July 28, 2021

Let Them Lead

Guest Opinion
By Cathye Williams | June 5, 2021

While 2020 likely won’t go down as anyone’s favorite year, there have been some bright spots. One for me is the rising environmental awareness and activism I see all around northern Michigan. Maybe our fragility in the face of the pandemic spurred our need to heal and restore. Whatever the impetus, it seems green is the new black. Businesses and local governments are vying to outdo each other in setting sustainable systems, practices, and goals. Alliances are being formed in the realization that we can’t save anything without everyone — nor without justice and equity. Environmental groups didn’t miss a beat in switching to virtual forums and formats for their action agendas. And the best part — kids seem to be leading the charge.

In Frankfort, dedicated members of the Frankfort-Elberta Schools Interact Club continued their years-long efforts to end the use of plastic straws in their town. They pushed through the pandemic to educate their community by hosting a free screening of the important film The Story of Plastic.

Up in East Jordan, students in the EJ Middle School Shoe Club launched their Solar Spark Project. With the support of their faculty adviser and high school mentors these bright enthusiastic students researched, advocated, marketed, and fundraised their hearts out, culminating in the unveiling of a 30,000-kilowatt solar array on the roof of their school this past Earth Day.

And to show us you’re never too young to get started, students from three classrooms at Glenn Loomis Elementary and The Children’s House Montessori Schools in Traverse City have teamed up to garner support in their mission to get area businesses to stop using plastic shopping bags. These youth have a lot to teach us through their concern and advocacy.

Like them, most of us in the region get the plastic problem. We bemoan the litter on our beaches and trails, and the microscopic particles that end up in our rivers and drinking water. We know that plastic, practically speaking, stays around forever (well, millions of years, but who’s counting?), and we are coming to finally realize that most plastic ends up in our landfills or dumped in the ocean. One 2015 study found that we dump as much as 5 to 14 million tons of plastic into the ocean annually.

With all that piling up, one can’t help but ask, what about recycling? What about that little number in the triangle of chasing arrows? The truth is, very few plastics can be recycled, and even the ones that can require the introduction of “virgin plastic," thus adding costly and polluting resources (energy, materials) to the process.

In many cases, the plastics being handled are full of highly toxic components, and the process itself is hazardous.  Furthermore, even for the small percentage of plastics that can be safely recycled, it can only be done a handful of times — even 10 times would be a stretch. In comparison, that aluminum can that holds your favorite microbrew? It can be remade to pour you another almost infinitely. Glass and, to a lesser degree, paper can also be remade over and over with a low carbon and pollution footprint.

The word “recycle” itself is misleading when applied to plastics. Recycling is a closed-loop process where the same thing is made over and over again. Plastics are degraded in the recycling process and often cannot make the same quality product over again. They are more often turned into something else or “downcycled” to make items with a limited lifespan — pens, toys, clothes — that also ultimately end their journey in the landfill. And the little symbol? Oh, that was created by the plastics industry. They lobbied to have it on plastic containers, and many states require that symbol even on materials that aren’t actually recyclable.

The reasons for this head-scratcher becomes evident with just a little digging into the links between the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical companies that use oil and gas production byproducts to make plastic. Yes, the same fossil fuel industry that faces a future with much less demand for its products in a renewable-powered world. 

For these firms, keeping up demand (where there is no actual need) of plastics is a way to keep the gas, oil, and pollution flowing. Big Oil is increasingly joining with Big Chem in a wave of new plastic-factory projects in the works or on the way, projects that will create pollution and more waste than we can safely dispose of.

We create 300 million tons of plastic each year, and according to data from the National Resource Defense Council, half of it is single-use plastic. Let that sink in: single use … made to be used one time. How polluting is that? According to The Center for International Environmental Law, making plastic and incinerating plastic in 2019 created emissions equivalent to that of 189 coal power plants.

It’s time for us to say no thanks to plastic. Find a Montessori kid and sign that petition. Take the film recommendation from Frankfort’s Interact students and watch The Story of Plastic. Examine your own consumer habits and see where you can reduce your use. Ask companies whose products you use about their efforts to reduce plastic packaging. Tell them what you value and would like them to do. And most importantly, talk about it. Educate and advocate. Check out www. breakfreefromplastic.org for inspiration, resources, and actions to join.

Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, www.citizensclimatelobby.com. She writes from Benzie County.

 

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