Matt Simon on Microplastics, Pt. 1

Look around you: at this very moment, chances are that within a one-foot radius of your body, there’s something plastic. The ubiquity of plastic comes with a steep cost, however. This week on Sea Change Radio, the first half of our two-part discussion with Matt Simon, a Wired staff writer and author of A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies. In this episode, we learn about the history of plastic manufacturing, look at some unexpected ways that we’re exposed to microplastics, and examine how plastic recycling falls well-short of its promise.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Matt Simon (MS) | 00:17 – We need just a fundamental renegotiation with our relationship with plastic.

Narrator | 00:25 – Look around you: at this very moment, chances are that within a one-foot radius of your body, there’s something plastic. The ubiquity of plastic comes with a steep cost, however. This week on Sea Change Radio, the first half of our two-part discussion with Matt Simon, a Wired staff writer and author of “A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies.” In this episode, we learn about the history of plastic manufacturing, look at some unexpected ways that we’re exposed to microplastics, and examine how plastic recycling falls well-short of its promise.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:30 – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Matt Simon. He’s a senior staff writer at Wired Magazine, and his most recent book is “A Poison Like No Other.” Matt, welcome to Sea Change Radio,

Matt Simon (MS) | 01:41 – And thank you for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:43 – So, your most recent book, as I just mentioned, is, is entitled A Poison Like No Other. It focuses on microplastics. You wrote a piece for Wired recently highlighting a study that showed that microplastics are a real problem in the recycling process. Why don’t you explain, first of all, how much our plastic recycling system is failing us.

MS | 02:09 – It is, unfortunately failing us on a number of different levels. So, the promise all along this is a promise pitched by the plastics industry itself, was that if we’re able to continuously recycle these plastic products, that we could keep these, these materials in circulation. The subtext of that being, well, if that were the case, we wouldn’t need to produce any more plastic, right? So why would a plastics industry want us to do something that would decrease their, their bottom line? So all along reporting has come out. NPR did a piece about this a couple years ago, that that found that the plastics industry pitched recycling as a way to shunt the responsibility for plastics pollution to the public. So, it’s your fault and my fault that we’re not recycling bottles in bags enough, and they’re escaping into the environment and, and that onus is on us. But all along the plastics industry knew that the economics of recycling just didn’t add up. It is much, much cheaper to just keep producing virgin plastics, largely because the price of fossil fuels are still very low. 99% of plastics still being made out of, of fossil fuels. So this study that you mentioned, came out, I believe last year, was really a one of the first quantifications of this thing that we didn’t consider in plastics recycling, is that another angle into this, which is as the plastic is, is processed in this facility, it’s chewed up, shredded, washed multiple times, that wash water is then flushed out into the environment so when that stuff is all chewed up, it produces lots and lots of microplastic and nanoplastic microplastic typically being defined as something that’s smaller than five millimeters, nanoplastics typically being smaller than a millionth of a meter. So that effluent is spewing into the environment. And this, this study quantified that it’s something on the order of 6.5 million pounds of microplastic coming out of a single recycling facility each year. That is a state-of-the-art facility. So this is the best of the best. They had filtration, best of the best filtration that you can get in a recycling facility. Still, you have all this microplastic escaping. It was just one of these things that we did not really consider, uh, as part of a, the recycling process. And another thing we now need to be worried about in the fundamentally broken economics of recycling.

AW | 04:37 – Yes. You wrote this book on microplastics. Take us through a little bit on the supply chain side, if you will, or, or the lifecycle of this effluent then, and how it could affect so many different ecosystems.

MS | 04:52 – Sure. This is like so many things in the United States, uh, and elsewhere. This is just not regulated. So when we’re thinking about the ways that microplastics and nanoplastics are escaping into the environment, you’ve probably heard that our clothing is a major source of this. So clothing, some two-thirds of it is now made out of plastic. So, polyester, nylon, these sorts of things, and a single load of laundry, millions of these fibers can break off of these, these articles of clothing and flush out to a wastewater treatment facility, which then flushes that water out into the environment. Microplastics and nanoplastics have been this invisible problem up until very recently that we just didn’t fully understand the extent of. So obviously with the, the recycling, that was a very new finding that this is millions of pounds of microplastics coming out of a single facility each year. But just from our washing machines, uh, there is an astounding amount of microplastic flushing out of our clothing and into the oceans each year. A fun little fact that I don’t think many people fully understand is that when, our human waste goes to a wastewater treatment facility,  it is processed into this stuff called sludge, which is human waste that is applied to fields as fertilizer. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years as humans, right, applying human waste as fertilizer to fields. Uh, so when these microfibers flush to one of these facilities that gets sequestered into that sludge, which is then spread on fields. So there was one study a couple years ago that found that we could be applying on the order of a billion pounds of microplastic to fields just in North America each year. So it’s 90% of the microfibers former clothing end up in sledge. The remaining 10% is then flushed out into the ocean as that effluent, uh, that is, uh, massively corrupting the environment. The same thing is happening here for recycling facilities is this is just not something that was on the radar. First of all, at the facility level. No wastewater treatment facility is equipped with the proper filtration to capture these fibers because again, this is a, a problem that we’re just now coming to grips with the recycling facility. Never, I don’t think, imagine that they would be flushing millions of pounds of, of microplastic into the environment each year. So we have this situation where, you know, recycling means well, and my God, I wish that it actually worked in its current form, like the economics of it. But so long as virgin plastic remains very, very cheap, it just doesn’t, it doesn’t pencil out. Getting into a whole other realm of issues in, in a, like a plastic circular economy, which is, this is a toxic material. We don’t even want to keep it in circulation. We want to remove as much of it from our daily lives as possible. But we’re obviously up against a plastics industry and oil industry that are relatively high powered and rich to fight against that.

AW | 07:56 – Yes. Is there any data that points to the efforts by the plastics and fossil fuel industries shifting the narrative, if you will, in terms of plastic being just a very easy to recycle material? Is there any data that points to an increased use in plastics directly related to some of these campaigns? I I can just think of how the needle has moved so much in both directions in terms of single use plastic bottle use, for example.

MS | 08:27 – Yeah, I haven’t seen the data with that specific link, but, actually right now, as you and I speak, the UN treaty on plastics is under negotiations in Nairobi, at this very moment. So this is the latest round of negotiations, ideally for a treaty that will be finalized by the end of next year. So this would, in a perfect world for scientists and anti-pollution groups, this would include some sort of cap, internationally on the production of plastics. Scientists and environmentalists roundly agree that the only way to fix this crisis is not with more recycling. It is with massively curtailing the amount of plastic that is actually made. So single-use plastics, as you mentioned, so much of that, I would argue all of it is, is completely unnecessary. It was not that long ago in human history, uh, decades really, that we were getting along perfectly fine without all the single-use. Plastic, glass, and metal and cardboard are all perfectly suitable materials that are very, very easy to recycle. Uh, the economics are perfectly fine there, uh, as opposed to plastics, which is broken from a recycling standpoint. So, what the data does show is that since the 1940s, we have had an exponential increase in the pre-production of plastic. Generally, uh, additionally studies looking at microplastics in the environment, you can go through things like ocean sediments and actually go year by year to see how much microplastic was deposited in 1945 versus 65 or 75. They have charted a perfect exponential rise mapping perfectly with the, uh, the production of plastic general. Generally, the more we produce, the more microplastic gets into the environment, and that is a, a very clear signal that, that, uh, I think in a very positive way, that if we can reduce the amount of plastic, we see pretty immediate effect of the amount of plastic escaping into the environment, be that as microplastics like bottles and bags or with microplastics and nanoplastics, what we’re up against is <laugh>, of course, that the plastics industry wants to keep producing as much plastic as it possibly can. It is probably going to triple production by 2060. We are currently at a trillion pounds of plastic a year. So 3 trillion pound pounds of, of plastic a year by 2060. Yeah. Sit there and tell me <laugh> from the industry how plastics recycling is working. Right, they’re full of it. It’s, it’s, if plastics recycling work, they would not need to exponentially increase the amount of plastic that they’re, they’re making. So, that, that is where I think the data is very strong actually. And, and again, where I’m hopeful is that, if we stop production as much as we can single use plastics in particular, uh, I’m not saying don’t put plastics in airplanes because that’s what makes them fly. They’re not fully made outta plastic, but interiors and things are made outta plastic to, to lighten the load so they can actually take to the air. I’m talking about crazy single use plastics, like single use wrapping cucumbers in supermarkets, which drives me absolutely bonkers. Oh yeah. Cucumbers have skins of their own, you’ll see potatoes sometimes wrap a single use plastic…

AW | 11:52 – Or even these little four ounce bottles of water, which you get handed out on an airplane.

MS | 11:58 – Yeah. We need just a fundamental renegotiation with our relationship with plastic, that will entail cutting out single use plastic as much as possible. And just raising awareness among people of these sneaky ways that microplastics and nanoplastics are escaping to the environment. Be that through recycling or, or clothing or whatever. As we sit in this room, this carpet might be made outta plastic if it’s not made outta cotton people.

AW | 12:27 – This is a handmade Afghani. I don’t think it’s made of hu it’s a hundred years old.

MS | 12:32 – It looks, it looks beautiful <laugh>, but in general, carpeting is made outta plastic, right? You have nice hardwood floors, but laminate, vinyl, things like that, that’s made outta plastic, that’s all shedding.

AW | 12:43 – And if we went into my refrigerator, forget it, like everything’s plastic in that world, right? Yeah. And our food storage and our, our, our kitchen items, our appliances, they’re just all plastic, right? Yeah.

MS | 12:54 – Yeah. And that’s, I mean, there’s a gradient here of, of things that we should be using plastic for, right? So it’s like planes fly because of, of some part, the plastic plays great. But, you know, single use wrapping vegetables is madness. But that also brings us to these questions of, of equity too, right? Like, if you can’t afford or don’t have access to a farmer’s market, you have to buy all of your food in single use plastic. So that just adds extra layers of stickiness to this really, really tough problem, right?

AW | 13:31 – And people from the plastics industry or from the food industry might say, we get to the food waste problem. Would you rather people dump their cucumbers after four days? Now with these plastic wrappers, they’ll last 10 or whatever the number is, you know, like, we’re helping people save money by buying these items, which in the short run might be true, but in the long run, what are we all doing? Yeah. We have to kind of ask ourselves.

MS | 13:59 – Yeah. There’s parallels to the same narrative with recycling. They’re, what they’re saying here is that plastics improves food safety, reduces food waste. Well, then why do we have a massive problem with food waste right now? <laugh>, right? Like, if we’re using all this plastic and still wasting a tremendous amount of food, maybe there are, uh, more systemic inherent problems in the food system that we have right now than just the question of plastic. I love talking, and just nerding out and ranting about why we need more urban farms. Putting more green spaces in cities, reduces air temperatures. You can produce food more locally. You can produce food waste that way. You’re not shipping it with lots of emissions by truck to city to city. There are solutions to this, which is more locally produced where we can even in, even in big cities. I think we’ll see that in the coming decades. But just again, fundamentally renegotiating our relationship with plastic, that, that really demands, that more of the public understands that this is out of control. And that’s actually, that’s hap there’s good polling right now that’s showing people are waking up to, oh my God, this is just absolutely bonkers what we have done, wrapping our entire lives with this truly toxic material.

(Music Break) | 15:31

AW | 16:10 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Matt Simon. He is a senior staff writer at Wired. So Matt, you were talking about how plastic recycling falls short in so many ways, especially just comparing to glass and, and paper and, and aluminum. The effluent issue with the microplastics is one aspect of it, but just in terms of apples to apples recycling capability and production, do you have any, off the top of your head, idea about… if I had a hundred aluminum cans and a hundred plastic bottles and I gave them to Recology here in San Francisco, how many of those are going to be converted into reusable materials, for example?

MS | 16:56 – I don’t have the data on that on a cardboard, aluminum glass, other than to say that this is stuff that’s, that’s very easy to recycle, compared to plastic. So in the United States right now, we are recycling 5% of our plastic waste. That’s five…

 AW | 17:17 – And, then there are some municipalities that probably are below 2% and others that are closer to 10, I’m guessing, right?

MS | 17:23 – On average, on average, 5% of plastic waste is recycled. That is, uh, due to a couple things. So first of all, plastic in general was just never designed to be <laugh> to be recycled. You can only recycle a given piece of plastic two times before it degrades to the point when you cannot do so anymore. The, second issue is that there are so many different kinds of plastic dozens of different kinds of polymers. I mean, there’s, there’s more popular ones, PVC, these sort of things that we’ve heard about.

AW | 17:58 – Yeah. For example, I always think about film plastic bags Yeah. And film. And I leave it out from my waste management company in a special bag, but I really don’t know what happens to it. Do you?

MS | 18:10 – Yeah. <laugh>. Yeah. So, 95% of the time it’s not recycled <laugh> on average. So because we have so many different kinds of polymers, these require different, uh, modes of, of recycling, um, I said mentioned earlier in, in these plastics recycling facilities, they’re grinding this stuff up, shredding it, um, it’s melted down into pellets that is then turned into new plastic products. But you can’t recycle, um, you know, polyurethane with, with PVC they’re two different things. There’s another trend that’s, that’s been happening in the past couple of decades with single use plastic in particular, which is that a plastic bottle isn’t necessarily just a plastic bottle anymore. So, um, these plastics are getting more complicated in, in their composition. So if you think about, you know, those single use yogurt things for babies or baby food, I don’t have a kid, I don’t know, but I I, my friends who have kids have these things where they’re like pouches. Um, they might be multi-layered with different kinds of plastic

 AW | 19:10 – Oh, like the Go-Gurt stuff?

MS | 19:11 – Yeah, yeah. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and then there’s a cap on it, which a different kind of plastic. And

AW | 19:15 – That’s plastic, right?

MS | 19:16 – So you have these new products that are even more difficult to recycle. So it’s not just like, “oh, I threw a, a plastic bottle and that, that might feasibly get recycled.” That’s a simple kind of plastic. But more and more we’re getting these extra complicated ones that are increasingly difficult to recycle. So the already broken economics of recycling, uh, are getting more broken, not better. And that just, it’s just, again, at the end of the day, it comes down to we cannot recycle our way out of this mess. We have to stop producing plastic full stop.

AW | 19:54 – And we’re not even talking about developing world like, um, global. We’re, we’re just talking global north recycling right now. Like if you go, I was in Costa Rica maybe a decade ago, and I remember there was just a, when I was going to the grocery store, there was, there were a few older women who were just like, pushing the free vinyl bags, the, the plastic bags that come with your shopping experience at this grocery store. And I was like, no, no, I’m okay. And they’re like, what? And like, and that’s just, that’s part of the culture in it is just super convenient. And it’s like, why would you not take this bag that’s gonna carry all your stuff, you know? And, and so that’s probably not getting recycled too much in Costa Rica, I’m imagining, right?

MS | 20:36 – So this is a twofold problem. And like true criminality on the part of these plastics companies who have made, first of all, uh, no secret that they are flooding developing countries with plastic. They see that as their, their growth. They’re tripling production by 2060 in large part because they’re flooding into, uh, developing countries that had not yet, like the United States been, been drowning in plastic. Um, so buffalo for that developing world is if we have not been pushing enough bull crap on them in general. Uh, so the other thing that’s happening at the same time, uh, we are sending our recycling to many of these countries. So, um, because it is not economically feasible to do mass recycling United States, um, we have more or less secretly for the past couple of decades just been shipping it to developing countries. China, until I believe 2018 or 2019 was one of the major importers of our plastic waste. 2018, 2019, they said, “Hmm, we’re not doing that anymore because we are now drowning in the plastic that, um, we can’t recycle either.” So what do we do with this? This is being shoved into countries like the Philippines, which don’t have a tremendous amount of space to process this stuff. So it is escaping into the environment. So when you, like, you’ll hear of the times like, oh, Asia is massively responsible for this plastic waste issue. ’cause their, their rivers are spewing plastic. Well, why are there rivers sp because we’re drowning those countries with that is American plastic a lot of the time. Um, so it’s, it, it’s not their fault that the plastics industry from the global north is flooding, both with these new plastics, these new plastic products and these developing economies, the economy, these developing markets. But also we’re still shipping all this stuff that we can’t feasibly recycle United States. It was this sort of secret, like we thought that recycling was working. Where’s, where’s all the plastic going? It must be recycled, right? No, it was put on cargo ships and sent to developing countries, um, which are again, oftentimes too small to properly landfill. What, what? They’re not able to recycle. So they’re burning it, or it’s es like, don’t even get me started on what happens when you burn plastic, uh, that either that or it’s escaping into these rivers. Um, and then when you hear quantifications of rivers in Asia are so much worse than, uh, rivers in the United States or wherever. There’s good reasons for that. And it’s, it’s because of the plastics industries, not because the failings of these countries themselves.

(Music Break) | 23:18

AW | 24:14 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Matt Simon. He is a senior staff writer at Wired. You were just mentioning like what plastic was designed to be in your book, you give us a little bit of the history of the plastics industry. I was interested to know that it, it came from billiards. That was like the first plastic. Why don’t you tell that story if you can?

MS | 24:37 – Boy, It’s a, it’s a weirdly tragic story, right? So, um, tragic, but maybe not for the elephants anyway, in the late 18 hundreds, billiard ball, like billiards was becoming very popular. Billiard balls were made out of elephant ivory. It turns out when you make a bunch of billiard balls out of elephant ivory, you run low on elephants. Um, so this very famous billiards player put out a, a prize, a $10,000 prize for somebody who could invent some sort of synthetic ivory, some sort of replacement for that, that natural ivory from elephants so we don’t run out of billiard balls. I don’t think he was really gave a damn about the elephants. He just wanted to make sure that he could stay famous as a billiards player. Um, so that’s actually where the first plastic came from. It was, it was like well, I should say the first mass producible plastic. So one that could be turned out in large volumes.

AW | 25:34 – And this is before Bakelite, right?

MS | 25:36 – Yes, yes. So this was the, it was really the precursor to, to bake light. So, um, this, so like you’ve, you’ve heard of celluloid, so like celluloid film is highly flammable, uh, <laugh> or reports that, uh, when these billiard balls first came into use, these like synthetic plastics, uh, if you hit the ball too hard, it would explode <laugh> because like it’s a very volatile material. Um, so, uh, yes, I think we, we saved a good number of elephants by inventing the first mass producible plastic. Um, but we opened up this can of worms is not even even the right way to put it, to like, to get to the extremes that we now find ourselves in absolutely drowning the world in this material. So, um, really though, it was kinda interesting you got plastics products here and there following, uh, you know, in the early 19 hundreds. But it wasn’t until World War II that production really, really kicked off. We got supply shortages. So cotton was in short supply, so we started making parachutes out of nylon, synthetic rubber, which is a kind of plastic, replaced the natural rubber from the trees that we were cutting down, in tropical regions and running out of that material. And since the 1940s after World War ii, that’s when the exponential increase of plastics really kicked off. So what began as a fun little $10,000 prize to find a replacement for elephant ivory in billiard balls, really snowballed -it got a bit outta control where we now find ourselves producing a trillion pounds of this material year

AW | 27:20 – And 3 trillion pounds in 35 years, you say.

MS | 27:24 – Right, yeah. We’re, we’re heading. And, and that is why not the harp on this, but that’s why the UN treaty is so important. We cannot allow the plastics industry to get away with this. They’re not going to, out of the goodness of their hearts cut back on, um, on plastic expression because they have a legal obligation to their shareholders in this perverse kind of way to produce as much plastic as possible and drown the world in this material and further destabilize ecosystems with microplastics and nanoplastics.

AW | 27:53 – Matt Simon, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

MS | 27:57 – And thanks for having me.

AW | 27:59 – Tune in next week for the second half of our discussion with Matt Simon.

Narrator| 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Clash, Elliot Smith and Seal. To read a transcript of this show, go to Sea Change Radio dot com stream, or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.