Last week I was putting together my lecture notes for my final biology class of the semester. The topic being “Human Impacts on the Living World,” I covered forest fragmentation, invasive species, biodiversity loss, and the mother of them all, climate change. I know that people need to hear happy stories or they will become demoralized and say things like, “Whatever. Polar bears are drowning because of shrinking sea ice. Maybe they should stop eating so many seals and getting so fat and then they could swim better” (actual student quotation). So, to avoid such despair induced cynicism, I told them many happy stories of success, mostly relating to pollution regulation driven by bipartisan legislation during the Nixon years. The clean up of Boston Harbor is a shining example. But there is a thorny pollution issue that we still haven’t really done much about in this country: plastic.
I make no claims to living a plastic-free lifestyle myself. Right here beside me, I have my reusable plastic Nalgene water bottle emblazoned with Obama stickers, like any good east coast liberal elite. It’s not all plastic that’s the problem necessarily, it’s all the plastic that gets made solely to be thrown away. Only about 5% of plastic grocery bags get recycled, and pretty much none of the plastic encasing toys, electronics and every other purchasable thing. And where does it end up? In every level of the water column out in the middle of every one of the world’s oceans. There’s a plastic particle to mimic the size, shape and color of every natural food source in the ocean, from microscopic plankton to giant jellyfish. And not surprisingly, animals eat this plastic. So sea turtles get guts full of clear plastic bags, and seabirds get gizzards full of bottle caps and fragmented detergent bottles. That ubiquitous recycling symbol of the three arrows in a perfect triangle would be less graphically appealing but more accurate if it were bristling with arrows shooting off in all directions showing all the waste we don’t reclaim, don’t recycle, and don’t reuse.
So what do we do about it? If we’re Americans, apparently we develop a battery operated plastic contraption expressly designed to open hard plastic packaging on plastic items. If we’re Germans, however, we come up with a solution worth looking at. Back in the 90s, the European Union adopted the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The Directive required manufacturers to assume responsibility for the packaging they produce throughout that packaging’s whole lifetime. Since this is a challenging task, it’s not surprising that a new, private, non-profit company sprang up in Germany to handle the reclamation, reuse and recycling of all that packaging waste on behalf of the producers. Producers pay a license fee to this company, and in return can feature the “Green Dot” emblem on their products. Green Dot participating companies pay a variable amount depending on the type of packaging, the weight, and the cost of recycling. So an incentive is built in for manufacturers to reduce packaging or shift to more readily recycled alternatives. Consumers can feel confident that a product featuring the Green Dot will not be contributing to the waste stream, but will be reclaimed into what is known as a closed loop economy. Not all of it can be recycled, but the idea behind reclamation is that the waste is responsibly disposed of, and doesn’t end up in a roadside ditch and then ultimately in the ocean.
While not through the Green Dot system alone, Germany still has an incredible recycling rate: 64% of their municipal solid waste is recycled or composted. Only 1% of it ends up in landfills. Compare that with us here in the U.S., recycling 34% of solid wastes. I don’t know why we’re so different from Europe in this respect. Maybe it’s that we have a big country, and it’s easier to believe that when you throw something out, it actually just disappears. But I think it has a lot to do with the attitude that if Europe does something, it’s got to be some liberal, pinko Commie idea, and here in America we eat steak all the time and throw our trash wherever we damn well please. But honestly, if Dick Nixon could create the EPA, how liberal can environmentalism really be? It’s non-partisan! And the Green Dot system didn’t crush Europe’s economy either, so don’t try that line. We can do it if we want to. But we have to want to.