Plastics: A great or grim future?

By Krista Van Tassel
January 17th, 2012

Joanne LasnierIt is my pleasure to introduce our Environmental Forum leaders to Joanne Lasnier. Joanne works with Wells Fargo’s wholesale marketing and internal communications team in San Francisco. She is a wonderful environmental advocate, serving on the leadership committee for the Wells Fargo Green Team San Francisco. Since 1998, she has volunteered at The Marine Mammal Center, caring for rescued marine mammal patients, talking to visitors about the work of the center, and participating in outreach events.

It was at the Marine Mammal Center that Joanne recently encountered Washed Ashore, an art exhibit that takes trash found in our oceans and creates art. Inspired by her work at the center and this special show, Joanne created this post to share basic facts, dispel common myths and encourage smarter choices around plastics. Please read on to learn more about what we can all do to keep our oceans healthy by reducing our collective use of plastics. (– Krista)

One of many memorable scenes in the 1967 film The Graduate occurs when Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate concerned about his future, has the following conversation with a family friend:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

A great movie moment. And I laughed. At the time, plastic—an economical and malleable substance with endless possibilities—was the future.

Thinking back to the 60s, I remember how most buildings, cars, furniture, and home electronics contained considerably fewer synthetic parts and more natural materials like metal and wood. We brought our groceries home in paper bags. Our soft drinks came in aluminum or glass containers.

Now, some 40 years later, plastic is found in nearly everything, and litters our highways, open spaces, waterways, and oceans. How does that future look now?

A few plastic facts

  • Once created, plastic is with us forever1. Plastic does not biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. No matter how much it degrades over the years, it never really goes “away.”
  • In 2007, the U.S. produced 58 million tons2 (PDF*) of plastic, over twice the weight of the entire population. More than half was thrown away.
  • Single-use and disposable plastics are the main sources of plastic pollution.3
  • Patches of plastic pollution make up a “diluted soup” in our oceans. Broken, degraded plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton in areas of the North Pacific over 6 to 1.4
  • An estimated 80% of plastic pollution in the oceans comes from land, not from activities at sea.2
  • Plastic debris can kill birds, turtles, and marine mammals when they ingest or become entangled in it.2
  • Plastic is produced from nonrenewable fossil fuels, typically natural gas and petroleum.5

Recycling is not the answer

  • Less than 5% of plastic gets recycled world-wide.2
  • “Recyclable” plastic is reused to make other products that are not recyclable.6 This is known as down-cycling, and is really just a temporary diversion from landfill.
  • Most plastic containers bearing the chasing arrows recycle symbol are not recyclable.7 The numbers in the arrows only indicate the class of resin used to make the container. Classes 1 and 2 are accepted by most curbside recycling programs, but classes 3 through 7 are seldom collected or recycled.

What can we do?

Would a time machine help? Maybe if we went back to the 1960s, we would rethink our love affair with plastic and take a different path. Failing that, there are simple changes we can make. Consider the following:

  • Buy products that use little or no packaging. When packaging is necessary, look for materials that can be recycled into new packaging, such as glass, aluminum, or paper. Buy in bulk and bring your own container.
  • Say no to plastic bottles. Stick with drinks in glass or aluminum containers.
  • Say no to disposable plastic bags and cups. Bring your own shopping bags or forego bags altogether. Bring your own refillable cup to coffee shops. Don’t use straws.
  • Consider wax paper. Wax paper can be used in place of plastic wrap to cover food when heating it in a microwave. Aluminum foil can also be used to store foods (not for microwave use!) and can be recycled.
  • Reuse. Move away from the idea of “use once, throw away.” Many plastic containers and bags can be washed and reused a number of times.
  • Say no to bottled water. The quality of tap water is better regulated than bottled water, and it’s much cheaper! Carry your drinking water in reusable bottles.
  • Pick up plastic and other trash. Carry a bag with you when you take a walk or visit a beach, river, lake, or park, and then dispose of the collected trash at home.
  • Do you really need those balloons? Consider other party decorations. Animals can become entangled in used balloons and string.
  • Support new legislation. Let your local government representatives know you support legislation to ban or reduce the reliance on one-time-use, nonbiodegradeable items, such as plastic bags and take-out containers, cups, and utensils.
  • Plastic trash, or free art supplies? Turn ocean trash into art! Check out Washed Ashore, and see how artist and educator Angela Hazeltine Pozzi took “artistic action” to inspire her community to address the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean.
  • Remember the Four Rs. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Refuse.


1 Source: Plastic Pollution Coalition: Basic Concepts
2 Source: Algalita Marine Research Foundation: Plastics are forever (PDF*)
3 Source: The Majestic Plastic Bag – A Mockumentary, narrated by Jeremy Irons
4 Source: KQED Quest’s “Plastic in the Pacific”
5 Source: International Plastics Task Force: How Plastics Are Made
6 Source: Plastic Pollution Coalition: Common Misconceptions
7 Source: Green Guide Network: The 7 Types of Plastic

* You will need Adobe® Reader® to view PDF files. Download Adobe Reader.

Krista Van Tassel

Krista Van Tassel

As Community and Team Member Engagement manager for Wells Fargo’s Environmental Affairs Team, Krista supports the company’s 70+ Green Teams, recognizing and promoting environmental innovator best practices, and engaging and educating team members about their role in helping the company’s sustainability efforts. She also manages Wells Fargo’s Environmental Solutions for Communities’ $3 million annual nonprofit grant program focused on helping make long-term sustainable economic investments in local communities where its customers and 264,000 team members work and live. Prior to joining Wells Fargo in 2009, Krista worked in a variety of sustainability and marketing positions in both the nonprofit and for profit sectors. Krista earned her MBA in International Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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