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Tackling the Plastic Crisis, with Martin Bourque

Image caption: Initiatives like Berkeley, California’s Single Use Disposable Ordinance are helping to reduce plastic waste. Image Credit: Tony Webster / Openverse.

Script by: Keya Pardasani Audio by: Emma Mott Blurb by: Megan Chan

What is plastic? 

Plastic is a material derived primarily from carbon-based sources like natural gas, oil, and even plants. It is created by treating these organic materials with heat and catalysts to form various polymers.  Producing plastic is energy-intensive, often relying on the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, both for power and as a primary source.

As a product of fossil fuels, plastic itself is unsustainable because of its fundamental connection to nonrenewable energy.  Since its introduction in the early 1900s, plastic has become omnipresent due to its cost-effectiveness and versatility. However, the environmental toll of our extensive plastic consumption — impacting oceans, wildlife, and contributing to climate change — is undeniable.

Unlike natural organisms, plastic decomposes at a very slow rate due to its polymer structure. Though some recently identified microorganisms, like the Rhodococcus ruber strain studied by PhD student Maaike Goudriaan, show promise in digesting plastic faster, the research remains preliminary.

Types of Plastic 

Most plastics we use, like bags and bottles, originate from oil and natural gas. Their widespread use has led to significant environmental contamination. On the other hand, there are bio-based plastics derived from sources like food waste, starch, or plants. Not all of these are biodegradable, and even these can harm the environment when they break down into tiny fragments consumed by wildlife.

Addressing the Plastic Issue

While completely eliminating plastic use seems unlikely, there are dedicated efforts to reduce its consumption. Grassroots organizations, like the Berkeley Ecology Center led by Martin Bourque, emphasize local community engagement and education. They advocate for sustainable practices such as using reusable bags, ditching plastic utensils, and employing minimal plastic in packaging. Initiatives like Berkeley’s Single Use Disposable Ordinance have been instrumental in cutting down disposable food ware waste, like the clamshell packaging found in the produce section of grocery stores. Prioritizing bio-based plastics and managing our plastic consumption are essential steps towards a sustainable future.

Who is Martin Bourque?

Martin Bourque is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing community well-being and the environment. The Center’s initiatives range from incentivizing farmer’s markets to championing community-based policies. Outside of the Ecology Center, Bourque has also served on numerous state and national boards to help build the organic farming movement.

Bourque earned his Bachelor of Arts in Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior from UC San Diego and his Master of Arts in Latin American Studies and Environmental Policy from UC Berkeley.

Further Reading

Plastics Task Force, Ecology Center

How Plastics Contribute to Climate Change, Yale Climate Connections

The Plastic Problem Isn’t Your Fault, But You Can Be Part of the Solution, NPR

​​AMBR’s Platform for Improving Recycling & Reducing Plastic Consumption, Ambr-Recyclers


Transcript

Ethan:   I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: reducing the use of plastics to decrease fossil fuel production. We spoke to Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, to learn more.

Mr. Bourque: Plastics is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry and it’s made from fossil fuel, and so it’s tied into the whole fossil fuel infrastructure. The future plan for the fossil fuel industry is to make plastic out of petroleum, much more than they have in the past.

Ethan: Bourque says that recycling alone is not sufficient to reduce plastics.

Mr. Bourque: We see all these different kinds of plastics coming into the recycling program, and it turns out they’re not recyclable, and so we end up sorting them out and sending them to the landfill.

Ethan: Instead, the Ecology Center has promoted programs to reduce overall usage, which have now become the law in California and beyond.

Mr. Bourque: So, we’ve really been focused on reducing those kinds of plastics and our bag reduction strategy that we piloted at our farmer’s markets here in Berkeley is now state law in California.

Another approach we’ve taken is around food wear. We get a lot of plastic clamshells. These things are not recyclable and very costly to process so we’ve helped to pass the nation’s first disposable food wear and litter reduction ordinance here in Berkeley. And elements of that bill have now been adopted into state law, and we see that being adopted by other cities.

Ethan: To learn more about how to reduce plastic usage in your community, visit climatebreak.org.

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