Susan Freinkel on Our Toxic Plastic Love Affair (Podcast)

TreeHugger: So it's not a big island the size of Texas. It's areas of the ocean that happen to have a higher density of plastic particles floating around in them?

Susan Freinkel: There's something about the way the currents converge there that traps debris. And what you get is something that looks like a snow globe, but not as dense with particles as a snow globe. But nonetheless, there are particles all through the water column, over vast stretches. We're talking about stretches hundreds and hundreds of miles in size.

Then you have places where plastic has just sunk to the bottom. There have been studies done in the Mediterranean Sea showing big stretches where you've got plastic stuff all over the bottom of the ocean. These researcher who were looking at all the oceans of the world, they described on one of their blogs trying to set anchor off of a town in Brazil and not being able to get the anchor to set because of the plastic bags at the bottom of the ocean.

TH: Bioplastics are being put forward a lot as an alternative to this and an improvement. Are bioplastics better?

Freinkel: Unfortunately, there's this whole idea that bioplastics are "the" solution. And the problem here is there isn't a single solution, because there isn't a single problem. Bioplastics are great if what you want to do is get away from oil or gas as the source for plastic. Even there, there are issues, because some bioplastics are made from agricultural crops, and I'm not so keen on the idea of growing acres and acres of corn in order to make new plastic bags or new water bottles. But you do get a better carbon footprint with bioplastics.

But unless there is a deliberate effort to make a bioplastic that will biodegrade, you haven't really accomplished a whole lot. You can make a bioplastic that is as durable as an oil-based plastic. Unless you make a conscious effort to make a bioplastic with less toxic chemicals or without the kind of hormone-disrupting additives that are used, you will have the exact same kind of plastic.

I look at bioplastics as an opportunity for the industry, and for all of us, to do it right this time around. But that is going to have to come with conscious intent and effort, because, aside from the fossil-fuel issue, there's nothing inherently perfect about bioplastics.

TH: When you go to the grocery store and it comes time to put your food in a bag, what do you do?

Freinkel: I bring my own bags. And I'm actually pretty militant about it, which means that there have been times when I walk home carrying loose items because I forgot my bag. But I really feel strongly about it.

San Francisco, where I live, has banned plastic bags, which you would think is a great advance. But what's happened is that people are using a lot of paper bags now, and that has its own downsides as well. So the answer is a reusable bag. And I tell people it doesn't have to be an expensive bag. It doesn't have to be groovy, organic, fair-trade, cotton. Any kind of bag that you're reusing over and over again is going to be an advantage over single-use plastic bags.

TH: There's a study under review right now comparing the energy intensity of a plastic bag versus a reusable one. Of course any reusable item needs to be used a certain number of times before you've offset the disposable stuff that you would otherwise be using. Is there any conceivable energy or environmental benefit to using disposable over reusable?

Freinkel: I don't see it. I think that study was looking at greenhouse-gas emissions and energy inputs. But again, it takes out of the equation the problem of plastic bags when they get loose into the environment, and the kind of litter and hazard they pose to wildlife on land or at sea, which just isn't an issue with the reusable bags.

Every manufactured product has environmental impacts. It takes energy to produce. We can't manufacturer things without any sort of footprint. But again, the more that you reuse something, the lighter that footprint becomes. And yes, the flimsy plastic bags that you get at the grocery store, you can reuse those. The plastics industry often points out they can do double-duty for lunches, or for lining the wastebasket, for picking up dog poop.

Well, great-but that's two uses. That doesn't mitigate what went into making the bag. And they are not really designed to be reused for a year. The bags I have in my car, I've been using some of those for four years, every single week, if not several times a week.

TH: Even if you're diligent about it, plastic ends up in your life. What are some next steps that people could take to try and limit the amount of plastic they end up with?

Freinkel: Well, we really need to take a hard look at all single-use stuff. Also refusing drinking straws, carrying your own travel mugs, buying in bulk, bringing your own stuff to takeout restaurants. That's one next-level up. I think that those actions are important and they make a difference, but ultimately I don't think this is one that we can completely shop our way out of. I think that we need legislation.

If we want better packaging, manufacturers need to be required to take more responsibility for the packaging and the products they put into the marketplace. Extended producer responsibility laws have actually been very effective in Europe at changing the way products are packaged and changing the kind of materials that they're made out of (so they're more recyclable and have higher recycling rates).

When we're talking about the issues of toxins that plastics contain, we really can't be our own little EPAs. We have to have laws that do a better job of placing the burden on industry to demonstrate the chemicals they use are safe, and not let us be the guinea pigs to show whether they are or not. I really argue in the book that change has to come at all levels of society that has a stake in plastic.

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