New lives for old plastic trash, here and around the world

[Top: Primary school students in Paraguay find creative uses for discarded plastics. Photo by Alex Duello]

By Emily Ellis

Arizona Sonora News

 

After its journey home as a sack for groceries or books or clothing, the plastic bag is destined to live on, in many different ways.

It might end up wadded in a ball at the bottom of a kitchen drawer. Or lost in the wind, flying across open spaces like an erratic ghost or snagging on cacti. Or buried in a landfill, where over the years it shreds into filthy strips. Or burned in a garbage pit, sending wisps of toxins into the atmosphere.

In Tucson and elsewhere, though, the lowly plastic bag just might come to a completely different but still useful end. In  a year-round program run jointly by the Tucson Federal Corrections Complex and the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, plastic bags are being woven into blankets and sleeping mats to keep homeless people more comfortable on chilly desert nights. The plastic mat projects encompass volunteer organizations from prison inmates to social knitting groups.

“Most people see a dirty plastic bag on the ground and walk right past it, the same way they might walk past a homeless person like he’s a piece of garbage,” says C.W. Hall, the head of the Tucson Disabled American Veterans (D.A.V.) office, Chapter 4. “We’re changing the way people look at bags by reusing them to give someone a better life.” The D.A.V. is a nationwide nonprofit organization, founded after World War I, that provides services and support to disabled military veterans.

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Sleeping mats and other things made from discarded plastic bags wait to be distributed at D.A.V. office in Tucson. [Photo by C.W. Hall]
Hall drapes an intricately woven blanket over his desk. It is striped in alternating shades of cream and gray, the logos of Wal-Mart and Safeway just visible in the weave.

“People donate the bags they’re got sitting around the house, the ladies at the Federal Corrections Complex weave them into hats and coats and things, and we pass them out to homeless vets in Tucson,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

It’s an effort to alleviate at least some of the miseries of homelessness while addressing the very visible environmental problem of discarded plastic bags. Many people readily allow cashiers to slip their purchases into multiple plastic bags, unaware that those same bags can later seep harmful chemicals into soil and water sources. The United States alone produced over 100 billion such bags in 2014, and each one can take up to 1000 years to decompose, according to a report from the World Watch Institute. 

Plastic bags have also ignited fierce political debate. Efforts to ban or limit plastic bag circulation have been met with varying degrees of success around the world. In Arizona, a bitter legal battle arose in 2015 after a bill made it illegal for cities to enact plastic bag regulations, citing concern over the potential costs to retailers.

“I don’t get involved in the politics of it,” says Hall. Politicians “can argue all they want. I just figure it’s better for this stuff to end up helping someone than hanging out in a landfill for hundreds of years,” he adds.

Like the D.A.V. some other organizations have discovered that the pervasiveness of the plastic bag lends itself to recycling projects. In 2013, the United States Peace Corps founded a project to convert the ubiquitous plastic bag and other discarded plastic containers into construction materials.

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A primary school student collects bottle caps for a Peace Corps recycling project in Paraguay. [Photo by Alex Duello]
“Poorer communities generally live near places where trash gets dumped, or they don’t have garbage service, or they just haven’t been taught how dangerous pollution is,” says Alex Duello, a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked in Paraguay. “So that’s why the Peace Corps started the Eco-Brick Project.”

A Guatemala-based volunteer who wanted to do something about the plastic bottles and bags littering her community, spearheaded the project. She found that when the scraps of plastic bags were packed tightly into empty bottles, they made rock-hard bricks that could be used to construct homes and schools. Plastics’ resistance to decomposition make the material  perfect for insulating walls and effectively shedding water supplies against contamination and dehydration. Since then, other volunteers have been developing similar projects across the world.

Duello holds up a photo of a young boy bent over a soda bottle. There are piles of multi-colored plastic scraps spread around him, which he is intently stuffing down the bottleneck with a stick.

“It was a lot of work, but I think it was empowering for people to make their communities look better by getting rid of the trash,” she says. “It also made me hyper-conscious about my own plastic consumption, but there’s only so much you can do.” She laughs and holds up her hands. “There’s just so much of it.”

The sheer magnitude of plastic bags in the world is an issue currently addressed by environmental scientists. Plastic bags first became widely familiar in U.S. and European checkout lines in the 1970s, and replaced paper bags at major retailers due to lower cost and durability. In a relatively short time, they have begun to significantly alter ecosystems.

“The words  ‘global’ and ‘enormous’ come to mind,” says Dr. Leif Abrell, when asked to describe the scope of the plastic problem. He is a research scientist in the University of Arizona’s Department of Soil and Water. “A big part of it is that most plastics are engineered as a pollutant, meaning that they’re designed to absorb and de-absorb chemicals. The mechanical breakdown of plastics results in a lot of small pieces, but they don’t really go away. I can’t give you exact units, but I can tell you that every significant body of water in the world contains plastic.”

According to Abrell, such plastic is likely to end up in our bodies one way or another.

“All of the water we drink is processed through a treatment plant,” he says. “The problem is that these treatment plants are designed to process organic waste, but not plastics. So if there’s plastic in that waste stream it’s probably going right through the treatment plant, and there’s a possibility that plastic chemicals surviving water treatment could make people sick. And that’s beside the fact that the plastic animals consume travels up the food chain.”

Plastic bags and containers aren’t going away, of course, despite growing awareness of research on the environmental harm. Nearly all plastics are made from petroleum, and the recent drop in oil prices has adversely affected the recycling industry. It is now cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle it, so ever more plastic will end up in landfills and water sources. It comes down to cost benefits and perceived convenience.

Abrell says, “Most companies just concentrate on the money and ignore social consciousness.”

He examines pictures of the Tucson DAV’s plastic blankets and the Peace Corp’s eco-bricks.

“Interesting,” Abrell says, frowning.  “I do think that lower-income places have the greatest capacity for change, because in those situations you often find people who are really affected by pollution, and tend to make more of an effort to do something about it. But it is still a huge problem.”

Just then, a group of chattering teenaged girls enters the coffee shop, each one clutching a handful of clothing-laden shopping bags. Abrell watches them for a moment, and then returns to his coffee in silence amid the rustle of plastic that could, in time, be put to additional uses.

 

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