If you’ve spent time on public lands, you’ve undoubtedly had this experience. You’re walking along, perhaps taking in a panoramic vista, letting the sounds of a gurgling brook put you at ease, or maybe tracking an elk through underbrush, when you see it: a Clif bar wrapper. An old beer can. Microtrash. Used toilet paper. You think, how irresponsible! What litterbug dare despoil this place that is heavily managed to perpetuate the myth of wilderness?! Maybe you packed the trash out. If so, good for you, and thank you.
This happened to me more times than I can count this summer. I hiked a few hundred miles of the CDT in Colorado, including the San Juans section that I bypassed during my CDT thru hike in 2016 in favor of the less exposed, less frozen Creede Route. I hiked some PCT miles, including a circumferential trip of Wy’East (Mt. Hood, if you’re into colonial erasure) and a one day “thru-hike” of the Wildwood Trail through Forest Park: over 30 miles of rolling single track through one of the largest urban forest reserves in the US, just NW of downtown Portland.
I carried a brand-new Granite Gear Crown2 60 backpack, along with a bunch of other Granite Gear accessories. I wore brand new Altra Lone Peak 3.5s. To those who know me well, this may come as a surprise. Sure, I’ve always carried GG packs and worn Altras, but for the last few years I’ve abstained from purchasing new gear. I didn’t purchase any of this gear, though – it was granted to me by these companies because I was selected to join The Grounds Keepers: a team of hikers (and starting in 2019, paddlers!) dedicated to #leavingitbetter. We’re a group of folks hiking across Indigenous Lands (aka Public Lands) and picking up all the “litter” that we find, supported by both Granite Gear and Altra Running (applications for the 2019 team are LIVE until midnight on November 18th).
I packed out all the waste I came across over these few hundred miles, including some truly nasty stuff. As S.O.P. goes, I weighed all the garbage before disposing of it in town. The experience raised a few questions and confirmed a few harbored suspicions:
1. Weight is not a perfect metric for how much better we leave it – microtrash is generally much more harmful than waste items that weigh a few pounds – but other than documenting each single item packed out, which would be very tedious, I don’t know a better method.
2. Our green spaces look a whole lot better without waste strewn about them, and certainly each ecosystem from which trash is removed benefits from that removal… but what happens after the trash finds its “proper” home in the bin?
3. Even if everyone were diligent about practicing Leave No Trace Ethics and went so far as to pack out any waste they encountered, our urban spaces, landfills, waterways and oceans would still be full of pollution.
4. Hot take: plastic pollution and waste in general are not the consumer’s fault or responsibility.
Now let me get this straight before we move ahead: I think that postconsumer clean-up efforts are awesome. I think the Grounds Keepers is a worthy program that inspires folks to be better stewards of the few environments we have left that aren’t overwhelmingly human-built. I think the Grounds Keepers and programs like it serve as effective gateways to more comprehensive and expansive ways of thinking about waste.
Okay! Here comes the fun part.
What if I told you that basically everything we’ve been taught about waste and recycling is a lie crafted to mislead us? What if I told you the Plastics Industry, an extension of the Fossil Fuel Industry, created the concept of being a “litter bug”? What if I told you that this same industry and its concessionaries tricked us into paying to manage the waste they create AND externalized all the environmental and human health impacts onto us, the public? And what if I told you they’ve spent decades and billions of dollars deliberately derailing efforts to mitigate the pollution catastrophe we’re currently experiencing?
Take a deep breath and buckle up.
Envision the process of recycling a plastic Coca Cola bottle. What happens to it? What is it made into? Are you imagining a plastic bottle being reprocessed into a “new” plastic bottle over and over again? This is unrealistic. When such a bottle is recycled, only a small percentage of the plastic retains the qualities necessary to satisfy food-safe packaging standards. It’s very difficult to extract pure plastic types – there is often contamination from food residues, chemicals, and other plastics. For this reason, most of the plastic is “downcycled” into non-recyclable, low value products. Whatever’s left is discarded or burned.
(DISCLAIMER: a LOT of the following information is pulled from the book Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism by Marcus Eriksen – great read, highly recommend. Some may be verbatim quotes, but I’m pulling from notes on my phone from when I read the book months ago, so I can’t be sure. I’m not going to cite him every time I paraphrase, so if you read something that sounds like it should be cited but isn’t, you should assume it’s Eriksen)
Ecologically speaking, there’s no such thing as waste. Waste is a human industrial construct. With the innovation of petroleum byproducts like plastic polymers, our species introduced anomalous inputs to the earth’s systems. The microplastics that result from the degradation of the Dasani bottle you sent to the landfill will be in the ocean for, well, forever. Our invented chemistry is ubiquitous, and it will outlive our species.
From WWII to 1972, annual plastic production rose from zero to 40 million tons annually. By 2013, 311 million tons annually. At 4% anticipated growth over the next few decades, the plastics industry will surpass 1 billion tons of new plastic production annually by 2050 (Plastics Europe).
The New Plastics Economy, a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2016, notes that the global recycling of plastics as we know it is a failure. The foundation estimates that of the 78 million tons of plastic used for packaging in 2013, only 14% was recovered for recycling. Four percent of that was lost in processing and 8 percent was down cycled into inferior products, leaving just two percent, or 1.5 million tons of the original volume, brought back into the loop. The recycling rate of plastics overall in the US in 2013 was a mere 9.2% (EPA), and a 2017 study states that a measly 9 percent of all plastic ever manufactured has been recycled.
In 2014, 22% of PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate: things like polyester and plastic bottles bearing the recycling number “one”) collected for recycling was exported out of the US, because our infrastructure can’t keep up with our consumption. In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China. Nowadays, China doesn’t want our poorly sorted, insufficiently cleaned plastic waste. We send what we can to India, where waste pickers endure horrific health conditions in order to reap the returns of the more valuable materials. The leftovers are then incinerated or landfilled, creating a health crisis for local residents.
We’re really bad at recycling, but there’s a mountain of evidence suggesting that it isn’t even worth the effort to begin with. Recycling is, frankly, a ruse. We feel good when we buy products with the little recycling symbol on them and proceed to deposit them into the recycling bin, but a huge number of products that are advertised as being recyclable aren’t recyclable in most US cities. Many products that are recyclable are only so when properly cleaned before being deposited, a fact many people are totally unaware of.
Thomas Kinnaman, an economist from Bucknell University, argues that the cost of energy, infrastructure and labor needed to recycle waste is roughly double what it costs to bury it. Yeah, you read that correctly.
We don’t want to just bury all our waste, though. Maybe you’re familiar with this phrase popularized by the organization The Story of Stuff: “there’s no such thing as ‘away.’” When we throw things “away,” they have to go somewhere – to the landfill, generally. Landfills are responsible for immense amounts of methane emissions – the third largest source of methane in the US, according to EPA – and other pollution like direct leachate contamination: a highly odorous black or brown liquid that contains heavy metals like lead and a cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Of course, not all waste even makes it to the landfill, as evidenced by all the “litter” you see strewn about the sidewalk, in gutters, in our waterways and eventually, our oceans. Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year.
You’ve probably heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You’ve probably heard it’s twice the size of Texas, and maybe you’ve seen images of a massive island composed of detergent bottles and the likes. This is media sensationalism, and irresponsible reporting.
The “twice the size of Texas” figure comes from a study that was measuring plastic particulate matter in a three-dimensional area – the ocean isn’t just the surface, after all. The square mileage of the “garbage patch” includes depth. If you were to fly over the area of this great gyre in the Pacific (the largest of five gyres across the globe), you wouldn’t see an island of garbage. If that disappoints you… I don’t know what to tell you.
The reason this is problematic is that such an image leads people to think that this trash could be simply scooped up out of the water with the right technology. Spoiler: it can’t. It’s more accurate – and horrifying – to think of the plastics in our ocean not as a patch, or an island, but like smog. Imagine the mouths of rivers as smoke stacks, and the ocean like our atmosphere. Now, imagine 5.25 trillion particles equaling 290,000 metric tons of plastic spewed into and dispersed throughout the ocean, about as invisible to the naked human eye and as harmful as the diesel particulates, coal dust, ozone and VOCs that pollute the air we breathe.
You’ve probably seen the infamous turtle straw video, and you’ve probably heard about plastic straw bans. But it’s not just turtles, and straws are far from the worst or most common item of plastic pollution in our oceans. 557 species have been documented as eating or becoming entangled in our trash. There is growing evidence that the toxicants that absorb and adsorb onto microplastics desorb into the marine life that ingest them. When a fish that has ingested these microplastics and toxicants dies, it sinks to the ocean floor to decompose – but the microplastics never will.
A recent study of fish in markets found that 25% of those samples in the US and Indonesia had microplastics in their gut (Rochman et al, Scientific Reports 5). Microplastics are now being found in human stool.
Oh, you don’t eat fish? Don’t relax just yet. Chemical plasticizers can leach into what we eat, drink, and breathe. For example – you ever smell that plasticky aroma inside a new polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) coffee cup? That’s the un-bonded monomer drifting into your lungs. Microplastics have been found not only in fish, but also in sea salt, honey, and beer. Oh! Also in 94 percent of US tap water. Nearly all people on the planet have detectable amounts of BPA in their blood serum, saliva and urine.
I think you get the point.
THROWAWAY CULTURE: HOW THE HELL DID THIS HAPPEN?
“The objects flying through the air would take 40 hours to clean, except that no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use.”
Yikes. Lots to unpack there.
Every year more and more new plastic is produced. This is how the plastics industry profits. The only way to secure demand for new plastic indefinitely is to destroy the supply of old plastic. Efficient recycling is bad for plastic producers’ bottom lines, as are durable, reusable containers.
For decades, we’ve been told that so long as we put those water bottles in the blue bin, we’re doing our part. For decades, we’ve taught our children the importance of recycling as a solution to pollution. We’re not stupid. We can see that there’s a problem. Recycling sounds great in theory, and many of us (especially here in Portland…) are superstar recyclers. We think we’re doing our part. It’s not our fault that neither our governments nor the plastics industry have bothered to tell us that our idealized notions of how recycling works are completely off base.
There was a time, before throwaway culture was completely embedded in our collective experience and taken for granted, when the people weren’t fooled by attempts to convince us that this surge of waste was our fault, our responsibility. Dissenting voices, though, have historically been shouted over by the bottomless pockets of industry.
By 1961, “litter” had become a highly visible form of pollution, generating public concern. That year, with funding from makers of single-use products, the non-profit Keep America Beautiful formed and ran a series of highly influential PSAs, including “Susan Spotless” and the famous “Crying Indian,” effectively shifting blame onto consumers, now known as “Litter Bugs.” (Bagmonster.com) KAB is considered one of the first green-washing corporate fronts, and the group still operates today.
In 1980, Dwight Rees, President of the National Soft Drink Association (now American Beverage Association) admitted, “Society is telling us in unmistakable terms that we share equally with the public the responsibility for package retrieval and disposal. This industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the attempt to dispute, deflect, or evade that message.”
The American Chemistry Council, formerly known as the American Plastics Council, is an industry trade association whose mission is “to promote the interests of companies engaged in the business of chemistry.” They represent corporations like Dow Chemical, Monsanto-Bayer, DuPont etc. If that doesn’t tip you off to how much shady business they’re up to, try this: the ACC spent over $50 million on lobbying activities between 2011 and 2015. (Opensecrets.org – Center for Responsive Politics) These are the people who even today launch campaigns against plastic bag bans and BPA bans.
There’s a lot of history that I can’t get into here – read Eriksen’s book for a nuanced and analytical take on how this industry continues to stab us all in the back.
So what can we do?
What we need is policy-driven extended producer responsibility. When a company is responsible for the full life cycle of its product and its packaging, innovation for recovery catches on like wildfire. There are precedents for this. Look at Germany. Look at Chile. The producers won’t do this on their own, just as we can’t expect the fossil fuel industry to leave reserves in the ground even though they know they’re killing us. We need policies to compel them to make responsible consumption a possibility for everyone.
We need end-of-life design. When designing for the end-of-life, manufacturers and designers talk with recyclers to make a plan for product repair and reuse, and for eventual material recovery. Such approaches may include using the same materials throughout a product, e.g. a water bottle whose label, bottle and cap are all composed of the same polymer. End of life design is about slowing down waste generation – it’s the opposite of planned obsolescence.
We need more waste diversion. Waste cleanup should be a complement to diversion strategies. When recyclables and compostables are sorted at the point of generation in your home or office, a cleaner and more valuable waste stream is created. What goes to landfills or incinerators drops sharply, reducing the need for these centralized and expensive waste management systems. Of course, by abstaining from consuming single-use products, you avoid generating waste altogether! You can buy used items, you can repair the things you already own, you can repurpose things.
Industry favors post-consumer clean-up strategies because they take the heat off product design and regulation and shift the focus to consumer litter campaigns, waste management, and production of energy through waste incineration. By “favors” I mean that the industry pours insane amounts of money into keeping the burden of responsibility off their own back.
We need to push for a Zero-Waste Circular Economy rather than investing in waste-to-energy infrastructure. This is the front line between industry and environmental and social justice advocates. Zero Waste embraces community engagement in waste sorting, recycling, and composting, and it holds producers responsible for the products that don’t fit the system. Waste to energy is the plastic industry’s answer to all waste – burn it all – which perpetuates demand for new plastics. It is expensive and highly polluting, and it undermines Zero Waste efforts.
Finally, who pays? Industry has successfully deflected onto the public the costs of negative externalities such as waste management and recycling, and environmental and human health impacts. Taxpayers take the hit here, just as we do with the fossil fuel industry’s externalities. When the producer is responsible for the complete life cycle of its product and its chemistry, designing for recovery and reuse are optimized. But Extended Producer Responsibility initiatives are fought tooth and nail by industry to avoid establishing a precedent that the rest of the world could follow.
Of course, we can get a few birds stoned at once by doing everything we can to combat the siren song of consumer culture while we push for the above tactics. Let’s be real: material things don’t make us happy. You know that, I know that, self-reported data across countless studies has shown it to be true. Stop buying crap you don’t need.
It’s not going to be easy, so start talking about this stuff! Tell your friend from Seattle who likes to shame you for not recycling properly. Tell your friend from Texas who has to drive recyclables to a collection center dozens of miles away if they want to recycle at all. Tell your city council, tell your state reps. Forget “reduce reuse recycle.” Try this instead: Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose.
PHEW. That was a lot. If you made it this far, thank you!
Back to The Grounds Keepers. Seriously, this program will help get you out of that office chair onto the trail you’ve been meaning to hike forever. It will provide you with high quality gear you may not be able to afford otherwise (like me! I don’t have cash for multiple pairs of shoes and a new pack – I’m a substitute teacher and I’m making a documentary that is entirely not-for-profit lolz). You’ll connect with a bunch of other rad hikers and paddlers who care about our planet, you’ll leave our “wild” spaces looking better for everyone else, and you just may inspire a bunch of other folks to do the same.
I encourage you to apply! I encourage you to talk to your friends, family, coworkers, peers, fellow bus passengers, pigeons, neighbors, local representatives and anyone who will listen about the need for a Zero Waste Circular Economy where the corporations that are foisting all this polluting crap on us are held responsible for the crap they produce!