Experts debate solutions to the single-use plastics crisis from bioplastics to improved recycling
By Khadija Ahmed and Kunjal Bastola
WASHINGTON – “I’ll show you what I dug out of one [camel] skeleton,” marine scientist Marcus Eriksen said as he unearthed a roughly 40-pound mass that he estimated held 2,000 plastic bags.
Eriksen’s display came as he and other experts testified on potential solutions to single-use plastics pollution, including new materials and improved recycling, during a subcommittee hearing for the Senate Environment and Public Works on October 26.
Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, said he has also pulled plastic bags out of hundreds of bird skeletons and has had colleagues find them in whale guts too. He emphasized the global abundance of plastic waste that has risen exponentially in the last 15 years and resulted in serious health impacts for numerous species.
“These small, even nanoscale, particles are found in your bloodstream,” Eriksen said in an interview with the Medill News Service before the hearing. “They get into the placenta of mothers. It gets into the organs of humans. It even crossed the brain barrier in studies of rats and mice.”
At the hearing, there was an intermittent back and forth between senators on whether plastic bags can be recycled, illustrating the larger confusion on the country’s present recycling system and its limited efficacy.
Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) asked about the accumulation of plastic bags in the 40-pound mass, saying that it was his understanding that plastic bags can be recycled. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said plastic bags cannot be recycled and that the recycling rate in general “stinks,” calling it “very, very much a failed system.”
In response, Mullin maintained that there are ways to recycle plastic bags, to which Whitehouse said he had meant you can’t dispose of plastic bags in a mixed-use recycling bin.
Erin Simon, vice president and head of Plastic Waste and Business at the World Wildlife Fund, said plastic bags are technically recyclable but not often recycled. Some recycling facilities do not accept plastic bags, wraps, and film in recycling bins because they clog machinery and cause safety hazards.
During the discussion, Mullin cautioned against an impulsive reaction and called for “innovation, not misguided regulation.” He highlighted the work of witness Humberto Kravetz, the founder and CEO of GSF Upcycling, a Spain-based company that recycles plastic with less energy and environmental cost by using nanomaterials.
Eriksen called for biodegradable plastics as a solution. He noted his organization’s 18-month field study that measured how 22 bioplastic items broke down in different land and marine environments with most samples degrading significantly within the timespan.
“A lot of these biomaterials, they are functional replacements, especially as a thin film,” Eriksen said in an interview before the hearing.
Eriksen also discussed the potential of regenerative materials such as seaweed and mushrooms in creating alternatives to plastics, which are made from fossil fuels.
Simon noted the need for caution when considering the tradeoffs of switching to alternative materials, emphasizing that steps can be taken when sourcing alternatives to ensure there are more environmental and social benefits compared to conventional plastic.
While various approaches were debated at the hearing, witnesses were unanimous on the need for urgent action to solve the single-use plastic pollution crisis.
Whitehouse argued that an economic component needs to be added to the technical conversation to provide incentive by reaching a point where recycled materials are cheaper than virgin plastic.
“If that economic signal shifts, then suddenly recycling works,” Whitehouse said, “because if there’s one rule of capitalism, it’s the profit’s imperative.”
According to Simon, it’s the responsibility of governments and industries to make systems work for consumers while also addressing current trends.
“All of the science tells us that, whether you’re talking about this from a pollution issue or from human health, first we need to produce less,” Simon said in an interview before the hearing. “We can’t manage what we have, let alone what we’re projected to grow to.”