Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

One Word. Plastics.

When young Dustin Hoffman got this graduate party advice in 1967, everyone who saw the movie that launched his career still drank water from a glass that we washed so others could use it too.

More than a half-century later, I noticed little strips of sky-blue litter in the grass while mowing my yard. Stupidly, I mowed over them, instantly creating more, smaller bits. Many, many more. I was seeing a global problem I teach about all the time, in the making, in my yard.

Picking bits of one-time plastic bag — that blew right out of my hand — I wanted to pick into this issue, to better teach and motivate myself and you. That blue plastic trail led me back a bit in time…

Beer had started its move from glass bottles to aluminum cans, in Hawaii (!!) in ‘58; Colorado’s Coors and Milwaukee’s famous Schlitz brands switched to cans over the next couple of years. Always keen to refresh their appeal, Coke and Pepsi both brought out soda in cans in ’67.

While bottlers grappled that year with cans, Nathanial C. Wyeth — an inventor, mechanical engineer, and a son and brother from the celebrated Wyeth artist clan — commenced research for chemistry giant DuPont that resulted by 1973 in a patent for bottles made from PET, polyethylene terephthalate. This petroleum resin could contain the carbonating gases that give soda its fizz without exploding or leaching chemicals into the beverage.

Starting with the two-liter bottle (the first Super-Size?) PET was blow-moldable into shapes that would come to distinguish specific brands like the Fiji Water square, and the stretched clear bullet of Evian. The name of that celebrity hydration fave spells out how Marketing cons us to shell out bucks for H20 with no more legally required filtration or testing than pennies-on-the-gallon tap: it’s naïve spelled backwards.

The first commercially distributed water in America was bottled from a mineral spring and sold by Jackson’s Spa in Boston in 1767. In 1977, the popular European brand Perrier launched a successful bottled water U.S. ad campaign. Surprisingly, Pepsi and Coke, ever jockeying for a market lead, did not field bottled water lines until ‘94 and ’99, respectively. In 2007, Pepsi was forced to admit that their Aquafina brand was nothing more than tap water, but that headline did not drain the juice from the Bottled is Better marketing myth.

In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. developed the number in the recycling triangle code to alert recyclers — us and the industry that handles our stuff — to which type of plastic was which. #1 among the resins was PET, the most versatile, most recycled and recyclable plastic on Earth. Not, however, the most voluminously recovered.

The bottling (and global buying) goes on, but a 2018 report of 2015 data from U.S. EPA showed that only 9% of plastics get recycled, about 15% are incinerated, and the rest go into landfills (at best) or become litter that is ocean-bound.

Leading makers of glass bottles and cans, Owens of Illinois and Continental Can Company, once tinkered with making plastic caps. When PET came into play, they jumped on plastic bottle manufacturing, getting bleach and detergent producers to switch into plastic. These products are typically packaged in high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the resin coded #2, used when there are no bubbling gases that would call for PET.

Makers of stuff like shampoo, tomato sauce and peanut butter have abandoned heavier glass for cheaper-to-make-and-ship plastic too. Even LED light bulbs are now available as plastic tubes, although they can sag over time. And otherwise Green-minded local brewers are shrink-wrapping plastic labels on aluminum cans, which renders the cans non-recyclable! The plot thickens.

HDPE and its low-density cousin LDPE, aka #4, can also be fabricated into film, the ideal stuff for making plastic bags. Sheets of polyethylene become grocery bags, dry cleaner bags, ice bags, produce bags, bread bags, online-shipping bags, bubble wrap, shrink wrap, and the poufy pillows stuffed in Amazon boxes. These plastics, when recycled at a grocery or big-box store, can become new products, efficiently and soon, although current markets leave unused about 50% of the film plastics we make the effort to recycle.

When they’re not recycled, like our bottles that get litter-bugged, films can travel on breezes, down our gutters into streams, and out into the oceans that sustain all living systems of Earth.

There, they break into smaller and smaller bits, now called microplastics by the scientists and engineers studying their impacts on all living species, which includes us.

I experienced this breakdown mowing my yard. A blue bag, deteriorating naturally, was further chopped and degraded by me. Will I still be picking blue bits from the grass when it snows?

We haven’t had this stuff that long. We once did fine without it. Today, it’s darn hard to avoid buying and using items delivered in plastic. Recycling is an imperfect solution – especially as the recycling industry struggles to evolve beyond current international and domestic market pressures – but we do need recycling and it’s worth learning and changing our habits to recycle correctly.

Truly, we need many solutions, put into practice everywhere.

Through July, Eco Challenge, an initiative from the Northwest Earth Institute, is promoting ways to escape the grip of everyday plastics. Like climate change, this is a big, global issue. We need policy and economic leadership to turn the plastic pollution tide.
And our individual efforts, picking away.

Learn more and join the Plastic Free Campaign at www.EcoChallenge.org. Pick up some encouragement from Jean Ponzi’s Earthworms interviews, podcasting from KDHX, St. Louis Independent Media at www.kdhx.org.