“People don’t often link plastic pollution right to climate change,” said Lauren Moore of UPSTREAM, an organization that advocates for a circular economy. But she emphasized that plastic products do not materialize effortlessly, just as they do not disappear when thrown away.
“Plastic creates pollution right from when it’s made, and then continues to create pollution,” Moore said. “It never goes away.”
Moore used the 120 billion disposable coffee cups Americans discard annually as an example, citing the Clean Water Action's Rethink Disposable program. She explained that alongside the 2.2 billion pounds of waste created by the coffee cups, and the strain on finite resources such as fresh water and trees, this throwaway habit also results in 4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions every year.
The throwaway culture that has developed over the last half-century costs the environment as well as the economy: People discard first-use plastic packaging worth the equivalent of $80 billion to $120 billion annually, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Furthermore, environmental damages caused by plastic pollution, along with the greenhouse gases emitted by plastic production, cost at least $40 billion annually, according to the report.
So how do we counteract all this waste? The report offered the circular economy as the solution to plastic waste in all sectors. The circular economy’s mission is to move society away from its current reliance on disposability and unsustainable resources by redesigning products and systems in order to minimize waste and pollution.
“If we turn off the tap of plastic production, use, and waste management, we’re only left with real materials — reusables that can be used an infinite amounts of times,” Moore said.
Moore explained that addressing the production, distribution, and widespread use of plastic is crucial in order to make a long-term impact on both plastic pollution and climate change.
While recovery measures such as cleanups and recycling are important, they are “band-aid solutions” that don’t address the root of the problem, Moore said. “You can’t get all (of the plastic) out if it keeps coming in.”
“Only 9% of plastic ever created has been recycled,” Moore said. “We are overflowing with plastic. Recycling is not enough.”
Mike Schoniger, a business owner who oversees the loading and unloading of shipping containers in the Port of Los Angeles, witnessed the limits of recycling firsthand, explaining that the “sheer volume” of recyclables is the issue. He said that because the United States lacks recycling centers, and China has refused to continue receiving and processing recyclables from the West, materials are now stacking up in shipping containers with nowhere to go.
“I’ve seen trash trucks picking (the recyclables) back up and taking them to (a) landfill,” Schoniger said.
To mitigate the recycling backlog, the U.S. has started exporting recyclables to India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the New York Times reports. Schoniger warned that these nations do not have the infrastructure to deal with the influx of materials, and worried that it will result in illegal dumping.
“I don’t think their environment can tolerate it,” he said of the countries chosen to bear the burden of America’s waste.
“We all just think as far as the curb. We as consumers look away from our problems,” Schoniger said.
Moore said she knows that when it comes to plastic waste, out of sight should not mean out of mind, and that she fears the trash our species has accumulated so far “will become a layer in the earth, and (a) mark in history of when we didn’t know better.”
At UPSTREAM, Moore works to stop issues like the recycling overload through measures that “stop trash at its source.” UPSTREAM works with venues, corporations, communities, and individuals to institute the circular economy on three levels: throwaway free places, throwaway free communities, and throwaway free living.
Moore’s awareness of the far-reaching impacts of manmade trash began with her upbringing in Staten Island, New York, where, “you can’t walk on the beach without shoes because there’s so much trash,” she said.
Now, at UPSTREAM, she co-leads the United States’ branch of a #BreakFreeFromPlastic working group, recruiting new partners and orchestrating the vast web of organizations connected to solving the plastic crisis.
Moore said the organizations she collaborates with “range from people working on the frontlines fighting oil production to people working (on the issue of) microplastics.”
Moore explained that this multifaceted approach is crucial because every problem plastics cause is interconnected. She emphasized the importance of “collaborating to amplify each other’s stories.”
“We are all fighting the same fight. Stopping a pipeline in Louisiana is going to stop plastic waste in the Philippines,” she said.
A recent victory that UPSTREAM collaborated on was the development of a Disposable-Free Dining Ordinance that will make Berkeley, California, a leader in establishing throwaway free communities. The ordinance requires all takeout containers to be compostable and all dine-in dishes and cutlery to be reusable, while also adding a quarter surcharge to every disposable coffee cup to incentivize people to bring their own cups.
Moore said she hopes to develop a widespread “culture change” that will shift people’s relationships with the items they use.
“I believe humans are incredibly adaptable. If all single-use plastics were banned, humans would adapt in a week and it would become the new normal,” Moore said.
Moore is raising her five-year-old daughter to embrace a waste-free future. She and her daughter buy groceries in bulk, use cloth napkins, and make their own toothpaste in mason jars.
“Being throwaway-free is completely normal to her,” Moore said of her daughter.
When asked what her biggest hope is for the world her daughter will be inheriting, Moore answered immediately.
“I would love if she could walk on the beach and not see plastic.”