There is a famous exchange in the 1967 film The Graduate where returning graduate student Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) attends a poolside party organized by his parents . There a Babbit- like family friend, Mr. McGuire, counsels him in a course he should take in his future career:
“Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’
Ben: Exactly How do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.”
McGuire’s words would actually prove to be quite prescient and wise. The future did indeed belong to plastics and fortunes would be built on the transformation of everyday commodities into simply manufactured, easily disposable, plastic.
But the ubiquity of plastic and its domination of our industry, has increasingly been regarded, at least among certain sections of our society, as something not particularly beneficent at all. Rather it has become the symbol of rampant consumerism, avaricious capitalism and the exploitative marketing practices.
And over the past twenty years it has been presented by environmentalists as a threat far more sinister than even this: the degradation of the environment and one of the leading causes leading to the death of the planet. Countless articles, documentaries and feature films have been produced which denigrate plastic as the curse of the Western world and the one substance certain to choke our civilization to death.
So it was with some interest that I greeted this piece in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times about British scion David De Rothschild and his determination to sail a boat made only of plastic bottles to the heart of the legendary Pacific garbage dump which allegedly contains hundreds of thousands of square miles of floating plastic waste.
Naming his catamaran Plastiki, De Rothschild is seeking to draw world attention to the devastation wrought by non bio-degradable plastic in our oceans. Among his greatest offenders are supermarket shopping bags, nearly 20 billion of which are used and disposed of annually around the world.
But what De Rothschild and many environmentlists like him do not tell you is that what plastic adds to pollution, it more than makes up for in energy savings.
For instance, when properly installed, plastic insulation can cut heat or cold loss in homes and businesses by up to 70%, making it substantially more efficient than traditional forms of insulation. Wind and solar power would be impossible without the use of plastics. Special plastics are used in wind turbine covers and solar panels are almost all made from plastic. Cars are also lighter and use less energy because they carry at least 15% of their components in plastic.
On the pollution side of the equation, there also seems to be quite a bit of evidence for plastic’s preference over wood products.
Take the classic paper vs plastic argument. According to Professor Bill Rathje from Stanford University, there is actually no evidence that a paper bag from a supermarket will biodegrade any more quickly than a plastic bag.
Rathje should know. A fellow at the Archaeology Center of Stanford University , he is the director of The Garbage Project, and a leading authority on what is in America’s garbage.
“The answer is very simple and straight forward but not one that the paper-bag people like to hear,” he says. “ In a dry landfill, paper bags don’t degrade any faster than plastic bags. And In a normal, well-run landfill, paper bags do not biodegrade any faster over at least 40 years than plastic. Since paper bags are much bulkier than plastic, they fill up more landfill space and they’re three to five times bulkier than plastic – and you can see that yourself at the grocery. Landfills are closing down because they’re full. From that perspective, plastic is much better than paper.”
Rathje’s project (conducted over thirty years) made some startling discoveries. In contrast to all of the concern directed at fast food packaging and disposable diapers, the archaeological data demonstrated that both items together accounted for less than 2 percent of landfill volume within refuse deposited over the last ten years. Even more surprising, because of industry-wide “light-weighting” — that is, making the same form of item but with less resin — plastic grocery bags had become thinner and more crushable to the point that 100 plastic bags consumed less space inside a landfill than 20 paper bags. If all three items at the center of public concern had been banned and were not replaced by anything, garbage archaeologists are certain that landfill managers would not notice the difference.
Of course, most paper comes from tree pulp, so the impact of paper bag production on forests is enormous. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone.
It also takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper, even if recycling rates of either type of disposable bag are extremely low, with only 10 to 15% of paper bags and 1 to 3% of plastic bags being recycled, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In addition, the majority of craft paper is made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. As evidenced by the unmistakable stench commonly associated with paper mills, the use of these toxic chemicals contributes to both air pollution, such as acid rain, and water pollution. Millions of gallons of these chemicals pour into our waterways each year; the toxicity of the chemicals can be long-term and settles into the sediments, working its way through the food chain.
That all might be something De Rothschild could ponder as he crosses the Pacific in Plastiki. As the hellish Pacific storms lash his boat, he better hope that the polymers and resins that have provided the strength of the plastic bottles that keep his boat buoyant, are truly as weather resistant and non-biodegradable as their reputation holds them to be.
For that saving grace will be, ironically enough, all that stands between him and a very watery end for himself and his crew.