Earth Overshoot Day, Overconsumption, and Planetary Boundaries

Earth Overshoot Day, Overconsumption, and Planetary Boundaries

2023 Earth Overshoot Day – 2 August

Editor’s note:  The problem is not climate disruption.  The problem is overconsumption that is overpowering nature’s systems, the consequence of which is climate disruption – and even more significantly – biodiversity loss and extinctions of our very life-support systems.

This year, Earth Overshoot Day lands on August 2.  Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.  If a population’s demand for ecological assets exceeds the supply, that region runs an ecological deficit, liquidating its own ecological assets (such as overfishing), and/or emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand of resources for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year.  Both measures are expressed in global hectares.  It is calculated by Global Footprint Network, an international research organization, to help the human economy operate within Earth’s ecological limits.”  More at – About Earth Overshoot Day, and Earth Overshoot Day.


Earth’s life support has 9 boundaries: climate is but one

“All life on Earth, and human civilization, is sustained by vital biogeochemical systems, which are in delicate balance.  However, rapid population growth and explosive consumption is destabilizing these Earth processes, endangering the stability of the safe operating space for humanity.  Scientists note nine planetary boundaries beyond which we can’t push Earth Systems without putting our societies at risk: climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol pollution, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, land-system change, and release of novel chemicals.  Humanity is already existing outside the safe operating space for at least four of the nine boundaries: climate change, biodiversity, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows.  Unfortunately for us, climate change represents just one of nine critical planetary boundaries which our imprudent actions risk overshooting.”  More at – The nine boundaries humanity must respect to keep the planet habitable | Mongabay.

Human made stuff now outweighs all of Earth’s biomass
“In a startling sign of the impact that humans are having on our planet, a study published in the journal Nature estimated that 2020 marks the point when human-made materials outweigh the total mass of Earth’s living biomass.  Materials such as concrete, steel and asphalt have increased rapidly since 1900, when they made up the equivalent of just 3% of the mass of living biomass — plants, animals, and microorganisms.  The mass of human-produced materials has grown from less than 0.1 teratonnes to roughly 1 teratonne (1 trillion tonnes),
doubling every 20 years for the last century.  Today, according to the study, all the living plants on Earth weigh roughly 1 teratonne, half of what they did when the agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago.  Plants account for 90% of the Earth’s living biomass, per the study.

“If current trends continue, human-produced materials will weigh triple the total mass of living biomass by 2040, according to the study.  W
e’re using up primary resources at such an unsustainable pace that we may be ‘irreversibly’ depleting some of them ― and subverting our life support systems in the process.  These findings are further evidence that we are living through a new geological era in which human activity is the dominant force shaping Earth’s climate and environment, which scientists have dubbed the Anthropocene.

“According to a United Nations report, in 1970, about 22 billion tons of primary materials were extracted from the Earth, ballooning to 70 billion tons by 2010.  At that rate we’ll need 180 billion tons of extracted materials annually to meet demand by 2050.  Dire environmental consequences include: higher levels of acidification and eutrophication of soils and water bodies, increased biodiversity loss, more soil erosion, and increasing amounts of waste and pollution (especially climate emissions).”  More at – As of 2020, Human-Made Materials Outweigh Living Things | Time, and Our Consumption Of Earth’s Natural Resources Has More Than Tripled In 40 Years | HuffPost.

Overconsumption = resource extraction = ecosystem collapse
The global economic system is a Ponzi scheme, an utterly unsustainable system that effectively takes wealth from our children and future generations  —  wealth in the form of ground water, arable land, fisheries, a livable climate  —  to prop up our carbon-intensive lifestyles.  We cannot stop catastrophic climate change without a pretty dramatic change to our overconsumption-based economic system.  We have already overshot the Earth’s biocapacity  —  and the overshoot gets worse every year.  ‘A quarter of the energy we use is just in our crap’, physicist Saul Griffith explains.  The end to hyper-consumerism is not something amenable to legislation.  It is most likely to come when we are desperate  —  when the reality that we are destroying a livable climate is so painful that we give it up voluntarily, albeit reluctantly.

“A recent must-read New York Times opinion piece, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, explains: The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end.  Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because  it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.  The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday.  Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.”  More at – Is Every Day Black Friday? How Climate Inaction And Hypermaterialism Betray Our Children | Think Progress.

Save biodiversity, save the climate, shrink the economy
One of the more insightful thinkers today is Andrew Nikiforuk at the Canadian environmental journal, The Tyee.  His essential message is we can’t grow ourselves out of an overconsumptive economy.  We have to scale back.  He writes: “A number of brilliant energy critics from Vaclav Smil to William Rees have done the figuring, acknowledged the physical limits of things, and told us the truth.  We must contract the global economy, restructure technological society, and restore what’s left of natural ecosystems if we want to live and breathe”.  The principal problem is the destruction of biodiversity by the technosphere, a parasitic growth on the biosphere that consumes fossil fuels to drive economic and human growth.  This includes a fossil fuel-driven build-out of wind and solar tech.

Nikiforuk continues: “The appeal of the ‘tech will save us’ charade crosses ideological lines.  Both Green New Dealers and the Business-as-Usual Crowd believe a variety of so-called green technologies will save the day”.  But Smil has argued that our civilization needs to power down, practice conservation, and set limits on how much stuff it consumes.  Of course conventional thinkers worry that means going back to the Dark Ages.  Not so.  “Our high-tech and high energy civilization contains so much slack and fat that we could easily reduce our energy spending to levels common in the 1960s and 1970s”, writes Nikiforuk.  Smil has said “I could design you the global system today without any horrible loss of standard of living, consuming 30, 40, 50% less of everything that we are consuming”.  More at – Tech Won’t Save Us. Shrinking Consumption Will | The Tyee, and Returning to a 1970s Economy Could Save Our Future | The Tyee.

Sufficiency before efficiency
“Sufficiency, often also referred to as frugality, starts with consumer behaviour.  A sufficient lifestyle means being frugal with the available resources, without reducing one’s own level of satisfaction and quality of life.  Only by combining efficiency and sufficiency measures can sustainable development be driven forward and greenhouse gas emissions reduced.  This is because any improvements in efficiency are nullified if sufficiency is not taken into consideration.

“Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute used the subhead ‘efficiency without sufficiency is lost’ in his paper A Critique of Techno-Optimism.  Making things more efficient is not enough.  We have to ask ourselves what we really need — what is enough? I often used the simple clothesline instead of a dryer as an example, or a bicycle instead of a car.  Alexander explains that efficiency gains that take place within a growth-orientated economy tend to be negated by further growth, resulting in an overall increase in resource and energy consumption.

“Given the alarms being raised by climate science, high-consumption societies cannot achieve ecological healing unless we practice an unprecedented degree of collective restraint in resource use.  Adapting to that new reality will require that we set aside the pursuit of growth.

“Discussing individual consumption or the idea of sufficiency is not taken seriously in North America, but it is in Finland, the source of the 1.5 degree lifestyle report.  The Finns even have a movement, Kohtuusliike (or moderation), devoted to sufficiency.  The report gets really interesting with policies to promote sufficiency.  For instance, a regulatory approach might be to limit the use of private cars.  The economic approach might be to apply carbon taxes.  The nudging approach would be to build great bike lanes.  Cooperation might be to set up sharing and collaborative consumption.  An information approach might be labeling of high-carbon products.”  More at – What is sufficiency? | My Climate, and Efficiency Without Sufficiency Is Lost | Treehugger, and What Is Enough? | YES! Magazine, and Enough Already: Why Sufficiency Matters | Treehugger.

Curbing consumption through lifestyle adjustments
Perhaps the more exciting side of permaculture is making stuff.  ‘This is my rain barrel!  These are my new solar panels!’  That said, the idea of curbing consumption is likely as relevant, if not more so.  It is certainly central to a permaculture lifestyle.  Ultimately, we are trying to minimize our negative impact on the environment.  One of the easier ways of illustrating this point is looking at renewable energy systems.  The solution is not to add more solar panels and storage batteries to provide the amount of energy currently consumed; rather, it’s to lessen the energy demand

Some things that consume a lot energy are totally avoidable for example, hanging clothes to dry instead of using a tumble dryer.  Of course, the dryer is but one electrical appliance in a sea of others.  How many can we replace with manual counterparts?  The coffeemaker, the vacuum cleaner, the can opener — basically, anything people managed to do before everything became electrified.  Sure, some things add unparalleled convenience, such as a freezer in the summer or a water pump, but there are many ways we can reduce our consumption with just minor lifestyle changes.”  More at – Cutting Back on Consumption | Permaculture Research Institute.


Curbing consumption through low tech innovations
“We’ve gotten used to the pace of technological change exceeding our ability to adapt to it, much less to control it.  Every technology has unintended consequences, which society should investigate before widespread adoption of a given technology
— a notion known as the precautionary principle.  We should start by asking: ‘How much energy does it actually take to lead happy lives’.  We need more low tech tools — ones that use less energy, and depend on local skills and supply chains.

“Low-tech does not mean a return to medieval ways of living. But it does demand more discernment in our choice of technologies.  British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful presented a powerful critique of modern technology and its depletion of resources like fossil fuels.  Schumacher’s mantle has been taken up by a growing movement calling itself ‘low-tech’.  Belgian writer Kris de Dekker’s online Low-Tech Magazine has been cataloguing low-tech solutions since 2007. 

In the US, architect and academic Julia Watson’s book Lo-TEK (where TEK stands for Traditional Ecological Knowledge) explores traditional technologies from using reeds as building materials to creating wetlands for wastewater treatment.  And in France, engineer Philippe Bihouix’s realization of technology’s drain on resources led to his prize-winning book The Age of Low Tech.  As Bihouix writes: A reduction in consumption could make it quickly possible to rediscover the many simple, poetic, philosophical joys of a revitalised natural world.

“In some places, the principles of low-tech are already influencing urban design and industrial policy.  Examples include ’15 minute walkable cities’ where shops and other amenities are easily accessible to residents, using cargo bikes instead of cars or vans for deliveries, and encouraging repairable products through right-to-repair legislation in the EU and US. 

“The negative environmental impact of technology is almost invisible in western countries.  The externalities stemming from the consumerist system happen in other countries, such as the textile industry, the extraction of rare-earth elements in China, and the extraction of silver in South America.  The illusion of a never-ending increase in production is now facing the reality of resource scarcity.  10% of the world’s primary energy is used to extract and refine metals: because of these diminishing returns, the economy will need even more energy, and produce even more CO2 and waste.  To overcome resource scarcity, the rise of renewables seems to be an obvious answer.  Still, wind turbines, solar panels or electric batteries are made of rare metals that are not renewable.  Less than 1% of small metal components of high-tech products are recycled: the rest of them are too difficult to recycle to be cost-effective. 

“Philippe Bihouix gives three principles that can foster ‘low-technology’ solutions for a low-carbon future.  Make recycling easy: engineers should avoid complex alloys to allow the recycling of most of the components.  Make products more robust and repairable: the ‘throw-away society’ is detrimental to the environment.  Use legislation to promote more sustainable development: banning plastic bags, standardizing bottle sizes and shapes and making them returnable would be simple steps towards a less energy-intensive economy.”  More at Power: Limits & Prospects for Human Survival | New Society, and Low-technology: why sustainability doesn’t have to depend on high-tech solutions | The Conversation, and Low-Tech is the new High-Tech | Foresight.

Curbing consumption through community actions
“Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff Project says “The problems we’ve been solving are not the problems that most need solving.  So much focus has gone into faster, cheaper, newer that we actually lost ground on safer, healthier, and more fair.  It’s as if we’re getting better and better at playing the wrong game.  Our economy was designed by people to get everyone to play by certain rules.  The first lesson is to find out what it means to win a game, and that guides every decision you make along the way.  So naturally what most people pursue in the economy game is a simple goal – which is ‘MORE’.  More money being spent, more roads being built, more malls being opened, and more stuff.  That’s what economists call growth.  So we take all the money spent on stuff that makes life better (like hospitals), and all the money spent on stuff that makes life worse (like weapons), and we add it together into one big number called GDP. 
“We’re told that a bigger GDP means we’re winning.  But there’ a big difference between more kids in school and more kids in jail, more windmills or more coal fired power plants, more efficient transit or more gas wasting traffic jams.  But in this game of ‘more’, they’re counted the same.  Now we can’t change just one rule or one player at a time.  The problem is the goal itself – that of MORE.  We need solutions that change that.  What if we built this game around the goal of ‘BETTER’?  Better education, better health, better stuff.  To do that, we have to be able to tell the difference between a game-changing solution, or just a new way of playing that old game of ‘more’.”  Videos at – The Story of Solutions, and
The Story Of Stuff.

15th Annual Meeting & Pot Luck – Sustainability Action

15th Annual Meeting & Pot Luck – Sustainability Action

Friday, 9 June 2023, 6:00pm pot luck, 7:00pm keynote talk
Flory Building, Douglas County Fairgrounds, 2120 Harper St., Lawrence KS 66044

We’re back in person, after a two year hiatus!  The Sustainability Action Network annual meeting will feature two speakers who are knowledgeable and diligent in furthering ecological sustainability in City of Lawrence government.

  • Kathy Richardson, Lawrence Sustainability Director, will  explain the policy framework that she overseas with the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board.
  • Melinda Harger, Assistant Director of Municipal Services and Operations, will describe how her team is incorporating sustainable design, energy conservation, and renewables into new construction of all city facilities.

Sustainability Action has been advancing ecological sustainability since 2007.  We focus on helping individuals live a sustainable lifestyle, while pushing for institutional policy change that can impact the broader population.  We work in areas of energy conservation and renewables, prime agricultural soils preservation, biodiversity conservation, healthy climate, multi-modal transportation, local food, and permaculture.

Some of our 2022 actions and accomplishments include:

  • Hosted the largest electric vehicle showcase in our five years of events
  • Got Evergy to designate a trail alignment for the Atchison Creek Trail to traverse their new substation
  • Partnered with Sustainability Advisory Board urging City Commission to adopt plastic bag ban
  • Worked with a coalition to fend off the Kansas Legislature’s attempt to preempt local single-use plastics bans.
  • Got the City of Lawrence to budget for an electric street sweeper to clear bikeway debris
  • Raised alarm that Wakarusa Dr. bridge over Wakarusa River will be a huge sprawl driver
  • Partnered with Sustainability Advisory Board urging City Commission adopt Natural Landscaping Ordinance

The meeting will also include: an introduction to our Board, a review of our 2022 accomplishments, an open discussion on projects for the upcoming year, a brief financial report, and Board of Directors election.

To cut climate emissions, consumption reductions are faster than renewables expansion

To cut climate emissions, consumption reductions are faster than renewables expansion

Vaclav Smil: energy cuts more viable than growing renewables
Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy.  He has published more than 40 books and about 500 papers on these topics.  He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba.  “Humanity has experienced three major energy transitions and is now struggling to kick off a fourth.  In the past, humanity has typically adopted energy sources that have greater ‘power density’, packing more punch per gram and requiring less land to produce.  Renewables, however, are lower in density than fossil fuels.  In a future powered by renewable energy, society might have to devote 100 or even 1000 times more land area to energy production than today.  That shift, Smil says, could have enormous negative impacts on agriculture, biodiversity, and environmental quality.  Meanwhile, despite years of promotion and hope, wind and solar account for just about 1% of the world’s primary energy mix.  Smil suggested at one recent lecture that if we all cut consumption, lived more efficiently, and ate less meat, the biosphere would do fine.  That’s it’, Smil says.  ‘Nobody is really talking about it’.”  More at – Meet Vaclav Smil, the man who has quietly shaped how the world thinks about energy | Science | AAAS.

Vaclav Smil: renewables transition can’t meet climate deadlines
Los Angeles Times interview of Vaclav Smil, economist and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba:

“Q: Much of the climate debate, you write, is dominated by catastrophists who are certain humanity finds itself on the eve of destruction, and that technology will save the human race.  How should the rest of us think about real solutions? 
A: Nothing can be more counterproductive than any certainty regarding complex affairs.  In managing our energy affairs we should not waste 40% of our food, not heat or cool poorly designed but oversize houses, not waste fuel and materials driving SUVs. 
Q: Many people think we can rapidly switch to renewable energy.  You believe this is a delusion, and the transformation will take decades. 
A: It’s not a matter of belief.  It’s the size and inertia of the global energy system.  Fossil fuels now supply about 83% of the world’s energy.  What are the chances that after going from 86% to 83% during the first two decades of the 21st century the world will go from 83% to zero during the next two decades? 
Q: You call the Four Pillars of Modern Civilization ammonia, plastics, steel, and concrete.  It seems most people think of only electricity generation and transportation. 
A: You are quite right, most people think of decarbonization as just an electricity problem.  Without nitrogen fertilizers based mostly on natural gas we could feed only about half of today’s humanity.  No material is made in larger quantity than cement.  Steel comes second and iron smelting needs coke made from coal.  Synthesis of plastics needs natural gas and oil as feedstocks and fuel.  Making just these four materials requires nearly 20% of the world’s total energy supply generating about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  Decarbonizing this massive demand cannot be done in a matter of years.” 

More at The energy historian who says rapid decarbonization is a fantasy | Los Angeles Times.

Vaclav Smil: hope for quick shift to renewables is wishful thinking
That’s Vaclav Smil, the prolific University of Manitoba thinker, writing in this month’s issue of Scientific American.  When Smil says something I usually listen.  Smil starts by noting an underappreciated fact, that only 3.35% of the 10% of so energy that renewables are providing right now comes from ‘new’ renewables — solar, wind, and liquid biofuels.  The majority of renewables are still of the ‘old’ variety, hydroelectric power and wood chips.  Sadly, new wind and solar currently provide a tiny fraction of national energy needs — wind: 1.19%, solar: 0.16% (2014 stats).  Smil’s core argument is simple: While reasonably promising, renewable energy is simply not quick and widespread enough.  It has delivered very little in terms of overall contributions to the nation’s energy portfolio.  When it comes to dreams of rapid renewable expansion, as Smil tells us, history is not on our side.  Even traditional sources like coal, oil and natural gas took about 50 to 75 years to contribute significantly to the energy portfolio.  What can we do to make this transition at least somewhat easier?  Energy efficiency for one is a very pressing need.  As Smil says, ‘Recent studies have shown that there are no insurmountable technical problems to reducing energy use by one third’.”  More at – Vaclav Smil: “The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking” | Scientific American.

Vaclav Smil: “What I see when I see a wind turbine”
Although wind turbines exploit the wind, which is as free and as green as energy can be, the machines themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels.  Large trucks bring materials to the site, earth-moving equipment beats a path, and large cranes erect the structures.  All these machines burn diesel fuel.  So do the freight trains and cargo ships that convey the materials.  A lot of energy goes into making steel.  To make the steel required for wind turbines that might operate by 2030, you’d need fossil fuels equivalent to more than 600 million metric tons of coal.  A 5-MW turbine has three roughly 60-meter-long airfoils, each weighing about 15 metric tons, made mostly from glass-fiber-reinforced epoxy or polyester resins.  The glass is made by melting silicon dioxide in furnaces fired by natural gas.  The resins begin with ethylene derived most commonly from liquefied petroleum gas or natural gas.  To get 2.5 TW of installed wind power by 2030, we would need to incorporate the equivalent of about 90 million metric tons of crude oil.  For a long time to come — until all energies used to produce wind turbines and photovoltaic cells come from renewable energy sources — modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels.”  More at – What I see when I see a wind turbine (Numbers Don’t Lie) | IEEE Journal.

Vaclav Smil: energy transitions, crunching the numbers
YouTube video and notes: “
Humanity initially derived the majority of its energy from biomass.  It then transitioned to coal until midway through the 20th century, when oil became the majority source.  In Smil’s opinion, peak oil is not coming any time soon.  He states that the only reason we are attempting to decarbonize is to combat global warming.  In 1991, humanity derived 91% of our primary energy from fossil fuels.  Even as late as 2018, we still derived 89% of our primary energy from fossil fuels, despite huge amounts of investment in renewables.  We are a fossil fueled civilization.  The production of the four pillars of modern society — steel, cement, ammonia (used for fertilizer), and plastics is very energy intensive, and will be very difficult to decarbonize.  In the years since 1992, society has become more carbon intensive in spite of all the money that has been invested in decarbonization and greener technology.  The decarbonization of the four pillars is almost certainly going to be far more difficult than the decarbonization of the electricity and transportation sectors.  Smil states what he feels is the best way for humanity to decarbonize: Absolute cuts in per capita energy consumption, particularly in rich countries.  Smil feels that combating excessive consumption is the best way to decarbonize.  More at – Vaclav Smil Lecture on Energy Transitions — Video & Notes |

Sustainability Action annual meeting, and “The Story of Plastic” screening

Sustainability Action annual meeting, and “The Story of Plastic” screening

Saturday, 19 February 2021, 2:00pm – FREE
By Zoom only, Lawrence KS 66044

A screening of the film “The Story of Plastic” will be featured at our annual meeting.  It’s a new documentary brought to us by Annie Leonard and The Story of Stuff Project, who are known for their accessible short animated videos illustrating and simplifying complex issues around consumerism and waste.  After a brief business meeting and officer elections, we’ll watch the film, have a discussion, and consider what local actions to take to end plastic waste, such as getting the City to adopt single-use bag restrictions.  More at – The Story of Plastic – A Summary | Green and Grumpy.


Sustainability Action Network has been advancing ecological sustainability since 2007.  We focus on helping individuals live a sustainable lifestyle, while pushing institutional policy change that can impact the broader population.  We work in areas of energy conservation, decentralized renewable energy, healthy climate, local food and permaculture, multi-modal transportation, prime farm soils preservation, and ecosystem protection.

Some of our 2020 actions and accomplishments include:

  • We introduced the concept of “agrivoltaics” to Douglas County during their creating regulations for industrial-scale solar, and it became central to the regs.
  • One of our five bikeway proposals, the Atchison Creek Trail, was taken up by the City of Lawerence, K.U. Endowment, and Evergy in a collaborative effort to build it near Evergy’s new substation.
  • We organized the 3rd annual Lawrence EV Showcase, with electric buses, trucks, bicycles, and cars.
  • We collaborated with the Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board in drafting a new natural landscaping ordinance to replace the draconian weed ordinance.
  • We met with Evergy executives about coal ash cleanup, and their “Integrated Resource Plan” for retirement of the Lawrence Energy Center coal plant.

The meeting will also include: an introduction to our Board, a review of our 2020 accomplishments, an open discussion on projects for the upcoming year, a brief financial report, and Board of Directors election.  The Zoom link for the meeting and film is –, and the password is 312836.

Ubiquitous, Climate Crashing, Non-Recyclable Plastics

Ubiquitous, Climate Crashing, Non-Recyclable Plastics

Scientists have estimated that, since 1950, humans have generated 9.1 billion tons (8.3 billion metric tonnes) of plastic.  About 76% of that has ended its useful life and become waste.  Of that 7 billion tons of waste, only 9% has been recycled, the rest going to landfills, being incinerated, or choking and poisoning streams and oceans.  The U.S. alone produces on average 35.4 million tons of plastic (32 million metric tonnes) per year, according to the EPA – Humans Have Created 9 Billion Tons of Plastic Since 1950.

This is a far cry from the public relations narrative of recyclability.  Because the U.S. lacks particular equipment and market interest, most types of plastic are not recyclable, only #1 and #2.  And even so, only #1 plastic bottles are regularly recycled, according to a study by Greenpeace – U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability.  The Greenpeace report said that plastics #3 through #7, called mixed plastic, are more difficult, more expensive, and more energy intensive to process than numbers 1 and 2.  Most single-use retail bags are #4.

Speaking for the Association of Plastic Recyclers, Kara Pochiro, said “What the United States needs is infrastructure equipped to process other kinds of plastic”.  But John Hocevar of Greenpeace emphasized a more basic and elegant solution, saying “The really simple answer is we have to stop making so much throwaway plastic”
How much plastic actually gets recycled?.

The unimaginably large amount of plastic materials comes with equally thorny problems:

But because humans enjoy many of the properties of plastics, many problems are either below the radar or purposely ignored for the benefit of petrochemical companies.  Plastics are waterproof and lightweight.  Clear plastic packaging is a great marketing tool.  Plastics can be formed into virtually any shape (hence the name “plastic”).  They make convenient items like paint and clothes and containers.  But the biggest reason we tend to overlook the problems is because petrochemical PR has misled us.

An article by NPR and PBS reported that public officials, like most people, don’t want to be told the sad truth that only a tiny fraction of plastics can economically be recycled.  Laura Leebrick, a well-intentioned but naive waste hauler, recounted telling a city council that it was costing more to recycle plastic than to dispose of it.  They were in denial and said “You’re lying.  This is gold.  This is valuable”.  But NPR explained “It’s not valuable, and it never has been.  And what’s more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite”.  One industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis”.

Regardless of the fact of the matter, the public was led to embrace recycling.  NPR noted that back in the late 1980s, plastic was in a crisis because of too much plastic trash.  The public was getting upset.  The genius — and fraud — of the plastics industry was to convince the public that recycling was working.  Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic.  When they believed the hype, they felt fine about buying more new plastic.  This of course was the goal of Big Oil and Big Gas —   more new plastic sold meant more profits.

Still, plastic recycling grew slowly.  Recyclers were losing money when only soda bottles and milk jugs were brought in.  The industry needed a new strategy.  Oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the triangular recycling symbol appear on all plastic, even if there was no way to economically recycle it.  Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic.  It didn’t — it only made all plastic look recyclable.

With the various numbered recycling symbols, the industry succeeded in gaining widespread acceptance of recycling, even while knowing it is unfeasible.  But it became a failure for recycling operators.  People began throwing every kind of plastic into recycling bins, even though recyclers lost money on all but #1 and #2.  Worse, it became a cost prohibitive sorting nightmare for the operators, but also for communities struggling with choosing source-separated recycling vs mixed-materials recycling.  A lack of an industry standard further hampers recycling feasibility because of regional market irregularities, and because of recycling truck and equipment disparities – How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled.

Plastic recycling was never intended to work to any degree.  Attempts by local communities, retailers, recycling operators, and materials marketers to find a way to make it work were random and mostly on their own.  Big Oil and Gas were the only winners.  Now with the nose-dive of gasoline and diesel sales, and communities beginning to ban natural gas for all-electric buildings, Big Oil and Gas are shifting their focus to increase plastic production – Big Oil’s hopes are pinned on plastics. It won’t end well.

A large part of their plan is to flood Africa with plastics as an untapped market.  Currently 34 of the 54 African countries have committed to phasing out single-use plastic.  The lobby group pushing to open up Africa, the American Chemistry Council, has members including Shell, Exxon and Total – Oil-backed trade group is lobbying the Trump administration to push plastics across Africa.  The industry mantra has not changed from advice given to Dustin Hoffman in the 1970 film “The Graduate”In a word, plastics: The Graduate – YouTube.