Fighting Plastic Pollution

Plastics have made our lives more convenient, but irresponsible use and littering have made plastic products an environmental menace. Here’s what’s happening on TVA land, and what you can do to help.

One of the most famous lines in movie history is three simple words spoken to a character played by Dustin Hoffman in 1967’s “The Graduate.” As Benjamin, a young college graduate, he is given a succinct piece of career advice by an older neighbor. “One word: Plastics.”

As it turns out, that advice was spot-on at the time. Plastic manufacturing was coming into its own, with factories cranking out millions, then billions of items that replaced a great deal of the aluminum, steel and wood that formerly made up large percentages of toys, appliances, cars and furniture.

However, the negative consequences of all that petroleum-based plastic entering the environment are becoming clear now, and they are startling. Chemicals in plastic are linked to serious health effects, and trillions of tons of discarded plastic items are now littering America’s streets, parks, beaches, lakes and woodlands. That’s why the focus of 2018’s Earth Day (April 22) is plastic pollution—and TVA sees it up close.

Fighting the “Plastic Wave”

“Tons of plastic beverage and food containers are left in the outdoors each year by recreational users of TVA public land,” says Jack Muncy, senior specialist with TVA’s Natural Resources. “We see so many recyclable plastic items when we conduct field assessments to identify stewardship needs. Public land users may think discarding one bottle won’t hurt anything, but the problem is the cumulative effect of thousands of people discarding personal trash and litter.”

Whether on land or in water, plastic items do not decompose. A plastic bottle tossed down at a campsite or thrown out of a car will not biodegrade; it will stay there until someone picks it up or until rainfall washes it into the nearest body of water.

“TVA welcomes public use of reservoir lands but we don’t welcome trash and litter,” says Muncy. “When visitors leave litter at a shoreline campsite, or dump a pickup truckload of residential garbage in the woods, they are encouraging others to do the same thing. That makes these beautiful areas less attractive for those who want to use them responsibly and be good stewards of the great outdoors.”

How Can You Help?

The best way to keep plastic pollution out of places it does not belong is to put it in a recycling bin. However, nationwide only 10 percent of the plastic that is made gets recycled, in contrast to 70 percent left scattered in the environment. The problem is so serious in the Tennessee Valley that many states are looking at their own solutions. Tennessee, for example, is launching the Bottle Bill and the “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” campaign.

But caring volunteers are absolutely essential for fighting the problem. TVA maintains a Volunteering page on where you can sign up to help—and not just in the spring.

“Cleanups are a great way to get in touch with the river or lake near you, any time of the year,” says Martha Podren, TVA Natural Resources program manager. “When you help clean up a river, you are also helping your neighbors, helping your community and helping yourself.”

TVA’s Green Focus

Since TVA sees the plastic problem firsthand, it has an internal recycling program in its large corporate facilities. Employees do their part, placing thousands of pounds of plastic in the bins each year. Other efforts include Supply Chain’s Green Procurement program which encourages purchasing bio-based, recycled and other “green” products.

But helping to reduce plastic waste only scratches the surface. TVA has a chief sustainability officer, vice president Brenda Brickhouse, who leads an enterprise-wide focus on becoming more sustainable—not just inside the company but also working with customers.

“In June of each year, we complete a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, which is required by the White House,” explains Lee Matthews, TVA deputy chief sustainability officer. “By being more sustainable we also help the Valley’s economy, and we have impacts on society by improving the quality of life. That’s the big picture.”

TVA is already an industry leader in helping customers reduce their carbon footprints, and last year the company gave awards for the first time to customers for their leadership in this area. Next year, TVA plans to issue its first Corporate Social Responsibility report, and is contributing to a book about sustainable electricity.

Management and employees participate in the Sustainability Working Group, which allots $15,000 each year to a beneficial project. This year, the winner is a project to enhance pollinator habitats in Right of Way areas—a project that touches TVA’s core operations in Transmission as well as Natural Resources.

“Today sustainable performance continues to be an ever increasingly important aspect of decision-making for customers and stakeholders alike,” says Brickhouse. “Whether it’s by significantly reducing our carbon emissions or recycling, we make life better in service to the Valley through focusing on big and small things that make a difference.”