Looking to History to Solve the Plastic Pollution Problem

August 19, 2019

By: Meredith Oglesby

One solution to the plastic waste proliferation our country is facing may lie in history, according to Bart Elmore, associate professor of history and Sustainability Institute core faculty member.

Looking at the current plastic waste problem and journeying by canoe down the Mississippi River with limited resources were two of the sustainability-related topics featured in this year’s TEDx Ohio State University.

The event founded to spread ideas on Ohio State’s campus through talks presented by students, faculty and alumni, is run solely by students.

After this spring’s TEDx event, Elmore received over 30,000 views on YouTube with his talk, “An Environmental Historian’s Requiem for Recycling,” which focused on how the solution to what he calls the “plastic pollution plague” lies in the history of Coca-Cola.

In the beginning, Coke used glass returnable bottles to save on costs. One bottle would make up to 50 trips between the producer and consumer, Elmore says. There was a 2-cent deposit on the 5-cent drink, which caused a 40% markup. The system worked, and many bottling companies were using it.

“We know from history that when you put a value on packaging, it will be reclaimed,” Elmore says.

But once plastic throw-away containers became more popular, these deposits went away. People realized trash was piling up at an alarming rate, and Coke pushed for curbside recycling to deal with the problem.

Now only 30% of these plastic bottles are recycled, although states that have enforced deposits by law have higher rates of recycling, Elmore says.

In 2018, Coke announced plans to recycle every package it puts into the environment by 2030.

Elmore emphasizes that we don’t have to wait for Coke to make a difference.

“We, the citizens of this country, can make the conscious choice to end the unconscionable practice of not putting a price on packaging, especially finite resources,” Elmore says. “If we learn from history, we can make history.”

Elmore’s research focuses on environmental history, and his first book, “Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism,” provides an in-depth look into the environmental impact of Coca-Cola on operations worldwide.

His TEDx talk sparked conversations on social media about the impact plastic products have on our lives as well as the environment.

Watch Elmore’s TEDx talk.

These speakers also shared TEDx talks on the topic of sustainability:

Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Winbigler Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, discussed biomimetics — the imitation of biological systems in technology innovation — and applications of his research in his talk, “Lessons from Nature: Bioinspired Surfaces.”

In his talk, “Source to Sea: My Journey Down the Mississippi,” geography doctoral student Forrest Schoessow discussed the coevolution of the Mississippi River and its people and shared his experience of traveling down the Mississippi in a canoe with limited resources.

Matthew Sullivan is a professor of microbiology and civil, environmental and geodetic engineering. In his talk, The Power of Viruses, for Good, he explained the complexities of viruses and how these viruses can be used for good. 

Explore all of the 2019 TEDx Ohio State University talks.

Meredith Oglesby is a student communications assistant at the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State.