Hi Reddit, Judith Enck here. I'm the President of Beyond Plastics and I teach an environmental policy course, with a focus on public action, as a visiting faculty member at Bennington College.

Plastic is an international environmental and social justice issue. Half of the more than 8 billion tons of plastic manufactured since 1950 was produced in just the past 13 years. The world's richest countries have spent decades shipping their plastic waste overseas, where many of the world's poorest are exploited into picking it - and exposed to toxic trash in the process.

Microplastics - and likely nanoplastics - are now pervasive in our air, water, and soil, with untold consequences for human health and wildlife. A brand-new study showed microplastics on both the mother and fetal side of human placentas.

As plastic is a byproduct of fracking, the US fracking boom and breakneck pace of plastics production go hand-in-hand, with more than 330 new petrochemical facilities completed, in construction, or planned in the US since 2010. These mega-polluters are often sited in poor and BIPOC communities across the country.

Beyond Plastics is a US project building a grassroots movement at every level of society, from local bag bans to the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, community organizing, education, and connecting the plastic crisis to the climate crisis. AMA about the plastic crisis and organizing to end plastic pollution!

[Edit]: Thanks for the great discussion Reddit! This was my first r/IAmA and I loved doing this. I will definitely come back for another one, perhaps when the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is reintroduced, but for now I have to get back to work with Beyond Plastics. In the meantime, feel free to contact us here for more info: https://www.beyondplastics.org/contact

Comments: 335 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

bravehamster201 karma

Given that only a very small fraction of plastics submitted to recycling centers are actually being recycled, do you think there is a need to adjust the approach? Is the overhead and inefficiency of plastic recycling worth the minimal return?

Beyond_Plastics463 karma

I am a big fan of recycling and even started my town's recycling program in 1988. However, plastic recycling has been an abysmal failure. it has only achieved a recycling rate of 8.5%. If you look at the bottom of plastic packaging and you see resin codes #1 or #2 then you should put them in your recycling bin. some communites, but many, also are able to find markets for #5 plastics. do not put any other plastics in your recycling bin. The plastics industry has spent millions of dollars trying to convince consumers that if we just put plastics in the recycling bin, we have done the best we can. Don't fall for it. Plastics recycling is a dead end. Do all you can to look for alternatives to plastics that can actually be reused or recycled. check out the movie "The Story of Plastic" to see the real picture behind plastic reyclcing. Also you can go to pbs.org and check out the frontline episode "plastic wars"

yukon-flower90 karma

Can you summarize the work you are doing to address the corporate interests that are causing the plastic to be produced and used/discarded?

I know there is always a lot of emphasis in the media on what individuals can do to help, but it seems the total efforts of well-meaning individuals will always be greatly overshadowed by the uncaring companies causing the problems in the first place. Thank you.

Beyond_Plastics122 karma

we need systemic change. I am a former federal regulator so in my view we need new laws on the books and strong enforcment of those laws. A good example is the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced by Congressmember Lowenthal. Think about how laws prevented indoor smoking, convinced drivers to wear seatbelts. New effective laws can drive down the production and use of plastics. Most companies are not going to change on their own just because it is the right thing to do for the planet and for our health.

flash-tractor73 karma

Do you think there's a chance to genetically engineer existing plastic digesting microbes (like pestalotiopsis microspora) to eat a wider range of plastic? Is there any research being done into this field?

Beyond_Plastics142 karma

there is research being done in this arena but I do not think it holds much promise our research and resources need to focus on a much simpler task; MAKING LESS PLASTIC. We can have convenience and affordabilty without making so much plastic. This is a great moment for innovation. we just need many of these good ideas to scale up and scale up quickly.

DrJawn52 karma

With the massive influx of disposables via the covid crisis, what are some plastic alternatives, especially for the medical industry?

Beyond_Plastics71 karma

There has been greater use of plastics due to covid but as the disease is reduced, we hope that plastics will also be reduced. We all need to stay focused on covid prevention and then get to the secondary issues like over use of plastics. Hospitals are using a massive amount of plastic gowns and masks and sheets. Not that long ago, hospitals had commercial laundries on site. high temperature washing would destroy the virus and allow all of those gowns and sheets to be reused. If they are washing the items they are less likely to run out of them and the all imporatant hospital staff, from doctors to janitors, will be able to rely on a steady stream of these items. At home, you can use reusable masks rather than disposable masks. you can put them in the wash and use them over and over again. There ae some medical devices that do not have easy alterantives to plastics. but, many do have alternatives. Check out the group "Health Care Without Harm" on ideas on how to green up the medical profession.

bbmgnt7741 karma

Do you have any insight into why the push to use hemp based products is not a larger one? It’s more sustainable and biodegradable than most other products and is very easily produced.

Beyond_Plastics81 karma

I have been wondering about that myself. For instance, as more states consider legalizing cannabis, they need to prohibit it from being packaged in single use plastics. if they don't do that, we will have a whole new universe of small plastic packaging waste on our beaches, in parks and on streets. Why not use hemp for that packaging? The state of New Jersey recently adopted a law that bans plastic and paper bags (effective next year) but allows for bags made from hemp.

LightMixer32 karma

Thank you for being part of an AMA.

I am not a scientist but there are various Starch-based plastics that claim to be biodegradable. It seems that the most effective approach would be to change the formulation of one time use plastics (packaging, shipping materials, disposable food containers, etc) so that they break down easier once they are in the environment. What plans are there to help foster this type of industry development and use?

Beyond_Plastics42 karma

we have been waiting for a break through on bio based plastcs for years. The jury is still out. but, remember, even plastics that are not made from chemicals or fossil fuels pose probelms if they are not reusable. don't put them in your recycling bin, as it may contaminate the load. there are companies doing interesting things with mycelium, a type of mushroom packaging.

produit118 karma

What is being done about the largest plastic polluter Coca Cola? Last year they stated that people want plastic bottles so they will keep using them. They have little to no regard for the environmental impact. Is there a way to force them to use sustainable alternatives?

Beyond_Plastics34 karma

passage of state bottle bills - the mandatory deposit law helps. also some state legislators are considering bills to require minimum recycled content. coke has made some big promises to use more recycled material but to date has not honored those public pledges. At a minimum, they shoudl be supporting bottle bill. Coke products reguarly show up during litter collections. it's not a good look for their brand.

Humanish_Krunker18 karma

What are your plans for extracting the plastic from the oceans?

Beyond_Plastics64 karma

while I appreciate well intentioned efforts to extract plastic from the ocean, we have no plans to be involved in those efforts. Most of the plastics are not on the surface of the water, but fall down to the floor of the sea. If the plastics are on the surface, sunlight make the plastic brittle and wave abrasion acts like a paper cutter and a large piece of plastic, such as a Coke bottle, breaks into smaller pieces of plastics and it is all but impossible to capture. Beyond Plastics is focused on reducing the generation and use of plastics upsteam. It saddens me to say this but once the plastic gets into the ocean it really is not possible to recover any significant amount of it.

Team_Slacker4 karma

Hi Judith! Love hearing you on the WAMC Roundtable. How best can I help my children understand the scope of the plastic problem we're facing? There's only so much you can do and see from the home, and sometimes it seems like it's hard to get through when you don't have a big picture view.

Beyond_Plastics3 karma

Thanks i love participating on the wamc roundtable. There are a few good children's books aroud that I can dig out. mostly, get your kids outdoors instill an appreciation for nature. start with something simple like avoiding plastic straws. And work up from there. check out the effective fiesty nyc ngo Cafateria Culture and their resources and their amazing film called Microplastic Madness. It showcases kids in brooklyn, ny tackling this isssue in a fun and effective way.

Trey_Fevaa4 karma

Are we f@&ked? I feel like demand will outpace any conservation efforts and eclipse any technological advances.

Beyond_Plastics13 karma

nope there are hundreds of local law that have been adopted in just the past few years that reduce the use of plastic. New York State , for instance, recently banned plastic bags. Guess how many plastic bags are used by New Yorker? 22 billion a year. we need to do this nationwide and worldwide. I teach college students. they understand this issue and they are getting more and more active. We can turn the tide. I feel we have no choice by to try and to try really hard. check out beyondplastics.org for ideas.

ehmayearewhy4 karma

How will the government incentivize companies to invest in creating less waste for consumers? There was a time that we weren't reliant on plastics and were able to fix our own products that broke.

Thanks for leading Judith and the rest of the EPA team in advance!

Beyond_Plastics10 karma

Great question. there are bills pending in places like Maryland which focus on "right to repair" when we have major consumer products that break down, I would like to get them repaired then having to buy new ones every time. Think i phones. Repair also creates jobs. When I lived in NYC, I would always bring my worn shoes to a shoemaker to get it repaired. we need to move away from being a throw away society. some states have introduced bills that get us in that direction, but none have become law. Check out the website: the story of stuff. For me, this is also an ethical issue. The US makes up 4.25% of the world's population but uses 17% of the world's energy, 24% of the world's natural resources and creates 12% of the world's solid waste. This is not sustainable.

aphrodite_73 karma

Other than avoiding using as much plastic as possible, what can we do as individuals to help make a difference? I do what I can but I would love to do more. I came to ask if you felt like it was a lost cause, but I saw that someone else already asked that. I hope it isn´t and I appreciate the work you, and your team, does. Any tips are welcome!

Beyond_Plastics6 karma

it is not a lost cause. This is a hot issue because so many people like you care. Get educated, get involved with a local group that is working on this and try to tackle this issue at the local level. If you go to beyondplastics.org you will see a sample local law called the plastic trifecta that reduces plastic bags, straws and polystyrene packaging. It is much easier to affect change at the local level than say in Washington DC. call your local elected represenatives. get to know their staff and say you want to work with them to pass local laws to reduce plastic pollution. It is a great way to meet people in your community and create a model for others. I teach a class on plastic pollution which is now offered on line. that is a good way to get informed too.

et27U4Y4qse0AIcyFZg83 karma

I lived abroad for a few years where the recycling program was actually top-notch. People had to separate their materials before recycling them (take the labels off of bottles, etc), which made the recycling pipeline much easier. Because of this, the packaging was often designed to be easy to break down, clean, and recycle.

After returning to the US, I was regularly frustrated with how difficult it is to clean and separate materials for recycling. Labels are glued on to PET bottles, for instance, instead of shrink-fitted. Despite there being edible rings for packs of cans and bottles, everything still comes in plastic turtle-murdering rings.

All of that said, are there any plans to create regulations around packaging design to force companies to use more sustainable or even recyclable packaging options?

Beyond_Plastics13 karma

yes. it is called Extended Producer Responsibility. I often hear your observation and it is spot on. we do not need to be a throw away society.

Rumhed3 karma

Thankyou for your work in the environment.Approximently how many nano particles do we eat per fish? And which area is the worse in the world for plastic pollution.

Beyond_Plastics6 karma

I can't provide that level of detail as it depends where the fish are when they are caught. There are more microplastics in seafood that you eat whole such as shrimp, oyster and mussels. Fish are a major protein source for many people around the world. we need to aim toward no plastic in any fish. cheers, Judith Enck

Created May 27, 2009


happywop3 karma

Have you given any thought to outright banning plastic grocery bags? I mean paper bags with handles are much better in every respect other than cost which retailers charge you for plastic anyways...so?

Beyond_Plastics6 karma

absolutely. they are banned in New York and about 7 other states. A nationwide ban is included in the Break free From Plastic Pollution Act. Those bags are a major source of litter, they get stuck in trees and also they jam up equipment in recycling center. never put plastic bags in your recycling bin, please.

sunnyseaa3 karma

Based on your experiences do you feel it is a losing battle or can we reach a point where we aren’t reliant on petrochemicals and/or plastic?

Beyond_Plastics17 karma

This is not a losing battle and that is why my colleagues and I are spending every day working to prevent plastic pollution everywhere. No doubt, the siutation is grim. The planet is warming at an alarming rate and the petro chemical industry views plastic production as their new growth area But, people are waking up to this issue around the world. I am a big believer in "when the people lead, the leaders will follow" slowhappening

katalyst12082 karma

I have an undergraduate degree in EnvSci but I’ve been out of the field for a few years desperate to get back in. Any advice?

Beyond_Plastics5 karma

top notch environmental jobs are hard to find, but they are out there. The biden harris administration is going to be much better on the environment than the previous administration. think about working at the EPA or the National Park Service or NOAA. Almost all federal jobs are found on www.usajobs.gov It is a bear of a website but the only way to break in to federal jobs. There is a preference for veterans and recent Peace Corps alum. Also, think about working for local governments. Some are hiring sustainablity coordinators. non profit jobs can be found at idealist.orgthis is a very rewarding field. I have been doing it for decades and just love this work. You feel like you are making a difference and often you are. Go for it

Glass_Slide2 karma

Who's your favorite member of Wu-Tang Clan? (Can be past or present)

Beyond_Plastics7 karma


no idea. I am more of a bruce springsteen , bonnie raitt, natalie merchant fan