Plastic Waste and the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

by | Apr 17, 2020 | Blog

Plastic is almost a dirty word in today’s environmental movement as scientists and dedicated organizations continue reporting the detrimental impacts that this multipurpose material has on our ecosystems. From crowding landfills to being found in the stomachs of sea life, it is evident that our current relationship to plastic is not sustainable long term. Our ocean and landfills have hit plastic capacity with an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in our oceans already¹ and 26.8 million tons of plastic found in landfills reported in 2017², making now a crucial time to mobilize around plastic waste and work towards fostering a renewed relationship to the material. With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day just around the corner, we have the opportunity to spark awareness, galvanize support, and inspire action around the future of plastic.

As we mark this historic Earth Day, we find ourselves in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has fundamentally disrupted our social and economic systems in the blink of an eye, forcing the world to act urgently. While the reasons and circumstances were unwelcome and unexpected, it has shown that we can indeed unify as a global community to address a global emergency. We are exercising a new and critical muscle that will strengthen our ability to address another existential threat to humanity– the climate change crisis.

History of Earth Day and the Acceptance of Plastic

Earth Day, celebrated annually on April 22nd, began in 1970 with the purpose of spreading environmental awareness and mobilizing the American public to take a stand against pollution and ecosystem degradation. The idea came from former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, motivated by the devastating effects of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Earth Day served to inspire significant milestones within the environmental movement, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and catalyzed the passage of important environmental legislation.³

By this time in history, plastic was well integrated into the lives of Americans with household, recreation, furniture, and even clothing items being made out of various types of plastic. However, not all Americans were enticed by the convenience of this magic material. The harmful and long lasting implications of plastic became more apparent when plastic debris was first discovered in the ocean in 1960. This awareness continued to spread as environmental education continued through the 70s. With this in mind, the plastic production industry urged for the implementation of recycling in our waste management system as a way of easing American’s acceptance of the material.Today, recycling remains a primary “solution” that our society relies on for the management of plastic, while in reality, plastic waste continues to rapidly invade almost every aspect of all life forms as recycling falls short of any viable solution to the plastic waste problem.

Types of Plastic and Recycling as a “Solution”

All of this is not to say we must ban plastic altogether, but really we must reset our relationship with plastic. Because plastic is made up of various polymers, both synthetic and naturally occurring, it can take on many forms while maintaining it’s lightweight durability. The seven types of plastic, which you often see labeled by a number inside the recycling triangle on consumer items, include:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): commonly used for food and drink containers, packaging, etc.
  2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE): commonly used for soap containers, insulation, helmets, pipes, etc.
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): commonly used for furniture, clothing, medical supplies, etc.
  4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE): commonly used for machine parts, lids, trash bags, etc.
  5. Polypropylene (PP): commonly used for clothing, surgery tools, packaging tape, bottle caps, etc.
  6. Polystyrene (Styrofoam): commonly used for disposable drink and food containers, and packing materials.
  7. Other (including acrylic, nylon, fiberglass, polycarbonate, polyactic fibers): used for a variety of items such as sports equipment, baby bottles, and electronic parts.

Plastics numbered 3,4,6, and 7 are difficult and rarely recycled, while 1, 2, and 5 can only be recycled about 2 to 3 times before its quality is too poor to manufacture. Furthermore, since China enacted the “National Sword” policy in 2018, banning the import of plastic and other recyclables to their country for processing, more than half of the world has had to scramble for another solution. Needless to say, with China no longer allowing their waste processing facilities to be the dumping grounds of the industrialized world, the amount of plastic going straight to landfills has increased dramatically. It is now up to us to rethink our relationship with plastic and explore alternatives to how we manage it as waste.

COVID-19 Impacts on Plastic Use

The COVID-19 crisis has had a significant effect on the demand of single-use plastic. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The war on plastics is being put on hold as the battle to contain coronavirus ramps up.”¹⁰ It is a common phenomena that environmental efforts are set aside in the wake of disaster response and recovery. Amidst the global pandemic, demand is increasing for plastic bags, single-use utensils, cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer bottles, and plastic water bottles. Additionally, the stay at home order in efforts to stop the spread of the virus has led to an increase in home delivery demands often accompanied by single-use packaging. COVID-19 has prompted the public to think more about where and who has touched their products, leading to a retroactive perspective on the necessity of plastic packaging.

Plastic is deeply woven into every aspect of human life. Recycling has proven to be a band aid, at best, to address the exploding plastic waste problem. Reducing unnecessary plastic use is a worthy plan to decrease the addition of excess plastic into the environment. However, assuming plastic is here to stay for the foreseeable future, we must find a use for today’s plastic that offers this material a long term, sustainable, and useful purpose. Enter ByFusion.

ByFusion– A New Life for Plastic Waste

Driven by a desire to end plastic waste, we launched ByFusion, which has developed the first construction-grade building material made entirely from recycled (and often unrecyclable) plastic waste.

ByFusion is part of the larger movement working to combat climate change through innovative uses of technology. Most commonly installed in a community’s materials recovery facility (MRF), the ByFusion Blocker uses steam and compression to convert all types of plastic waste into a revolutionary building material called ByBlock. ByFusion diverts trash destined for the landfill, repurposes the mixed materials into a consolidated building block, and gives plastic waste a long term, sustainable purpose. ByBlocks can be utilized for everyday structures like sheds, walls and anything else requiring construction-grade building material. Compared to conventional concrete building blocks, ByFusion’s ByBlocks account for 41% less greenhouse gas emissions as per the Environmental Protection Industry’s 2012 report in the Waste Reduction Model (WARM).

Notably, plastic production is not all aimed for single-use products. Plastic has shown to be an excellent material for modern society through its use for life saving medical supplies, transportation needs, electronics, sports, and even energy efficiency.¹¹ As we are on the brink of widespread climate disaster, now is the time to shift plastic production away from convenience and towards essential. Increasing public awareness, pressuring corporations and the government to make changes, and utilizing purchasing power are all necessary tools in the fight against further harmful plastic production. However, the need for a clean-up solution for the current overflowing plastic waste is evident. ByFusion’s model has the potential to alleviate the excess waste already disrupting earth’s ecosystems while society collectively steps away from nonessential single-use straws, take out containers, hygiene bottles, and all other unnecessary uses of plastic. ByFusion offers every community in the world the ability to repurpose their own plastic waste to create valuable building material for municipal projects – truly closing the waste loop and creating local solutions to global problems.

Earth Day: Not Canceled

Although this Earth Day will merit an unusual celebration without marches and festivals, the climate crisis has not been canceled and neither will Earth Day. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day represents 50 years of progress, of environmental awareness, of a movement working to heal our planet.

At ByFusion, we have an ambitious goal: Recycling 100 million tons of plastic by 2030’s Earth Day. We are excited to be part of a global ecosystem of change makers, companies, organizations and agencies who, in the time of COVID and after, are relentlessly pursuing every angle to redevelop our relationship with plastic.

Happy birthday Earth Day, we are grateful to the movements you inspire.