Plastic Is Fossil Fuel: How to Get Off the Stuff

bulk foods in reusable cloth bags reduce plastic pollution

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the UN Environment Programme’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new dire report entitled “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” Both the war in Ukraine and the IPCC report underscore the need to speed up the world’s transition away from dirty energy: Burning fossil fuels scorches the planet while Russian sales of oil and gas fund its razing of Ukraine.

In addition to heating homes and fueling cars and cooking meals, fossil fuels are also the primary component of plastic. So while we turn down the heat a degree or two and put on a sweater, drive less and perhaps give methane-free induction cooking a whirl in our efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption and dependence, reducing plastic will also reduce fossil fuel demand.

The amount of fossil fuels that go into plastic is not trivial. According to a 2021 report from Beyond Plastics, in the US, emissions generated from plastic all along 10 stages of its polluting lifecycle—extraction of fossil fuels, transportation, refining, production, chemical recycling, waste incineration and so on—will exceed the emissions from coal-fired power plants by 2030.

In other words, as geographer Deidre MacKay has explained, “plastic is climate change, just in its solid state.” 

Some good news on the plastic pollution crisis

Days after the IPCC report came out, the UN announced that 175 countries agreed to begin writing a global treaty to address the crisis. This legally binding agreement will not merely deal with plastic pollution after the fact; it will curb the problem at its source—production. 

According to the New York Times

Supporters have said that a global plastics treaty would be the most important environmental accord since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, in which nations agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Here in my state, the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act will appear on the November 2022 statewide ballot. If it passes, it would levy a fee on single-use plastic items, up to a maximum of 1 cent per item of packaging and foodware. The money would help fund waste reduction programs, recycling systems upgrades and environmental mitigation. (Read more about the landmark initiative here.) What happens in California—the fifth largest economy in the world—doesn’t stay in California. Out-of-state companies that want to do business here will have to comply if the initiative passes. 

And today, Starbucks announced a new reusable cup program. Customers will either be able to bring a mug from home or use a reusable mug provided by Starbucks. Currently, Starbucks goes through 7 billion throw-away cups worldwide in a year, either paper cups lined with plastic or plastic cups. (Aside from the waste, food and plastic don’t mix well.) This shows that the reuse revolution has gained steam. Even Starbucks is doing something.

Starbucks is shifting away from single-use plastics and piloting reusable cup programs in six markets around the world. By the end of next year, customers will be able to use their own personal reusable cup for every Starbucks visit in the U.S. and Canada—including in café, drive-thru and mobile order and pay.

Starbucks press release

While we individuals wait for and welcome these changes at the top, we can reduce plastic waste at the bottom

Some ideas:

1. Cut the Top 4. If you’re just getting started, cut these four ubiquitous plastic items that happen to have simple replacements:

  • Plastic shopping bags and produce bags
  • Bottled water
  • Throw-away coffee cups (they are lined with plastic)
  • Plastic straws (a small step that leads to bigger ones)

Cut these and you’ll cut loads of plastic. Read more about the Top 4 here.

2. Choose more ways to cut plastic. If you have already cut the Top 4, move on to more items on this list of 50 ways to cut plastic.

3. Kick plastic in the garden. Fill your home and yard with healthy plants—not the landfill with single-use plastic trash. From plastic bags of soil, compost and mulch to the pots of almost every single seedling, flower and tree for sale, nurseries overflow with the stuff. Go here for alternatives.

toilet paper tubes with plants growing in them to reduce plastic pollution
Plant seeds or cuttings in toilet paper tubes to avoid plastic in the garden

4. Write a letter or email. Ask a company you patronize (or used to) to reduce their plastic trash. You could write something like:

Hi, my name is [NAME] and I love your [NAME OF PRODUCT]. However, I will no longer buy it due to its unnecessary and excessive plastic packaging. As you know, plastic is made of fossil fuels, contributes to the climate crisis and pollutes our natural environment. Please change your packaging so I can once again spend my money with your company!” 

To make sending feedback to a nearby business very easy, download the Remark app. Use it to find a company and choose several areas to rate (product packaging, bulk options, produce bags and so on). The app writes a constructively worded letter on your behalf that asks the store to make changes (but doesn’t use your name) and emails it to the store. Many stores have made changes after receiving these emails. You can also write to stores that have cut down on single-use plastic and let them know you appreciate their efforts.

Thank you to everyone who joined the cook-a-long last week. It raised $2,753 for humanitarian relief in Ukraine and clips of it aired on CBC’s The National! The next fundraiser—Solidarity Sauerkraut—takes place on March 30th. All proceeds go toward Ukrainian relief. Go here for more details.

5 Replies to “Plastic Is Fossil Fuel: How to Get Off the Stuff”

  1. CBC Radio 1, 5 pm rush hour news, announced initiative exploring “How will our cities, life, our spaces look like in a non-fossil dependent economy”, or words to to that effect as widely accepted with the current war that we need to do this sooner than later, envisioning what we need to do to plan now.

    1. That’s good news! The idea has been written off as absurd in the past. Tt won’t be easy but we can do it. (I miss CBC Radio!)

    2. Heard a much more interesting but also disturbing interview late last night on “The Courant”. Matt Galloway, the interviewer discussed how premier of Alberta was singing Canada’s praises at an energy conference in Houston last week, and opened with how the Cdn gas and oli sector made huge profits this year. Then the interviewee portion started with a plea from a Ukrainian climate activist, “To stop paying for R.’s oil and gas and contributing to their war machine”, then an interview with the Cambridge professor/author of “Zero Waste”, and his theory that if we stop paying for R’s fossil fuels, there is still a demand and doing so will likely cause widespread poverty, and transfer to reliance on burning of coal by China and Germany and world wide use of dirty fuels, and since their is still this huge demand for fossil fuels, where will it come from? Discussion re:possibly Canada, and if we are going to use fossil fuels, why not buy it from Canada instead of Russia, and that ever present premise that Canadians should start being able to use the fossil fuel they produce instead of selling it…..then how the US pipelines, the Middle East…. as other possible contenders for sellers, as there is this massive hypocrisy of demand for fossil fuels and until that demand is decreased, then stopping the supply of fossil fuels will be not be possible. To stop the supply now, without other systems in place will cause considerable political upheaval while certain countries will have significant economic leverage on “us” (referring to Western countries). His discussion was more detailed in this concern.

      The Canadian woman who followed him in the interview was one of the Artic chair….? She said yes, there is this issue of this demand and yes there is the production of oil and gas from Canada and the reason that the energy sectors have made such massive profits this year is that the money is not going to into investing for the Tarsands expansion or more pipeline building and the sector has to pay dividends to the shareholders. However, she mentioned that Canada can only produce 1/3 of what Russia is selling to Europe now, and Canada is known to have difficulty building infrastructure (Yeah Canada!) and it takes a long time to build a pipeline and our current part of Keystone is ? years running to completion?. She said that that other countries can build the infrastructure quickly to produce oil to meet the demand such as the US, and Qatar, Middle East.

      She said that is NB to be investing in secure energy production such as wind and solar energy, as the N &G terminals (???) take time but is possible and this is energy that does not run out or is given to political pressures. Here is the big take-way of her discussion !!: as “No country can stop the sun shining or wind blowing on your country” !! So thankful for our time in Denver where the sun and wind energy sectors were alive and growing, and to see it all in effect on the rooves of offices or homes next door or down the street, en-route on the daily commute through windmills rural corridors. The whole discussion made me know exactly where I am going to direct my letters to Cdn, provincial, and municipal politicians.

  2. Jessica Baxter says: Reply

    Thank you for the suggested wording for the email or letter and the link to the Remark app! I think a lot of us struggle with how to pressure the big polluters (businesses) and this gives us a direction!

    1. My pleasure! I’m glad you found the sample letter helpful. The Remark app makes it incredibly easy to send feedback. If enough of us complain, stores will change.

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