Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Plastic Pollution: The Age of Unsolvable Problems

Suddenly, we discovered that plastic pollution is a problem, a big one. What to do about it? As usual, it is a question of governance: the problem in itself is not so terribly bad that it couldn't be controlled. But, over the years, we developed such effective technologies of anti-governance that we have entered now "the age of unsolvable problems". 

How bad is the situation with plastic pollution? Rather bad, by all means. Citing from a recent paper by Geyer et al., more than 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. Of this mass, 9% percent was recycled, 12% was incinerated, the rest is still around. It is this mass of plastics, billions of tons, which generates the pollution we see today. It is almost one ton of plastic waste for every human being living today. Imagine if it were magically to appear in your living room: one ton for every member of your family!

Still following Geyer et al., we learn that, in 2015, the world produced 380 million tons of plastics from fossil hydrocarbons. To get some idea of how polluting this mass is, we can compare it to the total carbon emissions produced by hydrocarbon combustion, around 9 billion tons per year. As an order of magnitude comparison, we can say that about 4% of the fossil hydrocarbons we extract become plastics.  

4% doesn't seem to be a large amount, but it is not negligible, either. Apart from the horrible state of some beaches and the islands of plastics in the oceans, it is a lot of carbon pumped into the ecosystems. Its effects are unknown, especially on humans: we are all eating microplastic particles, today. What will that do to our health, nobody knows -- we are all guinea pigs in a great experiment. The long-run problem is that all this plastic is made from fossil hydrocarbons, so it is going to be gradually oxidized and turned into gaseous CO2. Then, it will contribute to global warming.

So, we have a problem and not a small one. Then, how do we deal with it? The Greens in their various shades will respond with the magic words "recycle!" or "reuse!" but there is a little problem here: you can't recycle or reuse anything for more than a limited number of times. Recycling plastics is just a way to procrastinate the unavoidable: you may know the quote (attributed to Christopher Parker), "Procrastination is like a credit card; it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill." Eventually, even recycled/reused plastics must become waste and at that point, we get the pollution bill to pay. 

A different brand of problem solvers, maybe we could call them the "anti-Greens," will come up with a completely different strategy: "let's burn it!" Yes, sure, after it is burned, we don't see it anymore -- which means it has disappeared, right? And, in the process, we magically create energy! Isn't that a good idea? Maybe it is, but if there ever was a perfect illustration of the concept of "sweeping the problem under the carpet," this would be it. When burned, the stuff plastic is made of doesn't disappear -- it is simply turned into CO2 which then goes into the atmosphere to create more global warming. And the energy we can get from incineration is just a trifle and it is obtained in a dirty and inefficient manner.

There is a third brand of people I could call the "bring me a problem and I'll show you an opportunity." They take notice that there exists something called "bioplastics" which doesn't generate extra greenhouse gases and is bio-degradable, at least in principle. So, it could solve the problem while keeping everything the way it is in the best of possible worlds. They know that, nowadays, weight for weight, bioplastics cost 2-3 times more than ordinary plastics made from fossil fuels but, hey, higher prices mean higher profits! After all, the fraction of the budget that an ordinary family can't be but small, so they can afford to pay a little more. Besides, technological progress will surely bring costs down. And when they discover that bioplastic production today is only about 4 million tons (1% of the total production of plastics), wow! Think of the possibilities of growth!!

But is bioplastic the solution to the problem? As it often happens, quantification makes short work of ideas that seemed to be good in theory. Today, bioplastics are made mainly from cereals (corn) or directly from sugar. According to the data from Statista, the world's production of sugar was about 170 million tons in 2017, less than half the amount needed to make the currently produced amounts of plastics even in the wildly optimistic assumption of a 100% efficient process. About cereals, the data tell us that in crop year 2016/2017, a total of approximately 2.62 billion metric tons of cereals were produced worldwide. Again in the wildly optimistic assumption of a 100% efficient production process, it means we should set aside about 15% of the world's cereal production - more realistically about 20%-25%. Then, of course, efficiency can be improved and we may find ways to make plastic out of plants not used as food. But, at present, it is the way things stand.

Think for a moment of what losing 25% of the food production to make bioplastics would mean for a world where billions of people live on the edge of starvation. You see that we have a little problem, here -- similar to the one that would come if we were to try to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels. And I am not saying anything about the fact that agriculture is far from being fossil-free, not at all: think of fertilizers, pesticides, transportation, refrigeration, processing, and more. Think also that, the way it is performed nowadays, agriculture is an unsustainable process that destroys the fertile soil that it needs to produce food. There is just so much that agriculture can do: it can't feed more than 7 billion people and, at the same time, provide fiber, chemicals, and fuel for everybody. 

Does that mean that the problem of plastic pollution unsolvable? No. It is, actually, a minor problem in comparison to other, much more difficult problems we face. We need to phase out fossil fuels from the world's economy but, if we were to do that very rapidly, the world's economy would cease to function. But we could phase out fossil-based plastics tomorrow. It would be uncomfortable and complicated, but nobody would die and we would rapidly adapt to new ways to do everything we do today, just using something else: metals, paper, ceramic, tissue, or whatever at hand -- even nothing in some cases. And we don't even need to phase-out plastics completely: in some areas, plastic materials are really indispensable, think of one-use medical equipment or rubber tires for road vehicles. But, in that case, we can use bioplastics: if we use it in limited amounts, it is possible. What we have to do is just to eliminate the wasteful and frankly stupid one-use plastic items: plastic bottles, spoons, forks, dishes, and the like.

It is, in the end, not a technological problem: it is a problem of governance: we, humankind, have been able to manage reasonably well the elimination of some harmful substance from industrial production. Think of lead as a component of paints or in gasoline. Think of mercury in thermometers, beryllium in some alloys, CFCs in refrigerators, DDT as an insecticide, and many more cases. International agreements were discussed, approved, and implemented. Then, these and many more substances were banned and removed from industrial use. It is possible and it has been done.

So, it would be perfectly possible to develop and implement international agreements that would curb the use of plastics made from fossil fuels and eventually ban it completely. That implies changing something in our everyday life: the "overpackaged" products that today are so common in supermarket aisles would have to disappear. Packaging is not evil: it is a way to store and ship food - we need to use it as needed, no more.

So theoretically, it should be possible -- even reasonably easy -- to eliminate plastics pollution by means of international legislative action but, in practice, it looks difficult. Over the years, efficient technologies of anti-governance (aka good old disinformation) have been developed and honed to near perfection -- we saw them applied to the issue of global warming. These technologies can be used by industrial lobbies to stop all legislative changes that would reduce their profits. That has made every problem impossible to solve.

Right now, the fossil fuel industry is desperately fighting to survive. It has been able to successfully stop many attempts to do something against climate change. It is at least unlikely that it will stay silent while it loses a market worth some 600 billion dollars per year. So, expect soon a loud campaign in favor of plastics: some hints are already starting to appear (*). And they will blame you for not sorting your waste properly!

If the campaign to keep fossil plastics will work, then the only way to get rid of the stuff will be a full-fledged Seneca Collapse.  That is, if humans can't reduce by themselves the amount of fossil plastics they use, the system will crash and force them to reduce it. This kind of crashes have happened in the past, they can surely happen again.


(*) The article cited on WSJ is paywalled, but the gist of it is based on an earlier article on NPR which notes how the number of plastic straws used yearly in the US is usually overestimated (500 million per day) and that the person who generated it a few years ago (Milo Cress) now admits it was just a guess. Because of this, the WSJ writer, James Freeman, concludes that the whole anti-plastics campaign is a scam designed to have you pay more money to the Green PTBs, out there. It is a standard disinformation technique based on cherry picking. They can do much better than this - you'll see that soon!


  1. Good blog post Ugo. I agree with most of it but not this...

    "It is, in the end, not a technological problem: it is a problem of governance"

    I don't agree with that at all, for in order for it to be a governance problem it first has to be a personal responsibility problem, assuming you mean 'democracy' type governance ? As Dennis Meadows points out, this misunderstands governance, voters lead, politicians follow, or in the paraphrased words of George Carlin, 'something stinks here, and it isn't the politicans, it's the voters'

    In order to be 'off fossil fuels', we'd need 1. a significant minorty of people to act that way, reflecting in 2. how they vote. As long as we have greedy, self absorbed voters, we'll get greedy self absorbed politicans, one just has to look to the recent Italian elections, let alone here in my country Australia with mostly horrible politicans, elected by repugnant constituents.

    I think governance is the problem, not the solution but I can offer no workable solutions (broardly Anarchism ah la the Khalari Bushmen seems to offer the only workable solution but that's not palatable to most)

    This will play out with collapse being inevitable and all the implications that has.

    1. Well, in my opinion democracy is a tool needed to attain governance, not a purpose in itself. And as a tool, it has been blunted by disinformation to the point that it is now nearly useless. And that's the reason for the repugnant politicians - it is not just a problem of Australia! From Italy, I understand the problem very, very well.

  2. I think that there is two different problems. How to produce the plastics and how to manage at it's ends life.
    I think that recycle, reuse or burn are not mistakes. Probably we are yet at a primitive version of it could be.

    But how to produce it probably matter of techonology. That today we made bioplastics mostly from sugar rich source doesn't mean its the only way.
    I think that we could make a efficient way using high capture plants or even artificial captura and use this CO2 as a source for bioplastics and other carbon products on a close manner.

    Of course we could always remove the product, but I must say that, it no or only minor problems existed on plastic use, as a product, it's wonderful, so it reasonable try to search how to bring this product into a future closecircled future.

    1. Ah, well, Zanstel, it would be nice if we could "close the circle" of plastics. But if we make it from fossil fuels, the only way to close the circle for good would be to retransform plastics into liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons and pump them back into the wells they came from. Not so practical, I'd say.

    2. I was thinking more in bioplastics from celulose or direct CO2 capture and transformation using solar energy into CO -> other hydrocarbons.

  3. Collapse ... has happened in the past to take care of the things that humans were unable to care for by themselves

    Collapse is certainly one way to "take care of things" and I am all for it. There are too many things industrial civilization is doing that need to stop. But when it happens, the toll on human life will be horrific. That's why everyone is doing their best to avoid it for as long as possible.

    Unfortunately, the later collapse comes, the worse the toll will be on humans and the greater the damage done to the earth's ecosystem from our pre-collapse depredations. The best we can hope for is that collapse comes soon, but without any added damage from massive nuclear war.

  4. Are the widespread use of plastics another sign of vast ecological overshoot? I read somewhere – I think – that 60% of clothing is now made using petrochemicals. Could we really go back now, to using cotton, wool and other natural fibers for the clothing production? Is there arable or grazing land available to support that? Maybe our wonderfully efficient economic system “selected” a lower cost option when it turned to available petrochemicals and provided for more economic goods/economic expansion. Another example: moving from glass etc. to plastic containers for food. I don’t know if the decision to put ketchup in plastic container was driven by cost or consumer preference decision. My guess is a little of both. But in any case, it is now pretty hard to leave an American grocery store without a (plastic) grocery bag full of plastic-encased food. Could we go back? I suspect gone forever are the days of milk in glass jars delivered to the back porch of the house.

    1. Sounds like the Lakeland Republic (Retrotopia by JMG)...
      We have home milk delivery - not the glass bottles, but the plastic ones they use are returned, cleaned and reused.

  5. Another great post but I do have a few quibbles. There are plastic precursors we could use. Example: In the olden days I received my favorite cookie, fig newtons in cellophane tubes inside of a cellophane package. Now they come in a plastic(PE) tube inside of a plastic package. I think cellophane is made from cellulose. There are bound to be other examples. But yes at the very least you must and should burn plastics, not all of course because a fdew like vinly plastic release dioxin but burn the rest. Of course they produce Co2 and water but that is better than turning into micro plastics which live practically forever. Super efficient incinerators should be the mandated way to burn plastics like the units in Paris which generates the majority of its domestic electrical power. The last suggestions is try not to buy plastics or use plastics. Example: we buy the most of our food in bulk and eschew processed foods and grow our own food on our farm. Our own milk goes into glass bottles. We are just living the way our grand parents did and we can do it again.We can also just bide our time. When oil and gas are gone so will plastics be gone. The trick is for the human race to try to stay alive that long.

    1. Yes, cellophane is a vintage kind of plastic made from cellulose. Biodegradable, but not so much used anymore, nowadays.

  6. I worked in an industrial design Co-op back in the 80's - 90's 90% of what we did involved plastics of all sorts. This was prior to curbside recycling and plastic pollution was becoming a huge problem, highly publicized. Dozens of plastics mfgs were going out of business, design firms were laying off and closing shop, we were struggling to keep the Co-op going as plastic became a bad word. Then along came recycling and saved the day. Everyone had all the work they could handle. Design firms were renting unsued commercial space and filling it full of guys on computers working up CAD files for plastic stuff by the bucket loads. Even when it became clear that recycling was not really doing anything everyone still kept using it, buying it, throwing it out at an ever increasing rate and saying "we just need to recycle harder".

    Governments everywhere make policy decisions based on money. They say that that is how to best serve the population because everyone needs money right? The are not wrong when you understand that. Until we stop using the profit motive to define life on earth we will continue to destroy life on earth for profit.

    I have said it a million times there is no solution that includes getting rich.

  7. The calculation based on food is in theory correct as we produce food in the most unsustainable way possible, namely using chemistry to paint over the soil degradation of continously planting the same crop on the same field.
    If we used hemp as an intermediary plant in a 4-annual crop cycle, we had a lot of fiber and good soil and enough to eat.


  8. I suggest the ban of not reformable plastics, not a problem in it and working qite well indeed.... In this i see a civilization problem more than a governance one.
    Ban on plastic is also quite carbon taxing, not a lot of greener alternatives; a lot of industrial process uses the paculiar caracteristic of platics as moldability, resistence and elasicity, specific elements can be done by fired ceramics but almost anything else can only be metal.
    On agriculture i suppose that is more a buisness matter too, beside a limit emergency use a lot of procedures are actually preemption or addressing previous damage. Close circle hi yeld closed circle agricolture was used in norten Italy with one and half seasons a year for centuryes, rotating crops and not using chemicals until needed give far better yelds than intensive use because soil can keep also microbioma. Fuel usage for heavy machines and transport is quite marginal and can be obtained by wastes trought metanification or pyrolisis, expecially if food chain can be kept local with no leg over 100km. Actually the fertile unused soil in Italy is widening, we are losing to wildness a lot of it expecially on mountains and the situation is similar on advanced countryes and a lot of policyes are exixt for keep prices hi trought destruction of overproduction or sobsidizing for not produce. Better distribution and governance can keep feeded more population right now so i suppose that we have margins for let denatality linked to advanced living atandard get the remaning hi birtrate populations.

  9. Ugo
    'Plastic pollution' is not one thing? Partially degraded plastic 'soups' and small abraided particles e.g. clothes and carpets, enter organisms and food chains. How does this play? Alternatives, please?

    Discarded plastic fishing gear worldwide is credited with massive environmental impact.

    On the other hand, plastic waterpipes, buried, seem set to last for centuries. Such long-lived materials substitute for older metal piping (or asbestos/cement) and all the fossil-fuel costs of producing and relaying the old ones every few decades. (My personal experience of the vast reticulate network that supplies water in the UK). Same for sewer pipes.

    Different issues require different governance?


    1. I think there are no separate issues. Simply too much plastic around. Large pieces of plastics gradually become micro- and nano-pieces of plastics. And the problems increase with smaller sizes.

      It might be possible to use plastics as a temporary carbon storage in the form of pipes, or just in landfills. But the best would be not to produce it in the first place

  10. Ugo, thank you for this good statement of the plastic pollution problem. Plastics became omnipresent because they are derived from petrochemicals made artificially abundant by government policies heavily influenced by petroleum interests. There is a recently invented process that uses a floating unit manned by 4-5 people; the unit takes in plastic and converts it to fuel. Check in with Gregor Welpton about this.

    Modern people were taught to worship convenience and money. The re-education job is huge, to teach people to value all life and respect the human skills, such as cooking and gardening, that will enable us to replace the plastic-based consumer economy with an economy of permanent culture based in what ew ourselves grow and produce. Allowing hemp back into world agriculture will permit us to replace many petroleum-based products with hemp-derived products. (By the way, your article could use some editing! Send it on over and I will be glad to do a quick edit!)

    1. Lindi, hi. Thanks for the comments. And I can send the text to you - but would you send me your address? Mine is always the same, ugo.bardi(squishything)

  11. I recommend people to watch the documentary Albatross (for free at portraying, in a artistic and emotional way, the ecological realities of our plastic toxification of the oceans. I believe, talking about numbers and facts are necessary but not sufficient to really understand the suffering our degradation of the natural environment brings other species. Its not about blaming someone, its about realising that we are a part of nature, not separate from it, and that other species feel joy and pain just like we do. Nature used to be sacred but now we treat it like a waste dump. Albatross, the movie, is a sad but also beautiful love story. Everyone should watch it.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)