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An idea for solving the plastics crisis

Instead of wishful recycling, design and construction firms should starve bad suppliers.

An array of plastic products

A major problem with behavior-change programs in the waste industry is that they rely on consumers being taught to feel the guilt of plastic in the ocean, and the harm to turtles and whales. They’ve tried to condition people to believe that if we buy so-called "zero waste kits," choose zucchini and cucumbers without plastic shrink-wrap and champion our favorite reusable metal straws, these choices alone somehow will drive a reduction in single-use plastics.

While these steps can provide some benefit — and the strategy of creating consumer guilt shouldn’t be entirely discredited — this narrative is misguided. Ultimately, it never will address the root of the issue.

Instead, savvy leaders in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) are focusing more attention on the plastics industry — and by extension, the oil industry.

First, those producers and their trade groups for decades have driven misleading, consumer-centric campaigns that redirect societal blame and attention away from the pollution they create. The classic examples include "sustainability" statements made by plastics industry leaders promoting recycling. These campaigns insinuate: "If consumers recycle correctly, the waste problem will be solved and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will disappear." This is plainly false propaganda, evident first by the astounding fact that a mere 8.4 percent of America’s plastic waste is actually recycled.

Regardless whether designers of the built environment are involved in the policies of overseas plastics recycling, we create structures in which plastics are fixed in place and the spaces that plastics move through.

As a society and as AEC professionals, we can’t continue allowing the plastics industry and oil producers to govern our approach to sustainability. Plastics are the problem — and recycling is not the solution.

So how can more professionals in building design and construction make a difference?

First, admit that recycling is broken. For the past decade, American consumers and businesses have relied on China to accept our immeasurable wave of plastic waste. The U.S. was not sending clean, recyclable material but rather plastics covered in food remains, which turned into mold in the transportation process and became excessively difficult to process upon arrival. Inevitably, by 2018 China instituted a strict contamination allowance under the National Sword policy, which effectively meant Americans no longer could export plastic waste to China. No one blames China for this decision — U.S. leaders should have had the foresight and environmental consciousness to realize the process relied on for the previous decade was not only unsustainable, it also wasn’t even a cost-effective solution for the long term.

Now is the time to look domestically and reframe U.S. waste management — and quickly, because in the meantime America’s plastic waste is being landfilled and burned at an alarming rate, both domestically and abroad.

Plastic waste export chart

Second, consider the AEC industry’s potentially powerful role in this. Regardless whether designers of the built environment are involved in the policies of overseas plastics recycling, we create structures in which plastics are fixed in place and the spaces that plastics move through. Clearly, we can have a significant impact. For example, building designers should:

  • Create sustainable purchasing policies for clients, to be enforced throughout the lifetime of a building’s operations, governing the behaviors of all tenants. These would ensure single-use materials, and especially single-use plastic purchases, are minimized throughout the building’s lifetime. The policy facilitates the best opportunities to allow occupants to act in an environmentally conscious manner.
  • Specify Red List-free building materials. This eliminates all toxic and socially harmful materials, simultaneously decreasing reliance on petrochemicals. Keep in mind, even if plastic building products are retained in situ for 60 years, at end-of-life they are still being landfilled. It’s unhealthy, and we don’t need and shouldn’t foster use of these materials in any buildings.
  • Advocate for improvements to building materials and assemblies. More AEC leaders need to ask vendors and manufacturers to improve their products by decoupling from petrochemical-based ingredients. Many would be glad to comply.

It’s time to face down this challenge. It is the responsibility of designers of the built environment to operate beyond our traditionally defined boundaries and insist our buildings meet the highest standards possible.

It is also our responsibility to be educators and help show those around us how to ensure a healthy and sustainable world for future generations.

The problem is not consumer choices or their commitment to recycling correctly — the problem is plastics, period. Without doubt or hesitation, we need action today by the AEC industry to stop the cycle of pollution from this endemic industry.

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