Photographer, expert discuss impact of plastic waste

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 | 6:00 AM


Sewickley-based photographer Randy Olson has captured images in countries like India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, where armies of workers sort plastic, many for just $2 per day. Sorting facilities in these countries are massive, and some accept enough plastic waste at one time to fill multiple football fields.

Olson said 83 percent of the plastic waste in Asia is mismanaged. During a trip to four Southeast Asian nations, he captured the consequences of this waste and had his work published in a 2018 “National Geographic” article.

On Feb. 20, about 200 people gathered at the Edgeworth Club to see Olson present photography from this project, as well as several others he has worked on for the publication.“The Plastic Apocalypse” also featured Justin Stockdale of Pennsylvania Resources Council, who spoke about the domestic recycling economy.

It was organized by a coalition of local organizations, including Communities First — Sewickley Valley, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, SHAPE and Sustainable Sewickley.

Some of Olson’s photographs showed rivers teeming with plastic.

“There are three river systems in Asia that dump most of the plastic waste into the oceans,” Olson said.

This plastic, he said, ultimately contributes to rising ocean temperatures and contaminates food.

People in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, have taken action to limit their consumption.

Olson traveled to France to document the Zero Waste movement, which he said is largely run by young women. Leaders of the movement have encouraged consumers to do their grocery shopping with recycled glass containers.

Since the movement started, France has placed a ban on plastic cutlery.

During his presentation, Stockdale agreed that Europe is ahead of the United States when it comes to reusing materials and reducing consumption.

“We will not recycle our way to environmental salvation, recycling is pretty much a last resource. We want to avoid that waste in the first place, we want to reduce that waste, we want to reuse that material,” Stockdale said.

Recycling changes that recently went into effect could help people understand why “reduce” and “reuse” are important practices. Starting this year, local recycling companies no longer allow most plastic material in bins, with the exception of bottles.

This was largely in response to China’s contamination requirements for imported recyclables. For more than 15 years, the United States had shipped most of its plastic waste to Asia, where it hasn’t necessarily been used productively, Stockdale said.

In addition to reducing these waste shipments, which currently overwhelm some Asian nations, Stockdale said the changes could have an upside for consumers in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“I think this sort of wake-up call and recognition of the global market for waste will have some powerful effects on how we act as consumers,” he said.

Gail Murray of Communities First, who provided the event’s opening remarks, focused on the local impact of the plastics industry. The Shell petrochemical plant, currently under construction in Beaver County, will require numerous well pads to supply it with ethane, a natural gas byproduct, she said.

“The lateral hydraulic fracturing can extend for up to four miles … we’re seeing this happening in Economy, and that is affecting Franklin Park and Bell Acres,” said Murray, adding that lateral fracturing would affect Sewickley Heights, Sewickley Hills and Edgeworth.

Olson has worked on more than 30 projects for “National Geographic,” with many of them showing the different ways resource extraction affects people throughout the world. The award-winning photographer’s work also focuses on population dynamics and migration trends, which he said are directly related to resource extraction.

As Olson spoke about the worldwide trend of migration to the cities, his photographs of crowded urban centers in Asia displayed on the projection screen.

“Looking into someone’s eyes and seeing what they’re dealing with is maybe the most powerful thing you can do as a photographer,” he said.