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.