California’s plastic problem

In the last post, I made a suggestion to set up your kitchen so that the main waste receptacle is a compost bin. The idea is to set a limit on how much trash you send to landfill by putting compost front-and-center and creating a much smaller bin or bag for landfill waste. I set that up years ago but I was spurred to writing about it last week after seeing a news special by Monica Lam on KQED (Bay Area public television) – California’s Plastic Problem.

California’s plastic problem

Here’s the video, below which I’ll list a few key points from it:

  • If plastics were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, globally.
  • Every minute, more than 1 million plastic bags are used around the world, and most bags are used for only 15 minutes.
  • 10 million tons of discarded plastic end up in the ocean every year – that’s about one garbage truckload, every minute.
  • There are over 2400 chemicals frequently added to plastics that are potentially dangerous – for example, bisphenols, phthalates, and flame retardants. Endocrine disruptors, known toxins and some that cause intellectual disabilities.
  • Microplastics have been found in almost every sample examined – from Mt. Everest to the Mariana Trench. – Dr. Scott Coffin
  • One study found microplastics in 4 out of 6 placentas, examined. They were present on both the mother’s and the embryo’s side, indicating that microplastics are ingested by the mother and passed to her baby.
  • Of the estimated 9 billion tons of plastic that has been produced in the last 150 years, only around 9% has been recycled.
  • The amount of plastic manufactured in the US alone, generates an estimated 100 million tons of CO2 emissions. That’s the same as running fifty coal-powered power plants (500 MW)
  • In California, more than 12,000 tons of plastic end up in landfill every day. That’s about 2 kg of plastic per person each week (111 kg / year) – and that’s specifically just the plastic that ends up in landfill.

What to do about California’s plastic problem?

The news special featured a group of kids who generated almost no classroom waste for the entire year. After the students spoke to the Berkeley City Council, a law was passed that required restaurants in Berkeley to provide reusable utensils for dining in-house and compostable utensils for take-out.

A realistic guide to recycling: California’s plastic problem. Students talk to Berkeley City Council about disposables and waste. From the news special, California's Plastic Problem.
“If it is possible for a class of third graders to get all of their trash for this school year into this can, then I think it is possible for the adults of Berkeley to reduce their waste.”

Most of your waste should go to compost

I dealt with that in the last post, the best way to reduce your waste, so I won’t repeat it here. But I do want to summarize the main reasons why most (75% or more) of your waste should be going to compost:

  1. A lifestyle that’s in tune with the planet generates mostly compostable waste, i.e., mostly fresh fruit and veg.
  2. Sending organic waste to landfill is problematic as it generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas
  3. Recycling is a solution only for certain items – stop with the wish-cycling!

6 thoughts on “California’s plastic problem

  1. California’s plastic problem is the world’s plastic problem. I’m hoping that someday mushroom packaging replaces plastic packaging. Then we can compost the packaging when we’re done using it, James!


  2. I’ll never forget the astonishingly short-sighted, entitled selfishness I observed about five years ago, when a TV news reporter randomly asked a young urbanite wearing sunglasses what he thought of government restrictions on disposable plastic straws. “It’s like we’re living in a nanny state,” he retorted with a snort, “always telling me what I can’t do.”

    Astonished by his shortsighted little-boy selfishness, I wondered whether he’d be the same sort of individual who’d likely have a sufficiently grand sense of entitlement—i.e. “Like, don’t tell me what I can’t waste or do, dude!”—to permit himself to now, say, deliberately dump a whole box of unused straws into the Georgia Strait, just to stick it to the authorities who’d dare tell him that enough is enough with our gratuitous massive dumps of plastics into our oceans (which are of course unable to defend themselves against such guys seemingly asserting self-granted sovereignty over the natural environment), so he could figuratively middle-finger any new government rules with a closing, ‘There! How d’ya like that, pal!”

    His carelessly entitled mentality revealed why so much gratuitous animal-life-destroying plastic waste eventually finds its way into the natural environment, where there are few, if any, caring souls to immediately see it.

    As individual consumers, too many of us still recklessly behave as though throwing non-biodegradable garbage down a dark chute, or pollutants flushed down toilet/sink drainage pipes or emitted out of elevated exhaust pipes or spewed from sky-high jet engines and very tall smoke stacks — even the largest toxic-contaminant spills in rarely visited wilderness — can somehow be safely absorbed into the air, water, and land (i.e. out of sight, out of mind).

    It’s like we’re inconsequentially dispensing of that waste into a black-hole singularity, in which it’s compressed into nothing. Indeed, I, myself, notice every time I discard of trash, I receive a reactive Spring-cleaning-like sense of disposal satisfaction. Heck, I even feel it, albeit far more innocently, when deleting and especially double-deleting email.


    1. It’s sad but true – individual “liberty” is used as an excuse for all kinds of bad behavior, these days.
      Same thing with mask-wearing – If our next pandemic (which will come) has a higher mortality rate then it will be an interesting test of people’s values.


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