tv KQED Newsroom PBS December 31, 2021 7:00pm-7:31pm PST
tonight, the durability of plastics is why we love them. it is also the real problem in the environment. >> a special report about the impact of plastics on our environment. >> if plastics were a country úthey would be the fifth larges emitter of greenhouse gases. >> hello and welcome. tonight, we bring you a special episode that is all about plastic. is a big part of everyday lives. it is made all kinds of medical
advances possible. new research is finding plastic in places you wouldn't expect. in our water, sold in the placenta of pregnant women. tiny particles of micro- plastics are in the air we breathe and in the waters of the san francisco bay. in this newsroom special we look at what this proliferation of plastic means and what california is doing to fight plastic pollution.>> reporter: every minute 1 million plastic bags gets used around the world and most get use for only 15 minutes. 10 million tons of discarded plastic ends up in the ocean every year. that is about one garbage truck load every minute. >> it looked like bc was rainbow colored and when we got to the beach it was micro- plastics.>> reporter: promises
that recycling will prevent it from becoming litter are running thin. >> we put it into the blue bin assuming our job is done. >> the reality is most of those materials are not getting recycled.>> reporter: in california more than 12,000 tons of plastic ends up in landfills every single day. the list of plastics in the dump is long and varied, pots, lids, bags, forks. what is california doing to stop plastic waste? for a long time i thought everything i put in my recycling bin was getting recycled and finding new life as another useful product. most are labeled with a number. the recycling symbol and the words recyclable. when i started learning that
most plastics are in fact not getting recycled, i started looking at why not. what does it take to recycle something? california loves recycling. the state started one of the earliest programs in the country. programs and businesses have affected millions of dollars. trucks that pick it up from your house and take it to masse facilities where discarded aluminum, glass, paper, plastic are gathered up again. >> this wod represent 60 tons per hour and this runs two shifts per day. a typical day we will process 800 to 1000 tons per round 20,000 tons a month. >> reporter: the vice president of sustainability at this facility truck spring and recyclables from households throughout--. their aim is to keep as much of it out of the
landfill as possible. what is it we see here? >> this is generated through households. what we are looking at is 180 tons of material. most of this arrives in a large semitruck. this is what we call--over here is the handler. >> reporter: first they have to sort through a mountain of material. they need to separate aluminum from cardboard and glass from plastic bottles and they need to pick out lots and lots of garbage like these electronics, this backpack, these curtains úand this, it is not clear what that is. >>-- >> reporter: he says there is value in recycling. is good for the environment and it is good business when there are buyers that want to make recycle products like those jugs that mill comes in.
there is a high demand for those. >> this is what we call high density polyethylene natural. these materials are non- pigmented so any downstream consumer could turn this into any color they want to. in today's marketplace this is the most valuable commodity we are producing at this location. because of that demand in the marketplace today this is trading for over a dollar a pound or $2000 per ton.>> reporter: that is only one kind of plastics. it comes in different chemical formulations with very density, transparency and colors. in this pile alone how many different kinds of plastics do you think there are? >> thousands of different formulations for sure especially with the flexible packaging.>> reporter: that is one of the biggest problems, the immense variety.
manufacturers need large supplies of the same kind of plastic and it is not just a separating from plastic and nonplasticeven the different types must be separated. >> these are common household ú literally three different types of plastic with a metal spring inside. that is one common product made of four different materials.>> reporter: then there are plastics that cannot be recycled at all. >> this is a flexible mailer and we are starting to see a lot more of these. this particular shipper is transitioning some of the smaller shipments away from cardboard into something like this. this is an example of something that is difficult to recycle.>> reporter: with the wide variety of plastics in that pile brought in every day by trucks,
what happens to them? >> most often landfill. >> every day california throws away enough for two olympic size swimming pools. the problem is in order for the promise of recycling to work someone has to buy used plastic, clean it and turn it into something new. california lawmakers have been looking for ways to generate more demand of recycled plastic so one product could get made into another one and eventually another one. >> we want to make sure we actually have a circular econom >> reporter: today the assembly member is checking out a local recycling center that travels to different neighborhoods to ke recycling easy--requiring beverage bottles contain some recycled plastic because recycled plastic costs more than new plastic. >> we wanted to make sure that
the recycling was happening here in california. we had a number of manufacturers who were struggling because there wasn't enough market for their products. these are california jobs and these are good jobs. we are recycling this plastic in california and using it in california.>> reporter: under the law which was enacted in 2020, all plastic beverage bottles must contain no less an 25% recycled plastic by the year 2025 and no less than 50% by the year 2030. that bill was the first of its kind in the country, now they want to expand that by targeting another product, thermoformed plastic which is frequently used to box strawberries and make cups. >> this is typical for us.
these are items that we are working to try to get recycled. right now they are not recyclable. >> reporter: overtime plastic breaks apart in smaller and smaller pieces and until úrecently not much attention wa paid to how it affects human health. that is slowly starting to change. >> my field is emerging contaminants and micro-plastics so i look at contaminants that haven't been regulated yet, but are getting out into the environment.>> reporter: on the shores of the san francisco bay they are trying to measure how much is in the bay. they are not looking for large obvious plastic waste, but rather something that is harder to measure, micro-plastics. >> micro-plastics are tiny pieces smaller than five millimeters. when you have these small pieces it becomes pretty easy for these tiny particles to be ingested or inhaled and that is when you get the exposure and potential for harm.>> reporter:
these are two stacked--so this way we can collect two different particles. >> reporter: in 2019 sutton and her team published the results of the three-year study. they found micro-plastics in the surface waters of the bay and in the mud. they found them in stormwater runoff, treated wastewater and every type fish they sampled. their study suggests that the san francisco bay has more mike plastic pollution than most water bodies in the united states. the two most common types of micro-plastics were fibers from clothing and small bits from tires. sample and this is consistent y with what you see all around the world. everywhere you look for it you will find micro-plastics.>> reporter: that is why in 2018 california started to find out
how much is in the drinking water. it is another first of its kind effort in the country. >> sometime you can see them in the sand and sometimes floating in the water. most of them are impossible to see.>> reporter: the doctoris a senior scientist with the california water board. his job is to establish what levels of micro-plastics are safe in drinking water. >> one of the reasons that plastic in drinking water has received recent attention especially by california legislature is that we know the amount is increasing. >> reporter: he says there are over 2400 chemicals frequently added to plastics that are potentially ngerous. many change how our hormones work, many toxins and some cause intellectual disabilities. stuck if you can think of plastics as a carrier for other chemicals. you can think of it as a sponge and one citizen the environment
it picks up other pollutants. >> reporter: he is analyzing studies from around the world. scientists have found that micro-plastics are able to enter into ourselves. >> smaller particles are more toxic. the smaller, the more likely it is to interact with ourselves. >> reporter: one found the micro-plastics in six out of four four out of six placentas examined. >> this suggests that the plastic particles are being transfred from the mother to the developing fetus. >> reporter: that is small if it can get down to that level. >> the paicles were smaller than 10 micrometers which is about the with of a hair.>> reporter: i wanted to know how ubiquitous they are so i asked where have scientists found micro-plastics? >> a better question would be where have they not been found.
it seems everywhere we looked we found them from mount everest to be--. every organism we have looked we have found some levels and at this point, i am not sure that there exists a place that is not impacted by plastic pollution. >> reporter: ever since plastic was first invented in the mid- 1800s, it has revolutionized manufacturing. the projection has proliferated. in 1950 only about 2 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide.
over the past 70 years plastic production has grown exponentially to about 400 million tons annually. plastic packaging, the largest sector of the market makes it possible to ship products around the world, coffee to go and keep our food fresh. with it central to so many products the industry and the recycling sector are loing for ways to make it easier to recycle.--is a program director. why not stop using plastic as a packaging? >> and enter other materials? >> we are committed to packaging. >> they are very light and flexible.>> reporter: the members include petroleum and chemical companies. they promote best practices.
>> this is a ready to drink tea brand. the clunky metal top was preventing it from being compatible and they have changed it to plastic.>> reporter: chemists have found ways tinnovate on plastic resins to make them easier to recycle. >> initially in order to have that handle it had to be made of a resin that wasn't compatible so overtime they developed a different resin that did allow to be fully recyclable. >> reporter: of the estimated 9 billion tons of plastic that have been produced in the past century and a half only nine- -have been recycle. the manufacturing of new plastic in the united states alone produces 100 million tons of carbon dioxide work with light greenhouse gases every year. that is about the same as running 5500 megawatt coal burning power plants and plastic factories are planned or under construction.
>> it is a greenhouse gas and climate issue that we have to confront and we are serious about it in california. from an industry perspective, as we move to electrification of cars, there is a glut of oil in the market. >> reporter: many policy and advocates say it is time we manufacture less plastic. california has passed laws to ban plastic microbeads and body washes and limit when restaurants can hand out plastic utensils. california was the first state to ban gary out plastic grocery bags and the first to stop hotels from handing out small shampoo bottles. that goes into effect in 2023. rauter ideas have stopped every time. >> the e-commerce industry uses
2.1 billion pounds of plastic packaging. this is low hanging fruit and something that is really a scourge.>> reporter: that bill didn't pass and attempts to increase the recycling of the red cello cups and strawberry containers didn't make it. another bill that would enforce manufacturers to slash the amount of waste generated by single use product by 70%. >> the cost of the end-of-life management for this material to the producers.>> reporter: that bill got shelved. >> we will go to the opposition to ask.
-- >> i can't point to a particular member of the legislature who has been bought by these things, but i can tell you we are deeply outgunned on the environmental front about the resources. it takes a lot of money to push back and these industries have it. truth lobbies she has worked for years with nonprofit environmental groups to push for tougher regulation of waste management and production regulations. >> consistently two thirds of californians say this is a huge problem and we have really struggled to get enough votes. >> we oppose that bill . >> reporter: tim is senior director of state affairs with the american chemistry council,
a trade group of plastics and chemical companies. he says they support efforts to reduce, but doesn't agree with bills like sb 54. >> this goes too far, does it provide opportunities for the business community to comply in a reasonable fashion ? it didn't take into account some of the other trade-offs that we would like to discuss, light weighting, fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions associated with potential alternatives.>> reporter: they want to see greater benefits and policies that are applied comprehensively to all packaging not just plastics. let's talk about future goals. to members of your group in particular the petroleum industry have plans to up the production of resin? >> you have a variety of applications from building and
construction and water piping and insulation, electronics, medical devices. the materials go into packaging we understand we have to make sure those down and up in a disposal. >> reporter: is everyone wrangles over policy, startup businesses are trying to innovate our way out of our reliance on plastic. when the pandemic shutdown restaurants and bars and allowed takeout and delivery entrepreneur watched as plastic takeout containers piled up. >> we dined in and offices now everything is takeout and delivery and everyone is getting grocery boxes and the implications are terrifying.>> reporter: her idea is use reusable containers. >> this is one of our containers. a customer will get this and they can text the number for collection and with that they will get notified what day we collect in their neighborhood or they can find a return been.
we have 40 throughout the bay area. if they decide to do that they can scan the qr code and we market as returned.>> reporter: customers pay extra. >> the avocado up charge.>> reporter: she says so far customers willingly pay because they want to avoid creating more plastic wastes. >> the value to customers is the equal to eco-guilt. it is not just a sustainability, it is a good business decision. >> something that is more unexpected is solid dish soap. >> reporter: others are opening up stores that eliminate packaging altogether like the solid body cleaning products that don't need a container. >> you wet it and then you do your dishes and that is it.
>> these are tablets so you take one and put it in your mouth and crush it a little bit and first her eth and that is it another one is lotion bar. >> reporter: the students have found other ways to use more plastic. they bring their utensils to school every day. >> we have 38 total bags.>> reporter: they gave themselves a challenge to you so little waste it fits into a tiny
little container. >> i asked them if they wanted to and they agreed and we asked him what the goal was. toy a calculated the diversion from the landfill waste using our math skills.>> reporter: what is the equation? >> this makes the math come alive and allows them to see the impact of their work. >> this makes them feel empowered and gives them the skills to know how to inform
>> if it is possible the class gets all of their trash for the school year into this can and i think it is possible for the adults to reduce their ways. >>adults need to step up so we don't make environmental waste in the first place. >> the new law which past at night requires that all dining utensils be reusable and that all takeout utensils be combustible. >> i want to thank the students for coming tonight and sharing your thoughts. personally, i want to say, you give me hope. you gave me hope for the future. >> reporter: these are not the only ones impatient to see change. >> climate changes here and it is urgent and we need to rethink the way the world
works. >> i think we recognize that we have a role to play. >> reporter: in 2022 a ballot initiative will allow voters to weigh in. until now until then the trade- offs will continue. >> it is starting from awareness to start the cause of it. >> we have so much information right now >> we are tracking some and you
need to pay attention because eventually it will come to a theater near you. >> we hope you enjoyed our special report. if you want to share your ideas or legislative change or your reactions email us and you can find the newsroom online anytime and you can reach me on twitter. thank you, good night.
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