Earth Day — 50th Anniversary

The enormity of ‘Like a Buoy, Like a Barrel’ — the eye-popping installation that arrived last fall on Dyer Street — should suggest to passersby the scale of the problem of plastics in our environment.  That project was spearheaded by local environmental activist and musician, Jen Long — the woman behind The Whale Guitar Project — along with her indefatigable partner, Bonnie Combs, and the public art organization, The Avenue Concept. Long agreed to answer a few questions for The Dose and that interview appears below following a few thoughts of my own.

Here we are at the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, and while the preeminent issue of the moment has to be climate change, I recently watched Frontline’s latest alarming and enraging exposé, “Plastic Wars,” and I’ve decided to highlight the issue of plastics in the environment. It appears that less than 10% of all plastics are ever recycled and that looks to be heading down to zero.

In addition to the aforementioned alarm and rage, I now feel like a gullible dupe. I was not aware that the whole recycling program with its ‘chasing arrows’ numbers was a scam perpetrated by the plastics industry. From All Things Considered on NPR,

. . . the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of antipathy toward plastic in the 1980s and ’90s. The industry was facing initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastic. Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to preempt the bans and sell more plastic.

I like to think I’m fairly discerning and skeptical, but I kept falling for this swindle . . . for decades. But never mind my wounded pride, the world is paying a terrible price, and it is now projected that by 2050 global production of plastic production will have tripled.

But perhaps there is hopeful news on the horizon. From Discover magazine: Scientists found a caterpillar that eats plastic, could it help solve our plastic crisis?

So far, researchers have discovered over 50 species of microorganisms, mostly bacteria and fungi, that can turn plastics into energy. And more recently, they’ve discovered several insect species that thrive on eating polyethylene, the primary plastic in single-use bags.

EcoWatch writes in Scientists finds bacteria that eats [sic] plastic,

The scientists discovered the strain of bacteria, known as pseudomonas bacteria, at a dump site loaded with plastic waste, where they noticed that it was attacking polyurethane. Polyurethane’s are ubiquitous in plastic products because they are pliable and durable.

Jen Long likes what she sees in this article from The Guardian, Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles, in which the enzyme that breaks down the plastic “returns it to raw material for new production. Specifically water bottles become water bottles again. I like that because, if it really works it would eliminate the need to dig for more oil. I’m not sure the caterpillars or bacteria can do that.”

Good point. This article is intriguing, but it is from 2018 and I could not find an update. Long has more to say on this below.

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First I asked Ms. Long if she had watched the Frontline piece.

I just watched it, and no, I had not been aware. I’m experiencing one of those moments when your brain reels over itself as a construct is peeled away. You rewind through all the clues in the past that you hadn’t put together. Like in the movie Sixth Sense when the wedding ring rolls across the floor and Bruce Willis realizes he’s a ghost. [This is why Jen is such a great advocate — she’s fun to talk to and never hectors her audience.]

China stopped buying our recycled plastic in 2018. Newly manufactured plastic is cheaper. What is the future for all our recycled materials?

That is the question we need to create some policy around. Groups like Conservation Law Foundation work on policy for the environment.

Should we keep putting our sorted recyclables out in the bins? Do you know if RI Resource Recovery is just dumping it all in the landfill?

When I toured the recycling center last April, they were still recycling, sorting and selling most materials. But they did explain that there has to be a market. When it is cheaper for manufacturers to buy plastics from China, there is then no market. Glass, for example is a material we all think of as recyclable since it can be infinitely melted down and reshaped. However, because bottlers switched to plastic, there is no market for the glass RIRR receives. So they crush it into pellets that are used as landfill “topping.” Therefore, it’s presumable that unmarketable plastics would be destined for similar treatment.

Are you at all encouraged by the wax moth caterpillars (waxworms) which apparently can digest and metabolize plastic?  How about the plastic-eating bacteria? Do you think either of these can be of practical use?

I am very interested in both the caterpillars and bacteria that eat plastic. I do have concerns that if we develop organisms that can eat landfill and ocean plastics, how will we constrain them from consuming plastics that are used to seal sterile healthcare products, and contaminating them? Same concerns for food packaging. Could the organisms become invasive species like cane toads in Australia? They were introduced there to kill specific beetles that were damaging sugar cane crops. But with no natural enemies, cane toads quickly overpopulated and overran the ecosystem by eating so many native species of insects besides the targeted one. (See: ‘Could these plastic-eating enzymes be the miracle solution?’ at Fast Company.)

[Excellent point. I can’t believe I did not think of that.]

Jen, you actually have a unique perspective on plastics.

In my view as a former toy designer, plastics are still a miracle material – moldable, lightweight, strong, and shatterproof. It can be bouncy or rigid, opaque or transparent, and serves very important purposes in hospitals, and all kinds of products we take for granted. However, it is a material that really needs to be used wisely and with respect to our ecosystem. It should be reserved for important purposes and there should be regulations requiring products to be designed in ways that allow the components to be separated out and recycled after the product lifecycle ends. This is circular economy or “Cradle to Cradle” as William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote over a decade ago.

Single use has to end. Also, packaging that mixes materials in a way that makes them impossible to reuse. And corporations that pump plastics out need to take responsibility to collect and reuse. This will require policy, and big oil and corporations will fight it all the way.

Do you have any news that could cheer me up?

News that really cheers me up is that this fall, the International Monetary Fund estimated the value of a single great whale at more than $2M for CO2 sequestering! . . . Each absorbs as much CO2 as 1,000 trees! I know this news does not pertain directly to plastics, but it is a strong argument for protecting these breathtaking creatures from plastic pollution.

Anything coming up with the Whale Guitar that we can share?

Yes! I’ll be playing The Whale Guitar for the PVD Virtual Energy Fair next month! I’ll know more details later today! I was supposed to play it for Earth Day at Askew tomorrow. Not sure that is happening virtually! Guess I’d better find that out!

My thanks to Jen for her help with my annual Earth Day post. And when life returns to normal, make it a point to catch Jen performing with husband Brian Jablonski and friends as the SwampBirds. They are a whole lot of fun!

 

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