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The Future of the Planet Looks Like 'WALL-E'

A scene still from the 2008 film "WALL-E." (Pixar)

The story has been lost in the miasma of Donald Trump’s scandal-ridden presidency, but its implications for the U.S. and much of the West cannot be overstated. In April, after ending imports of 24 kinds of scrap last year, Beijing announced that it would be extending its ban to dozens of other materials. And while environmentalists have hailed the move as a “big win for global green efforts,” a rash of countries are suddenly scrambling to dispose of their recyclables.

Dianna Cohen of the Plastics Pollution Coalition believes that a plastics crisis has arrived.

“We suddenly have to deal with our own waste, basically, now,” she tells Robert Scheer. “And then, also, the costs of recycling are increasing, and you have to think about how many trucks are needed to create it, how widely it’s dispersed, et cetera. And that’s a big expense. And then plastic production—internationally, but [also] internally in the United States—is really ramping up right now, and it’s going to continue to explode. So we have a very big problem on our hands. It reminds me of that movie ‘Wall-E,’ or ‘Idiocracy,’ where people live in a world that’s just full of waste, it’s just a wasteland, like a garbage dump.”

In the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Cohen explains how plastics and the burning of fossil fuels are interrelated, and why recycling alone can’t save us. “Recycling is a really cool idea—I put things in my recycling containers, where I live in Hollywood,” she says. “And I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing that, if there is some kind of infrastructure set up in your town where you live. But just because something could potentially be recycled—does it actually get recycled? I think that’s an important question to ask.”

Later in their discussion, she addresses some of our largest corporate polluters—all of them American and European companies—and just how thoroughly inadequate their sustainability efforts have proved. “I think in the time since we founded Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2009, there have been three different sustainability directors for Coca-Cola that I’ve met. These companies often, when I’ve spoken with their sustainability directors, say, ‘Oh, we’re working on a bunch of great stuff, it’s going to be fantastic.’ And I say, ‘I can’t wait to see.’ … [We really need to] hold these corporations responsible for all of the packaging that they use for their products.”

Ultimately, Cohen urges consumers and manufacturers alike to re-evaluate their use of plastics. If we refuse to evolve, to change the way we interact with these materials, she warns, we’re likely threatening the health of our children and future generations.

“If you look at the whole chain, it impacts us negatively—our health, human health, animal health, the planet, the entire chain,” she observes. “So really, I think while plastic is a useful and valuable material, when we use it and design things with it with intended obsolescence, to be used for a short amount of time, we are using a valuable material in an irresponsible way.”

Listen to Cohen’s interview with Scheer or read a transcript of their conversation below:

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to add the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Dianna Cohen, who is the leader, or cofounder, of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. And a really worthy operation, really important to saving the planet. But I have to start with a sort of sick joke: when I think about plastics I think about Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, right, and this uncle or somebody comes up to him as he’s graduated and gives him the key word for life: plastics. And you know, at that time, back in the sixties, I guess as late as the sixties, the whole assumption was that plastics would liberate us; they were great, they were cheap, you could be everywhere, you could make cars out of them, you could–you know, everything. And throw ‘em away, and life was going to be great. So plastics really were identified with the good life and modernization and so forth. And you are one of those people who have spoiled the party. And there are some headlines about that that you can give us; just, you can’t, I mean you can’t get a straw unless you ask for it, right? You’re the one that’s been doing all this, and you’ve been doing it for a long time. And again, I don’t want to make light of it, because you head a great group, and it saves fish and birds and you know, everybody else, and you’ll tell us that. And it’s a great menace to the world. So give us the headlines on this evolving story.

Dianna Cohen: Well, I mean, I think it’s important just to state that plastic pollution is a global crisis. And it’s not a crisis that–in a sense it’s in your face, in a sense it’s not. When we hear about something, like when we had the BP oil disaster, that was a physical thing that you could see oil spilling out. And plastic is a little more nefarious than that, because we are using it all over the world every day–

RS: Well, plastic is oil, right?

DC: Plastic is oil. It’s made from processing oil products–oil products, and then you add plasticizing chemicals to it. And what we’ve been learning over the last 30, 40 years is that these chemicals, which are added to the plastic, create polymer chains that don’t break down in the environment. And they also leach bits of those chemicals into our food and beverages that have been linked to human health issues for us, and impact the marine life, are ingested by sea life and wildlife. It comes back to us in so many ways. Plastic is the gift that keeps giving.

RS: And it’s worse than oil.

DC: I don’t know that it’s worse than oil, but it’s part of the petrochemical world that we live in.

RS: And so let’s cut to the serious part, really, the damage part. This is the major polluter of oceans, most of the waste, and–

DC: It is one of the major polluters of oceans; it is not the sole polluter of the ocean. But because of particular qualities that plastic has, it either floats or it sinks to the bottom, or it begins to get algae and things growing on it, which attract sea life and wildlife to it–they smell it, and they believe it’s edible, and so they eat it or they’re attracted to the colors of it. Pelagic seabirds, like Laysan albatross and other seabirds, also collect plastic bits and pieces thinking that it’s food or krill, or things that they normally would collect and feed to their babies. And then they bring it back to the nest and they regurgitate it, they feed it to the babies, and these babies die with their stomachs full of plastic. Or they live severely impacted, shortened lives because their stomachs are full of plastic. And it’s interesting, because when I first saw these photographic images that had been taken by Susan Middleton and Chris Jordan of dead adolescent Laysan albatross, from Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean–when I first saw those photographs, you know, it hit me really hard. And not just cerebrally, it’s not a thought that you have; it really hits you, you know, in your heart, in your stomach; it hits you in your gut. And you look at that image, and you think: my God, are my daily choices, and the choices that corporations and companies around us use for packaging for our food and beverages, killing–unwittingly killing animals all over the world? And how am I, how am I playing a part in this? And so when I saw that, for me, those birds in particular, and those images which are very powerful, became a metaphor for what we’re doing to ourselves. We’re stuffing ourselves full of plastic, and the chemicals that leach from plastic, and we’re doing it to our children, and most people are still not yet aware that this is even happening.

RS: Well, let’s spell that out. How does that work?

DC: Well, so, the chemicals that are used to make plastic–you take a carbon source when you make plastic; 98% of plastics are made from petroleum, but you can also use plant-based carbon sources to make plastic, like sugar cane or corn or potato or hemp or bulrush, different fibrous carbon sources. And–

RS: Are they marketed as good plastic, or–?

DC: Um, they’re marketed as bioplastics. So, yeah, there are people who would consider that better; that’s an incremental thing. You know, if you’re trying to move away from and divest from being dependent on fossil fuels and petroleum, then yes, incrementally, perhaps, some of these are better. But the problem really comes to the chemicals that are added, that are the plasticizing chemicals, that give those carbon sources–that give them the qualities that we identify as plastic; make it supple, malleable, transparent, translucent, rigid, et cetera. And those groups of chemicals are called bisphenols. So you might have heard, oh, this is made with bisphenol A, or this is OK because it’s BPA-free. And it may be made with BPB or BPC or BPS or BPZ–another bisphenol. And then phthalates–phthalates are added to a lot of things, from what I understand, to make the plastic mushy–kind of soft and rubbery, like a rubber ducky or something like that, that’s not actually made from rubber from a rubber tree, but made from heavily phthalated plastic. So these two groups of chemicals have now been studied for some time, and BPA has probably been studied the most so far. And BPA leaches micro amounts into the food and beverage that are packaged in containers or bottles or packaging that are made with these materials. And bisphenol A, in studies, has been linked to lower sexual function, sterility and infertility. GQ just did a piece called “Sperm Count Zero,” about new research that’s come out about the impact to human sperm. It’s also been linked to obesity and diabetes, as well as breast cancer, prostate cancer, and brain cancer. And then babies exposed to these chemicals in utero, BPA, it’s been linked to shortened anogenital distance, smaller penis size, feminization of boys–so boys getting breasts, early menses in girls–girls getting their period much younger than they normally would, among other things.

RS: OK, so plastic is bad stuff, we don’t have to debate that, right.

DC: Well, I mean, I think plastic is an incredibly useful material, but when we use it to package all of our food and beverage and beauty products in it, we’re probably not using it in the wisest way for our health.

RS: So, OK, people get the message. And you’ve had some victories lately, right? Give me the headlines on the victories here in California, the governor signed legislation?

DC: Yeah, well, I mean, so we’ve had victories. So when you say we’ve had victories–I mean, I’m a cofounder of and I’m the CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition; we’re a global coalition, but we work with other coalitions as well. And we work with a global movement as well, a hashtag global movement called #BreakFreeFromPlastic, the Clean Seas Coalition, and other coalitions. So really, united together, we have had some great wins internationally and nationally and state-wise. And in California just in the last month or so, we had some legislation that passed the assembly, and then Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two bills that are related to reducing microfibers and microplastics, and a bill which has to do with reducing plastic food packaging. And then, I think one of the most interesting ones that we all worked hard to help get the word out about, is a bill that would make straws only available upon request. So this is not taking straws away from anybody; this is straws only upon request. Which immediately does two things: one, it creates less waste; and prior to that, it saves eateries and restaurants and cafes and bars money. Because they don’t need to order as many, because they’re not giving out as many; they’re not automatically putting them in your drink. And I think California was really the natural place to have a piece of legislation like that, that was brought by Ian Calderon. I think California is a natural place to do that, because for many years now, we’ve had water upon request, because we live in a drought-riddled state. And so in the same way, you know, you can have straws upon request. What that also allows businesses to do is make the switch to paper straws, which actually will break down in the environment, or can go in a compost and break down, unlike plastic straws. And unlike bioplastic, or compostable straws, which only will be composted if they go into a system that can heat them up and break them down.

RS: So let me just get this straight. We can go a long way to helping this if we use a paper straw, which, ah–

DC: Well, I mean, if you like straws, you can do what I do, which is I carry reusable straws with me.

RS: But I really want to get the scope of this. And you said there are a few other headlines that–I don’t know, for me, this became vivid in your movie that you helped get out there, where I saw a straw in the eye of a green sea turtle.

DC: It was in its nostril.

RS: Nostril, right, sorry. That did it. That image has stuck with me, and I really, I don’t think I’ve used a plastic straw since. I’ve obviously encountered plastic before. But I really want to get some of the numbers. And it seems to me the big issue here, and a big concern around the world, is people say to us, hey, you Americans started all this. You’re the great wasters, you’re the great–you know, you gave us all this junk, you told us it was a great revolution, it represented freedom. And now you suddenly decided that all of us have got to cut back. And I want to take the example of China, because that has been in the news a little bit. I mean, OK, people describe China as a great polluter–well, China’s got a great population, right? And are we now saying to China, to India, we had our ride with waste and with plastic and other things that pollute the environment, and now we’re going to try to cut back, but you guys have really got to cut back. And I want to ask you about a specific item of news, that for a while there–and I’ve learned it from you–we were shipping our recyclable plastic back to China, on empty cargo ships that were bringing us all our iPhones and everything else. And now, China doesn’t want those recyclable–

DC: They’re producing enough of their own.

RS: They’re producing enough of their own. And so, the price paid for this is being cut in half, I gather, something like that. And therefore, the recyclers are not as interested in grabbing plastic to recycle, is that the case?

DC: Well, I mean, look. Recycling is a really cool idea, and I don’t–I put things in my recycling containers, where I live in Hollywood. And I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing that, if there is some kind of infrastructure set up in your town where you live. But just because something could potentially be recycled–does it actually get recycled? I think that’s an important question to ask.

RS: So we want abstinence.

DC: Well, it’s not good for your health, so if you reduce or–if you refuse it in the beginning, then you reduce the amount that you’re using, and you have less that you need to try to recycle or reuse.

RS: And that’s the idea behind a metal straw, for instance, you can–

DC: A metal straw, a glass straw. I mean, there are also wonderful companies doing bamboo straws, growing straw out of rye wheat and hay. There’s a straw company called LOLIWARE that is making straws out of seaweed, and they’re nontoxic and they are, you know, 100% compostable, break down, because it’s part of nature.

RS: OK, so give me the numbers. What percentage of this stuff ends up killing the planet and killing animals?

DC: Well, so, just this last week, Plastic Pollution Coalition released a new projection by chemical engineer Jan Dell, and in that she was looking at what’s going on with recycling rates, and has predicted that recycling rates for plastic in the United States will be only 4.4% by the end of 2018. And that they potentially could sink as low as 2.9% in 2019. And that the four main reasons for this drop is that plastic waste generation is increasing exponentially in the United States; that exports counted as recycling; when China banned foreign waste, we suddenly have to deal with our own waste, basically, now. And then also, the costs of recycling are increasing, and you have to think about how many trucks are needed to create it, how widely it’s dispersed, et cetera. And that’s a big expense. And then plastic production–internationally, but internally in the United States–is really ramping up right now, and it’s going to continue to explode. So we have a very big problem on our hands. It reminds me of that movie Wall-E, or Idiocracy, where people live in a world that’s just full of waste, it’s just a wasteland, like a garbage dump.

RS: Well, we’re going to try to get some optimism in this, but first the break. [omission for station break] We’re back with Dianna Cohen, the cofounder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. And you know, I have a kind of schizzy feeling about this, because I keep making light of it. After all, it is plastic; plastic was designed to be light and beautiful and efficient and everything else–

DC: It is!

RS: –and everything else. But I watched this documentary [Living in the Future’s Past], which I’m promoting here–Jeff Bridges, as you pointed out, that your group had a lot to do with–

DC: Well, and also the STRAWS documentary.

RS: I suddenly realized, this is not kidding around. This is really serious stuff. And now I’ve even been sobered up to the point where recycling doesn’t cut it. And I know you don’t want to be pushed quite that far, but you know, as a reformed alcoholic here, I believe in abstinence. And if something’s a poison for you, as I feel alcohol is for me–I’m not proselytizing for anybody else–then I have to abstain, which I’ve done most of my adult life, OK. And I feel the same way about plastic. You know, I’m hooked on plastic; it’s been there, as I say, it’s been this wonderful, shiny, supple, easy, cheaper thing that has informed my entire life. And yet, recycling it doesn’t really cut it; nobody wants our junk, the price drops, the money’s not in it. And abstinence, finding alternatives to plastic, is really your message here. Because we’re kidding ourselves, in a way, with the recycling. And the alternative, really, is to understand that this shiny object is the death of us.

DC: Well, I don’t want to talk about death. It’s inevitable. But–but, let’s talk about another cool thing that just came out in the last week: an announcement from all of this data from a new brand audit that was created by #BreakFreeFromPlastic. And what did they find? Three main companies were identified in 239 cleanups and brand audits, which were actually created across 42 different countries on six different continents, and what did they find? They found that Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co, and Nestle are the worst corporate polluters.

RS: So, ah, let me understand what this means, though. What is the quick fix for these three companies? Let’s say a lot of pressure is brought on them, and so forth; what do they do? Do they go back to glass and recycle? What do they do?

DC: Ah, well–

RS: Tin cans? I don’t know.

DC: I mean, if they wanted a person like me to buy any of their products, I only would buy their products if they were packaged in glass. But you know, it’s interesting, because when I look at photographs of the supermarket here in California in the seventies, all of the beverages were in glass. And there was really a switchover that was made in the eighties.

RS: OK, let’s say in the interest of equal free time, we have a representative here from Pepsi-Co. And what they said was they were Pepsi, being free, you know, the Pepsi generation. They were selling a lifestyle. So were Coca-Cola, also; a little stuffier, Coca-Cola. And that lifestyle was really expanded dramatically by the use of plastic. Plastic and soft drinks, that’s really a critical connection. So you’ve got one of those enlightened capitalists at Pepsi-Co right now in front of you.

DC: Well, I mean, all of these companies have sustainability directors. I think in the time since we founded Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2009, there have been three different sustainability directors for Coca-Cola that I’ve met. These companies often, when I’ve spoken with their sustainability directors, say–oh, we’re working on a bunch of great stuff, it’s going to be fantastic. And I say, I can’t wait to see–I had a dream the other night that you just connected the cap on your plastic bottle, you know, and then took 100% of them back. So we really need to see extended producer responsibility that holds these corporations responsible for all of the packaging that they use for their products.

RS: OK. Well, let me cut to the chase here, because I learned something just in the course of this podcast, that recycling is not the answer. And I had hints of it before, but I deluded myself that if I–you know, when I leave here, I’ll probably go get a soft drink somewhere. And I would grab that plastic bottle, and then I would console myself that I’m doing it at a place that has a recycling bin, you know, bins, and I would throw it in there–OK! I did my good deed for the day. But you’re basically telling me that’s not cutting it.

DC: Well, I’m not–like I said, I’m not dissuading people from putting things into the recycling, but I’m talking about the real–what is the reality of recycling? So recycling is a really nice idea, but it’s somewhat of a myth. Because if you live in a town or a place that has no infrastructure to take back the materials and downcycle them or do something with them, a lot of places in the world, many countries, say that they’re turning it from waste into energy, but those are different forms of burning and incineration, or pyrolysis, and much of that creates particulate pollution, which is toxic in the air for all of us. So, is that really the solution? No, I think the solution is source reduction. So if you work for one of these big companies, and you’re listening to this show right now, you need to turn around and think about how you’re going to shift the whole system within your company. It has to happen.

RS: All right, but I want to push this, because I think it’s an important point. First of all, the problem with recycling is a lot of people are not going to do it, OK. And so therefore, it doesn’t get–

DC: Well, not that a lot of people aren’t going to do it; people can do it, but if there’s no structure in place to support it, it doesn’t matter.

RS: But I’ve actually run into a few people who are in this industry of recycling. And the question there is, who wants this stuff? There’s a limit to landfill for different kinds of recycling. And you came up with an interesting point before, that China doesn’t want our recyclable plastic, right?

DC: Right.

RS: They’ve got a superabundance of recyclable plastic of their own, right?

DC: Mm-hmm.

RS: This myth of recycling–yes, in the short run it’s a good thing to do; yes, it’s better than not doing anything else. But we’ve invested very heavily in recycling as the answer. The answer.

DC: We haven’t invested heavily in it; corporate–

RS: Emotionally.

DC: No. Corporations, that is their messaging, that is their ad, that’s their marketing, is that this is recycled. That is the messaging, that’s their go-to. And it’s false. Our first campaign, from the moment that we created Plastic Pollution Coalition, was to ask people to refuse single-use plastic. Whenever possible, refuse it. Don’t buy your food packaged in it, because it’s not good for your health. It’s not good for the planet, it’s not good for your health, it’s not good for animals, it’s not good for the ocean, waterways, lakes, the environment in general.

RS: I want to be clear, because you know, I’ve tried to make this accessible, and maybe I’ve made it a little lighter than it should be. But we’re talking about the major, or one of the major, environmental problems in terms of the planet, right?

DC: Yes.

RS: So let’s now get true religion, here.

DC: OK.

RS: What are we talking about, if we don’t act on this in a better way than we’ve been doing up to now? We’re not winning this battle.

DC: If we don’t continue to evolve in the way that we act upon it, and actually change and shift the system and the way that we interact with this material, it will continue to ill-impact our health, the health of our children, and future generations who are not born yet. And we will be living in a giant garbage dump.

RS: OK. Now, to play devil’s advocate here, finally, I saw something where there’s a cleanup campaign involving booms on the ocean, and–

DC: Mm-hmm. It’s called The Ocean Cleanup.

RS: Yeah. And–

DC: They’re part of our coalition.

RS: OK. And it made me feel suddenly good about everything.

DC: Why?

RS: I don’t know, maybe I’m a sucker for good news, but it looked like you’re able to put–what are they, describe the whole process of–

DC: They’re giant booms of plastic that have been carried out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and they–

RS: Which is where?

DC: That is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, spread out over approximately 2,000 square miles, but it shifts depending on whether we’re having an El Niño or La Niña year; somewhere between Hawaii and California, that is where the Northeastern Pacific Gyre is located. And they have pulled them out there, and they are going to be passively cleaning up, I believe, the top three feet or something of the ocean. But the plastic that’s in the ocean is spread out over that 2,000-square-mile area; it’s in the water column, and the entire water strata, and it’s on the ocean floor. It will not be cleaning those parts up.

RS: So it’s a good thing to do, but again, it just really tells you how big the problem is.

DC: It may contribute to some of gathering a little bit of it. But I mean, in my personal opinion, that’s really, that’s the end of the whole chain. I think we need to look back and think, plastic appears to be an inexpensive material; but what is the true impact in our dependence on plastic? From war and extraction, through manufacturing and production, through delivery packaging, et cetera–and then instantly a waste issue, waste management, incineration, particulate pollution. If you look at the whole chain, it impacts us negatively–our health, human health, animal health, the planet, the entire chain. So really, I think while plastic is a useful and valuable material, when we use it and design things with it with intended obsolescence, to be used for a short amount of time, we are using a valuable material in an irresponsible way.

RS: And the “we,” this is something we, we–we Americans have led the world appetite in the use of plastic. We pioneered–

DC: I think we’ve definitely contributed to it; it appears that though there seem to be points where there’s a lot of plastic pollution being generated in Asia and Southeast Asia, when you look at the brand audit data, which is coming out of cleanups in Manila and different places in Southeast Asia, what you find is that the top corporate polluters are European and American corporations.

RS: Right. And my point is, this is what the multinational economy is about. It was like, you know, selling sugar water to the natives; that’s what Pepsi and Coca-Cola claimed they were doing. They had a clean water supply, we put it in a bottle, we sell it–oh, we can put it in a plastic bottle, it makes it easier to ship, and so forth. And environment be damned, in the long run. But I just want to be very clear about this. It’s a serious problem, and if we think in terms of where we get our consciousness from, that scene in The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, he should have, when that uncle or whatever came up and said “plastic,” he should have–in the manner of the Berkeley sixties, right, that he was supposed to be evoking and so forth–he should have said, go to hell with your plastic, you’re destroying life on the planet.

DC: But I don’t think that people knew that at the time that that film was made.

RS: Exactly, exactly, so–

DC: Yeah, that’s what makes that scene even more deeply ironic now.

RS: Right, right. The revolution was betrayed, the revolution was supposed to be facilitated by plastic, and plastic ends up, right, poking out–what did you say, not the eye but the–

DC: The nostril. Got stuck in the nostril.

RS: –the nostril of turtles–

DC: Well, and that turtle really became a poster child in a wonderful way. You know, and there are tremendous other successes that are going on right now, like big corporations, big companies, have made a commitment and announced that they’re going to stop serving plastic straws. And that includes Starbucks, IKEA, Marriott, Walt Disney World, and some cruise line ships as well, which is pretty exciting, I think. And–well, and plastic straws are also just the tip of the iceberg. It’s an entryway into understanding.

RS: And it starts the discussion. And I’ve been having a discussion with Dianna Cohen, who is the cofounder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which is doing great work in educating us. How do people learn more about this? What’s your website?

DC: Well, you can go to PlasticPollutionCoalition.org, or you can follow us on Facebook; we’re PlasticPollutionCoalition. On Instagram we’re @PlasticPollutes; and we’re also on Twitter, @PlasticPollutes.

RS: And you’re a worldwide coalition, with lots–

DC: We’re a global coalition, yeah. We’re over 750 different organizations and businesses around the world. We’re from 60 different countries. Small groups and large groups, all working to stop plastic pollution, and towards a world that is plastic-free.

RS: And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Our engineers here at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And we’ll see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

 

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

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