The Petroleum Industry: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Plastic

Plastic Wars

PBS Frontline  (2020)

Film Review

This documentary reveals how the climate movement and the exponential growth of renewable energy has led the petroleum industry to shift their focus from fossil fuels to plastics production. At present they are investing tens of billions of dollars in new plants to transform gas and oil into plastics.

Meanwhile the plastics lobby still tries to shift responsibility for widespread plastic pollution pollution to consumers and local government (for their failure to recycle them). This despite the reality that only 10% of plastic can be economically recycled. Because the price of new plastic is so cheap, the vast majority of recycled plastic is far too expensive to compete.

Prior to watching this film, I had no idea the concept of plastic recycling originated with an industry lobby group known as the Plastics Council. They’re also responsible for the little recycling symbol stamped into the bottom of all plastic containers. Its purpose is to deliberately mislead consumers into believing the containers are recyclable.

Up until 2018, China accepted most of the plastics recycled from the industrial North. They, too, could only recycle 10% of them (the milk and soda containers). They burned the rest, greatly aggravating their deadly air pollution problems.

At present, Indonesia has replaced China as the major recipient of First World plastic waste. They convert about 10% of it into tiny pellets which are used to make new plastic. The rest is either burned or illegally dumped on empty fields.

Sixty percent of the plastics clogging up oceans and killing sea life originates from Asia.

 

Restoring Community

Planet Community

Foundation for Intentional Community (2018)

Film Review

Planet Community is a series of five ten-minute documentaries about creating “intentional communities” – situations where people choose to live cooperatively with non-relatives. Many sustainability activists (myself included) believe rebuilding our communities will be fundamental to the transition to a lower tech, non-fossil fuel economy. Pooling resources makes it much easier for people to lower their carbon footprint. Even more important, living in intentional community can go a long way towards alleviating the loneliness and social isolation that plagues modern society.

Part 1 looks at life in the Dancing Rabbit eco-village in northeastern Missouri. This episode explains the the concepts of Outer Sustainability (which includes developing a local microgrid to provide electricity, local food production and distribution networks, eco-housing and recycling and reclaiming resources); Interpersonal Sustainability (relearning skills people need to live cooperatively – such as communication, conflict resolution, and embracing diversity); and Inner Sustainability (confronting unearned privilege and social oppression).

Part 2 explores a number of student housing cooperatives for University of Michigan students in Ann Arbor. The coops were created by the Inter-Cooperative Council (ICC) for students unable to afford dorms or rental housing. The student cooperative houses, which are self-governing. The ICC, which owns the houses, also offers residents training in trauma survivor support, personal stress reduction, and coop management (eg how to pass a kitchen inspections.

 

Part 3 is about the Enright Ridge Ecovillage, established in 2009 around a Cincinnati forest reserve. At Enright Ridge, each family owns their own home and participates in a governing body that runs various community projects, including a pub, a low income housing project and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture schemes connect food producers and consumers more closely by allowing consumers to “subscribe” to the harvest of a particular farm or group of farms).

 

Part 4 visits a cluster of three co-housing schemes involving 300-400 residents in Ann Arbor Michigan. Each scheme is run as a “condominium association” to satisfy Michigan state law. Residents, who make governance decisions via consensus, work cooperatively to share meals, organize community events, compost, recycle, and operate a “common house.”

Part 5 concerns the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable renewable Living. The latter is a non-profit organization in Kankakee Illinois started by an African American woman and her son to teach permaculture principles to local residents to help them become more resilient. Their program offers training in sustainable agriculture and lifestyle choices, as running markets in food insecure city neighborhoods.

 

The Informal Economy that Recycles 90% of China’s Waste

China’s War on Waste

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

China’s War on Waste looks at a culture that creates and discards more products than any other society in the world. Despite its centrally planned economy, there are many ways in which China’s economy is beyond the control of central government. This relates, in part, to production decisions approved by (often corrupt) local officials and, in part, to an extensive informal economy under no official control.

China’s 2017 ban on imported waste was a first step in Beijing’s effort to shut down the informal waste sector. Thanks largely to informal rubbish scavengers, at present China recycles¬† 90% of its recyclable waste. This figure is more than double the rate of most industrialized countries.

The plastic landfill waste gathered by informal waste collectors is resold three to four times before reaching a reprocessing center. Along with their 2017 ban on imported waste, China also shut down thousands of unlicensed backyard reprocessing centers that produced dangerous toxins affecting both the environment and worker health. Many of these centers have since reopened and continue to operate illegally.

The government is also trying to put informal garbage pickers out of business by demolishing the shacks they live in.*

Some of these informal scavengers have been replaced by 5,000 automated recycling machines that reward users for by depositing one cent in their bank account for every bottle they insert.

China hopes to incinerate 50% of Beijing’s waste by 2020 – in plants that recapture the heat produced to generate electricity. At present, the city incinerates one-eighth of its garbage, despite the toxic dioxins existing plants release to the air.

The government has also introduced curbside recycling in some areas. Thus far, the uptake by residents has been poor.


*They put the garbage picker featured in the film out of business by erecting a wall between his home and the street. He can climb the wall to seek casual laboring jobs but can’t take his bicycle-powered recycling rig with him.

 

Freeganism: A Portuguese Experiment

Wasted Waste

Directed by Pedro Sera (2018)

Film Review

This documentary is mainly about Freeganism, a Portuguese movement in which members opt out of the money system by spending their time growing or “recycling” food and other basic necessities, “occupying” homes instead of renting, and foregoing most consumer goods to avoid engaging in paid work.

The movement is a reaction against rampant consumerism, which Freegans reject. They view consumerism as an addition that’s destroying the planet.

The film’s main focus is western society’s incredible wasteful food system, in which one-third of the food produced is wasted. If this discarded food could be distributed somehow to needy families, global hunger could be eliminated.

In Europe 198 hectares of land (an area the size of Mexico) goes to produce food that’s never consumed. Up to 50% of food never leaves the farm because it fails to meet arbitrary supermarket appearance standards. The rest is discarded due to overcautious “sell by” dates ( enabling Freegans to scavenge it from supermarket dumpsters).

“Food travel,” whereby corporate food networks transport food halfway around the world, is also incredibly wasteful. It’s estimated to produce 750 times the carbon emissions as locally produced food.

In addition to examining various Freegan projects that prepare “recycled” food to distribute free on the streets, the documentary looks at other Portuguese cooperatives, social enterprises and charities that reduce food waste in other ways.

One coop collects “ugly” food directly from farmers to sell to its members. As Food and Good After are social enterprises that purchase (at a discount) expired supermarket food and sells them at cost in their own facilities. There’s also a bulk foods store which eliminates plastic packaging by requiring patrons to bring their own containers.

They also interview a Zero Waste advocate who has produced zero trash in four years; the coordinator of Portugal’s Time Bank Network (where members trade services instead of purchasing them); and a Portuguese legislator with a bill (similar to existing laws in France and Italy) requiring all outlets larger than 400m2 to provide for the allocation of food wastes to charities and social enterprises for distribution to the needy.