Fridays for the Future #5 — Catalogs lead to plastic

Over the pandemic lockdown we did a lot more shopping online. One result of that shopping is we are now receiving  a whole new load of catalogs. Last week I decided to figure out what to do about my bulging mailbox. My journey led me to some places you may want to know about.

I looked in the catalogs themselves for how to unsubscribe. I did not find anything. It was daunting to think I would have to get into every company’s system to get out of it. So I Googled my problem (since I am WAY into that oppressive system).


Right away I found CatalogChoice. They are one of the many great ideas people have had in the last decade to combat climate change and pollution. In their case they are “keeping trees in the ground.” They will help you get off catalog lists.

They are a nonprofit and have no capacity to keep the USPS from doing what it does in service to consumer capitalism, nor can they get you off prospecting lists. They suggest you combine their service with DMA Choice. DMA Choice is another nonprofit that helps you curate the mailing lists you’re on or stop direct mail altogether.

Story of Stuff

Like most of my exploration of how to get into climate action (at least every Friday!) there was an unexpected good consequence of engaging. It turns out that CatalogChoice is an offshoot of the The Story of Stuff Project. I have been passing around one of their videos (The Story of Plastic) for a while.

This group of ambitious inventive people, based in San Francisco, have made a difference in how we make, use, and throw away stuff. They list some big fights their worldwide community has won:

Burning plastic

Jon Stewart’s first new show focused on the burn pits the U.S. Military created, especially in Iraq, that not only polluted the atmosphere but permanently damaged the soldiers who are now fighting for VA benefits. I did not know about that. One of the elements that make burn pits so toxic is plastic.

In The Story of Plastic, one fact caught my attention. The world increasingly uses plastic for fuel in its waste incinerators. Plastic is, after all, a fossil fuel. The European Union burns 42% of its waste, the U.S. 12%. Their expensive incinerator plants, which pollute less if properly equipped and maintained, require a constant source of plastic to fuel the constant burn they need to maintain.

The process is not part of a “circular economy” to which the EU is committed – no disposable products and a goal for all packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. “When you take fossil fuels out of the ground, make plastics with them, then burn those plastics for energy, it’s clear that this is not a circle—it’s a line,” says Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes circular economy efforts.

Another way to convert plastic waste to energy is through gasification, a process that melts plastics at very high temperatures in the near-absence of oxygen (which means toxins like dioxins and furans aren’t formed). A more attractive technology right now is pyrolysis, through which plastics are shredded and melted at lower temperatures than gasification and in the presence of even less oxygen. The heat breaks plastic polymers down into smaller hydrocarbons, which can be refined to diesel fuel and even into other petrochemical products—including new plastics.

Zero-waste advocates worry that any approach to converting plastic waste into energy does nothing to reduce demand for new plastic products and even less to mitigate climate change. “To uplift these approaches is to distract from real solutions,” says Claire Arkin, a campaigner with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — that is, solutions that allow people to use less plastic and reuse and recycle more.

It seems to me that continuing to compromise with giant oil companies (who are hurrying to build plastic manufacturing sites as we speak), delays the process of protecting us from climate disaster. They are committed to getting their product out of the ground and sold. As long as we protect that goal, keeping the temperature from rising past the point of no return seems unlikely. Better pray and work!

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