman starred in “The Graduate,” I could relate to the situation in which his character found himself.  “Benjamin Braddock” had just graduated from college and sought some meaningful path in life. Even though I was nearly half way through a PhD program, I was still not entirely clear on where my path may lead. I had explored several majors as an undergraduate, before settling on a degree in Sociology.

Even as a PhD student, I took courses outside my field. Why I took a course in pre-revolutionary Russian literature, I will never know. Yet, even today, the understanding of the Russian culture it gave me informs my interpretation of the bizarre Putin-Trump political orbit. That statistics course in math department provided a very different angle on probability than I got in the statistical research classes in sociology. And that Latin American history class provided a wealth of information that served as context for my exploration of the role of U.S. efforts at empire and economic development in the region.

None of that diminished the cultural ambiguity I felt then. Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, captured an essential angst of the time. Fresh out of college in the turbulent 1960s, Benjamin wondered what his place might be in a world riddled with hypocrisy and change. At a party given by his upper middle-class parents to celebrate his graduation, Ben wonders about his future. Mr. McGuire takes him aside.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics. [1]

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

When Mike Nichols directed “The Graduate,” glass bottles still contained all drinks. Today, plastics have proliferated in the bottling and packaging of just about everything. Despite the inundation of the oceans, lakes, rivers and land with plastic waste, their use in all kinds of consumer products and processes continues to accelerate. The narrow economics of consumer marketing even forces a plastic “clamshell” over a head of lettuce. The ubiquity of single-use plastic grocery bags is constrained only by a few cities banning them and charging ten cents for a single-use paper bag to encourage the use of multi-use bags and “save the trees”

Surfing junk_ocean-plastic-pollution_Monterrey Bay Aquarium

Surfing Plastic Waste

In 2015, the world produced 448 million tons of plastics, according to a new study reported in Science Advances,[2] a magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meant for wider public audience. The AAAS also produces the prestigious technical science journal, Science.

This first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured, estimated that “…8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” By 2050, about 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste “will be in landfills or in the natural environment.” It is disturbing to note that less than ten percent of plastic is recycled, despite the proliferation of recycling programs.

Plastic Turtle Trap_maxresdefault

Tortoise Trapped in Plastic

This vast quantity of plastic waste is fundamentally incompatible with and severely damages the ecosystems it enters. First, it is not “bio-degradable,” and is particularly damaging to marine life. The “Great Pacific garbage patch,” also known as the “Pacific trash vortex,” discovered in the late 1980s, circulates in North Pacific. It contains “exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic[3] plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.”[4] Furthermore, plastic waste damages wildlife, wildlife habitats, and humans, causing disruption of endocrine levels and biological functions.

Plastics may be the icon for the core dilemma of industrial modernity. The scientific evidence is clear. This ubiquitous product of industrial production/consumption threatens most ecosystems, just as the “byproduct” carbon dioxide already disrupts the climate stability upon which human life has depended since long before the industrial revolution. The cheap convenience of plastic products and packaging threatens the very ecosystems that sustain the lives of humans and the countless species whose extinction now occurs every year at accelerating rates.

Can humanity reign in the self-destructive project of plastic production, consumption, and pollution? We find very few signs of progress so far. The Trumping of climate action as well as national democratic process and international agreement on climate action is a major setback. It is now up to human communities everywhere to self-organize, assert their sovereignty over the conditions that threaten life itself, restore ecosystems, and abandon the life of plastic over-consumption. Can we graduate from the school of plastic waste?

_____________

[1] “Note: the bolded line is ranked #42 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.” Accessed at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Graduate.

[2] Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,”
Science Advances 19 July 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782

[3] Pelagic means in open waters, not near the bottom and not near shore.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch, citing several sources of scientific research on oceanic debris.

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