The name plastic(s) is derived from ‘plasticity’ a term in engineering used to describe a material that is able to deform without fracturing4 so plastic has almost endless shaping capabilities as well as being cheap, light-weight and durable.2 It can also be formed non-pourous; creating vacuum when sealed, becoming an unrivalled, lightweight packaging option for extending lifespan of food exponentially.3 Ultimately those highly desirable properties unrivalled by most other materials paired with very few restrictions on it’s use has resulted in companies using it at will for decades.
Plastics are also called a polymers and are usually manfucactured to mimic naturally occurring counterparts like that of cellulose which is abundant on earth in plants and algae or commercially in paper or cellophane wrap.4 Unlike the natural polymers or bio-polymers plastics are largely synthesised from chemicals found in oil, natural gas or coal (fossil fuels), most plastics are based on the carbon atom which link togther to form chemical bonds. If the atoms form long chains like pearls on a string then these polymers are classed as thermoplastics which make up 92% of plastic produced worldwide,5 one of the main properties of which is they are meltable. These groups of atoms are used to make unit cells called monomers which are combined to form polymers or plastics, when the connection of the atoms forms two or three-dimensional networks instead of one-dimensional these are called thermoset plastics. The formation of monomers begins with the separation of hydrocarbons from fossil fuels in to pure streams of chemicals, a “cracking process” is then undertaken and with a catalyst the raw materials are then formed in to the monomers ethylene, propylene and butene and through the further mechanisms of polymerisation and polycondensation are used to form the base of most plastics called resins7 or resin granules, with additives included during the process to create or remove unwanted properties.4
The six most common types of resins or plastics are often marked with a code8 and all outside those marked as other if at all.9 The codes serves as a way to distinguish them as a safety point but to also aid in sorting for possible recycling at end of use, but not all types can be and certainly not as a single component.
Bottles for water, soft drinks, juices cleaners etc.
Toys, milk bottles, shampoo bottles, pipes, houseware etc.
The versatility of plastics and relative low cost it’s hard to imagine any other scenario playing out other than worldwide adoption followed by what can only be described as an addictive dependancy at an accelerated rate. Since it’s inception in the 1950’s it has risen from 2.3 million tons per year to an output of 443 million tons in 2015,12 the last 15 years alone contributing 50% of all plastic ever created, and it shows no sign of slowing.13
Plastic Production Growth Per Year
Lab to Landfill
You might be tempted to think that the vast majority of plastics would serve out it’s life in the likes of the aerospace, construction or automotive industries, but sadly not, around 40% of plastic we encounter on a daily basis is single use packaging.14 This is the plastic encasing our bought goods, wrapping our food and bottling soft drinks and in the specific case of bottled water it is at an astonishing rate of 1 million bottles per minute,15 and all majoritively destined to go to landfill after one single use.
Plastic Waste by Industry 2015
The physical impacts of plastics has been brought to the forefront of public psyche with stark imagery of plastic littering beaches, injuring wildlife and filling our landfills sparking a renewed emphasis on reduce, reuse and recycle more than ever, which is good. However the imagery in many instances reinforces the misconception that it’s just due to sheer volume being the main issue when in fact the root cause and more sinister problem is the lifespan of the material; plastic just doesn’t degrade in the natural environment, period. You can’t just throw a plastic bottle in a bush and it will eventually decompose like an apple core then there of course would be no issue but it doesn’t. And now due to this in some cases lifespans being indefinite plastic is now being found everywhere from remote landlocked17 and island regions,18 to the deepest waters of our oceans,19 it’s in our food,20 drinking water21 even our air.22 If our early ancestors used plastic it would still be found in some form on earth today.23
Degrade vs Decompose
Many plastic types will degrade i.e. breakdown or fragment in to ever smaller pieces as a result of photo-degradation or weathering,25 but plastics DO NOT decompose. Decomposition is the process that biological matter will undergo at some point in it’s lifetime, or bio-degradation which transforms matter in to other organic materials26 or fully in to carbon dioxide, water and inorganic molecules known which is called mineralisation.27 Plastics being man made is unaffected by this natural process as bacteria or organisms having evolved over billions of years to recognise and feed on natural or organic compounds do not recognise them as a food source.26 Plastic degrading or breaking down eventually in to granular even microscopic pieces out of human sight is often perceived as a good thing, it’s disappearing great! But this taking place in the natural environment is disastrous for and does so quickly when exposed to sunlight (UV) for long periods known as photo-oxidative degradation.29 It weakens the chemical bonds in the plastic which becomes brittle, eventually degrading to the smallest categorised size known as nano-plastics, barely undetectable to the naked eye but remaining ever present in the natural environment20, 26 basically plastic is all but indestructible.21 How long this takes is dependant on the type of plastic and the environmental factors. In the case of the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag with it’s average time of use being just 12 minutes it’s estimated that it can take up to a thousand years or millenia to degrade.28
Stages of Degredation
Recycling should play a part when plastic reaches the end of it’s life but sadly not all types can be and of those that can the infrastructure to facilitate has simply not kept pace with the rampant oversupply. It’s estimated 7 billion tons (Bt) has been produced since the 1950s with 0.92 Bt (12%) incinerated, with only a dismal 0.7 Bt (9%) ever being recycled leaving the remaining 6 Bt (79%) to go to landfill or leak in the environment somewhere.12 To put that in to perspective that’s roughly 12.2 million olympic sized swimming pools filled with plastic, or around one ton per person alive today. Apart from infrastructure a number of other reasons are to blame for this dismal recapture of materials, poor education, slow transition to single stream recycling and very limited investment in research.24
“Plastics enter the environment from a variety of sources such as leakage during waste collection and from landfills, littering, runoffs, and material lost from waste processing. Both micro and nano particles can be shed from larger plastic products, such as through abrasion of car tires on the pavement. Some 80% of microplastics in wastewater are synthetic fibers, many of which are shed by clothing in the washing machine. Some microplastics (and, likely, nanoplastics, though no studies have attempted to detect such particles) pass into rivers and oceans unhindered by wastewater treatment. Those particles that are captured eventually find their way onto land as part of sewage sludge.”29
90% of all plastic leakage in to the ocean can be traced back to just 10 rivers30, 31 in some of the most impoverished regions of the world30 all dealing with the worlds waste, not just their own. MEDCs (More economically developed countries) aka the west have been using them as a dumping ground for decades. China in particular had previously been taking 56% (by weight) of all the worlds plastic waste according to a 2014 study33 something which abruptly ended in late 2017 with their “Green Sword or Fence Policy”34 which left many countries scrambling. Waste management in many countries are already overloaded with insufficient infrastructure to handle demand35 a large portion of the western governments have poorly handled the issue collecting and shipping our waste designated as recycling and it’s not being processed when reaching it’s destination.36
A PLASTIC BAG IS
Used on Average for
Time to DEGRADE
A PLASTIC BAG
Is Used on Average For
Time to DEGRADE
The most abundant type of plastic produced are those found in a subset of polymers called Polyolefins, made from natural gas they are able to be formed at a high quantities at very low cost, low in density and resistant; water, air, grease, cleaning solvents and sun (for periods of time).37 The two most common types that fall in to that subset is firstly Polypropylene (5:PP) and secondly Polyethylene both high (2:HDPE) and low density (4:LDPE) which is the type used general food wrapping and plastic bags which on average have a use time of around 12 minutes and can remain in existence from 20–1000 years.12
Lives of a Plastic Bag
Once plastic finds it’s way in to the natural environment it has a plethora of negative impacts, from the widely publicised and graphic entanglement40 to the ingestion by a documented 400 animal species46 causing injury and starvation.41 The impacts to terrestrial wildlife are well documents and us; the creator of the material are not as widely so but are becoming more of an concern as realisations become apparent globally.
One of the larger land animals frequently effected by plastic are cows in India, so much so that it’s now recognised as one of the major contributing factors in premature death.46 Both cows and native buffalo forage for food scraps in landfills and discarded litter mounds, coming in to contact with plastics in the process, often ingesting. It’s estimated nearly every dead cow India will have an average of 30kg of plastic in its stomach48 and in one instance a cow had 80kg of plastic removed from its stomach.47 Another range of species that is being significantly impacted by plastic pollution is ocean-foraging birds, it’s estimated by the year 2050 almost every bird that depends on the ocean may be eating plastic.49
Research in to the impacts of plastics on the terrestrial environment has been much slower comparative to marine21 very little is known of the side effects to date but some studies have been conducted. A study in China showed that the increased levels of plastic residues in the soil biomass due to plastic being used for mulching over the past few decades resulted in lower metabolic activity and functional diversity.50 Another study by a team from the Netherlands discovered that when worms ingested plant litter tainted with micro-plastics they grew slower and died earlier,51 with a number of studies indicating that plastic can effect reproductive systems, however evidence was not found in this particular study but another similarly revealed gut inflammation.52
“If plastics are making their way through terrestrial animals and organisms then surely at some point plant life must be taken in to consideration and assessed. Micro-plastics aren't much of a threat to plant life due to their molecular size but nano plastics may be. A study conducted on tobacco plants showed that fluorescent nano beads were internally up-taken by the plants, and rapidly accumulated.”53
Kills Up To
Sea Birds &
Kills Up To
Sea Birds &
At present there is so much plastic floating in some parts of the ocean that each square kilometre of surface water holds almost 600,000 pieces,55 it’s created five large swirls known as ‘garbage patches’and much of this debris, driven by gyres and currents collects in there.56 The debris ranges in size, larger plastic material such as discarded fishing line, nets or bags will often entangle or ensnare animals restricting their movements and unable to hunt or feed, they die.39 Sometimes it causes gruesome injures or suffocation and if they are lucky enough to survive but remain ensnared they may develop growth defects.57
As plastic debris breaks down further, it starts being ingested by smaller and smaller animals and organisms becoming ever more invasicve and entering the food chain at earlier stages.42 The longer it remains in the ocean environment the more algae and chemicals inadvertently collects disguising itself further, often mistaken as food.39 After being injected it can obstruct air-ways or digestive tracts, cause internal taring or ruptures, leading to infection or false fullness58 starving the victim; leading to death. It’s widely known that a turtle can ingest a plastic bag mistaking it for a jelly fish59 but somtimes a turtle after becoming entangled in nets or debris on the surface can be struck by a boat resulting in “Bubble Butt” syndrome.60
This is where air gets trapped in the top of the shell, creating an uncontrollable buoyancy effect that results in the turtle being unable to dive and so feed, also becoming easy prey or increasing the chances of being struck again61 or killed.
Coral & Reefs
A far reaching worldwide study in to coral reefs has also shed light on the impact it that plastic may have, discovering that from examining corals spread across 159 reefs off the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia between 2011 and 2014 plastic was found snared on a third of all specimens.62 Plastic acted as a vector for diseases such as skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease63 increasing their chances of infections by carrying bacteria and pollutants and infecting coral when coming in to contact with the reef habitats.
Us (Humans) & Wildlife
This is by far the more terrifying and potentially catastrophic impact of plastics, the physical lifespan of plastics isn’t the only concern, depending on the type it can be manufactured using an array of chemicals to remove or create properties, many of which are toxic and leach in to the environment as the material degrades. The problem is compounded when material is left circulating in the natural habitat, a study has shown63 that plastic not only leaches chemicals but absorbs them like a sponge, becoming more and more toxic, poisoning animals and potentially us as it continues to circulate in the environment.
“Chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet. We generally assume the water bottle holding that pure spring water, the microwave-safe plastic bowl we prepare our meals in, or the styrofoam cup holding a hot drink is there protecting our food and drinks. Rather than acting as a completely inert barrier, these plastics are breaking down and leaching chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are all absorbed into our diets and bodies.”18
PLASTICS TYPES & their TOXINS
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Like most plastic products, HDPE has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals - man-made compounds that imitate the hormone estrogen - when exposed to heat, boiling water, and sunlight. Estrogenic chemicals are linked to breast cancer, endometriosis, altered sex ratios, testicular cancer, poor semen quality, early puberty, and malformations of the reproductive tract. (US Environmental
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Plasticized PVC leaches toxic chemicals when in contact with water. Four chemical softeners used with PVC, known as phthalates, were recently added to the European Chemicals Agency's list of “substances of Very High Concern" for their role as "endocrine disruptors" - chemicals that interfere with the body's production of hormones. Phthalates are linked to improper development of reproductive organs in fetuses and other health issues.
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Styrene, which U.S. government scientists say is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” can leach from polystyrene in contact with hot beverages. Polystyrene is widely used for coffee cups and their lids. "Considering the toxic characteristic of styrene and leaching in water and other products, [polystyrene ) material should be avoided for food packaging," a 2007 study recommended. "Especially [polystyrene) rigid and foam cups should not be used for hot drinks."
What many of these plastics have in common is their use of the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenolA (BPA) BPA has been linked to hormonal changes, reproductive problems, asthma and obesity. This includes polycarbonate plastic, which is still used to manufacture baby bottles in many countries.
If the devastating physical and chemical effects on the environment weren’t enough around 4% of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics,63 and a similar amount is consumed as energy in the process, so nearly 10% of the worlds carbon emisions come from plastics. There is also a new study that suggests that plastic in the environment is directly emitting greenhouse gases as they degrade.66
Reduce Reuse Recycle 2.0
This has long been a mantra ingrained in the human psyche for the last few decades and for anyone wanting to live an environmentally conscious existence and a solid approach for not just plastic but all consumable materials. Firstly a reduction in demand will ultimately slow manufacture, however plastic is so ubiquitous in all facets of society it’s difficult to curb that use with this alone. Reuse is great but only goes as far as the design or material quality allows and plastics such as sweet wrappers are obviously not easily re-usable so then recycling must play it’s roll. Recycling has got better since the adoption of single stream recycling 67 in to many developed countries, but as previously mentioned not all types can be and those that can are often subject to something called downcycling68 where the material from products or packaging can only be used to manufacture a lower quality product. For example the material from a plastic bottle (PET) can be turned in to a pillow or carpet fibres,69 and second time around it’s made in to plastic lumber, so with each recycle and lifecycle the material degrades.
Ultimately without restrictions or tariffs on the use of plastic particularly virgin types in designs or manufacturing all three are going to be less effective, the reduction wont be prioritised, re-use won’t be facilitated and the price of the recycled material vs virgin plastic will cheaper.
Lobbying & Legislation
Governments need to enforce regulation and for all plastic materials to be taxed to take in to the irreparable damage to us and the environment. Taxations are never popular but the fundamental and underlying reason for tax is to encourage consumers in to choosing a better alternative by financial dis-incentive. If applied to a large consumable like plastics it’s going to have a financial impact for companies but it could also mean a reduction in other taxes like income taxes forming part of the wider ‘carbon tax’ initiative.70
"Well one of the important things to keep in mind is that if you have a carbon tax, you can turn around and cut other taxes in response. For example, the payroll tax. So this is a tax shift, rather than a tax hike."
Gregory Mankiw - A Harvard professor and one of the most influential economists in the world - Before the Flood.71
The general concept of a ‘carbon tax’ to tax greenhouse gas emitters and encourage companies to curb their ecologically unsound and potentially destructive sides of their businesses and protect the environment.72 Society as whole needs to change their fundamental philosophy on use, disposal and reuse of materials and esentially adopt a closed loop or cradle to cradle approach but that’s not going to happen without a push in the right direction.
Material value is lost when it goes to to landfill the ‘Circular economy’ reinforces the base ideals of ‘Reuse, reuse, recycle’ but with bigger emphasis on maintaining the purity of the material and penalising the biggest polluters, using the money to fund research to alternatives and green initiatives. It aims to create a smooth and constant flow of limited material used and value retained then reused, resulting in economic benefits and less loss to landfill waste.
Closing of the loop and retaining the material value is vital, only 2% of plastic is retained and remade in to similar product and it’s estimated that $80–120 Billion USD worth of plastic packaging material is lost annually.74 If the circular economy could be perfected for it would have considerable benefits to society.
Plastics to Energy
As explained above, not all plastics can be recycled so this still leaves a large percentage as waste, however a new process is being developed to transform the plastic near to it’s original form; oil, this seems unbelievable but it’s not and being undertaken by Licella.75 They can take a range of plastics and through the use of a hydrothermal reactor change it in to a bio-crude petroleum substitute.76 This has it’s drawbacks, the process itself requires energy and of course fossil fuels release further carbon when burnt or process, further increasing the already large carbon footprint of plastics.
Plastic is not naturally found in the earths ecosystems and in turn as mentioned in the previous plastics section, it cannot decompose but there is a few rare instances that scientists and researchers have discovered where mother nature has adapted to feed on our waste:
Polystyrene eating Mealworms. 77
Polyurethane eating Fungi. 78
Polyethylene eating Waxworms. 79
Polyethylene Terephthalate. 80
It’s unlikely to be a scalable solution to tackle the global plastic waste problem, its likely that the organisms will need to be genetically engineered to be more efficient in their plastic consuming abilities or the enzymes or chemicals used in the digestion process will be synthesised and reproduced at a large scale.
All the above solutions in part or full focus on providing a solution at the end of the life of plastics but another opton is to instead focus on making changes at the source material rather than continuing with current resins one that has the ability to decompose naturally in the environment without human intervention. There has been attempts at bio-degradable or oxo-degradable plastics in the past but unfortunately they need to be placed in an industrial compositor sometimes at a consistent temperature 50 degrees if not they can inflict as much damage as other plastics when entering the natural environment.4 There a study that also indicated that introduction of industrial composting on a global scale is just simply not economically viable due to the sorting and separation process of bio-degradable from non prior to composting.82 This has resulted in the UN issuing a statement denouncing it as a viable solution with the concern that people lay false hope in technical solutions rather than making a behavioural change.81
There is however some newer and more promising materials being engineered as an alternatives for plastics in both packaging and products, here is some of them:
Plastic bags from shrimp shells.83, 84
Myseclium (mushroom root) alternative packaging.85
Bolt Heads Microsilk alternative to polyester in clothing.86
Alternative plastics from Red Seaweed.87, 88
What Can You Do?
Say NO to disposable plastic straws, Cutlery and Bottles…
Switch to Carier Durable Bags
160,000 bags are used every second, which is around 700 a year for every person92 with each one taking 1000 years to biodegrade if at all thats a really tragic amount of waste. Nealy any kind of alternative bag will be better than disposing.
Brush Your Tusks Guilt Free
It’s estimated 3.5 billion toothbrushes are sold each year that largely go to landfill with no garuntee they are recylced,93 swap it for a bambu or biodegradable alternative.
Give up Those Bad Hang-ups
It’s estimated in the UK alone that millions of hangers go to landfill instead of each year with 540 million surplus hangers, weighing 17,000 tonnes and 100 million thrown away.94 Swap to a durable metal or even better a pressed cardboard alternative.
Lessen the impacts of your phone
1) 8 Million Tonnes
2) Benefits of Plastics
3) Plastic Shelf Life
4) UN study - Biodegradable plastics and marine litter
5) How plastics are made :: PlasticsEurope
6) Plastic production video
7) what is plastic resin
8) Plastic Types
9) Resin Codes
11) Plastics Europe 2017
12) Plastic production 2015
13) Graph Production since 1950s
14) 40% single use
15) Plastic Bottles used a minute
16) Plastic chart by segment e.g elec, packaging etc
17) The hills are alive with the signs of plastic
18) Remote Islands
19) Deep Water Plastic
20) New Scientists magazine / Plastic sizes
21) Orb Media - Microplastics / Human impact
22) Plastic in the Air
23) Ancestors used plastic
24) Worldwide recycling
25) Photodegradation and photostabilization of polymers
26) Not recognised as a food source
27) Inorganic compounds and Mineralisation / remains in the environment
28) Plastic bag 12 minutes
29) Plastic Pollution Sources infographic
35) Poorest areas Fig 4
31) Rivers of plastic
32) Waste carried by rivers
33) China Plastic Waste
34) China's green fence
35) Improper Waste Management
36) Malaysia to return 3,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste | Financial Times
37) The world of plastics, in numbers
38) How a plastic bag is made
39) Plastic Recylcing Uses
42) Marine debris being mistaken as food
43) Plastic entering the food chain
44) Animals in Landfills
45) What happens in a landfill
46) 693 marine species 400 ingested
47) Cows eating plastic
48) 30kg of plastic in cow
49) Sea Birds 2050
50) China mulching pollution
51) Microplastics in the Terrestrial Ecosystem: Implications for Lumbricus terrestris (Oligochaeta, Lumbricidae). - PubMed - NCBI
52) Histopathological and molecular effects of microplastics in Eisenia andrei Bouché - ScienceDirect
53) Uptake of fluorescent nano beads into BY2-cells involves clathrin-dependent and clathrin-independent endocytosis. - PubMed - NCBI
54) UN Ocean Pollution Fact-Sheet
55) Surface water plastic
56) Garbage Patch tracing
57) Peanut the turtle
58) False Fulness
59) Sea Turtles and plastic bags
60) Bubble Butt syndrome
61) Turtle injuries
62) Coral disease
63) Coral reef disease article
64) Microplastic Moves Pollutants and Additives to Worms, Reducing Functions Linked to Health and Biodiversity: Current Biology
65) Plastic not so fantastic
66) Plastics emmiting greenhouse gases
67)Single-Stream Recycling | HuffPost
68) Downcycling process of plastic?
69) Almost no plastic bottles get recycled into new bottles
70) Carbon Tax
71) Before the Flood
72) Carbon tax definition
73) Circular economy overview
74) The New Plastics Economy PDF
75) Neste to collaborate with Licella in utilization of waste plastic – Licella
76) Creating biofuel from plastic waste | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian
77) Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms: Part 1. Chemical and Physical Characterization and Isotopic Tests - Environmental Science & Technology (ACS Publications)
78) Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi | Applied and Environmental Microbiology
79) Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella: Current Biology
80) A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate) | Science
81) UN Announce bioplastics not
82) Behaviour of biodegradable plastics in composting facilities - ScienceDirect
83) Chitosan, shimp based bioplastic
84) Chitosan, Nottingham University Press
85) Mycelium Packaging
86) Bolt Heads Microsilk
87) Could seaweed solve Indonesia's plastic crisis? | Environment | The Guardian
88) Production of carrageenan from seaweed (Eucheuma cottoni) with KOH treatment: AIP Conference Proceedings: Vol 1840, No 1
89) What can I do diagram
90) Eating our way out of the plastic waste dilemma | PlasticsToday
91) Plastic straw bans are spreading: here’s how they took over the world
92) Number of plastic bags produced – worldwide, this year – Oceanwatch Australia
93) 3.5 billion reasons why sustainable toothbrushes could be big business.
94) First Mile launches new coat hanger recycling service to prevent millions of hangers going to waste each year - British Plastics and Rubber
95) Cell phone sales worldwide 2007-2017 | Statista
96) Market Research for Starting a Phone Case Business