8 Million tons
Enters the ocean every year
That’s Equivalent to
Emptying a Garbage truck
From the moment we wake plastic for most us is at a constant throughout our day; it's in the kettle we boil, the toothbrush we use, the vehicle or public transport we take to work, computers, phones, tools, food wrappers, it’s even in the threads of the clothing we dress ourselves, and just like those threads plastic has become so unconsciously woven in to our society we run the risk of getting in an ever entangled catastrophe we can't escape.
Plastic in itself is not evil and has some highly desireable properties, it’s cheap, light-weight, durable and possesses almost endless shaping capabilities2 and because it can be made non-pourous it creates a vacuum when sealed, becoming an unrivalled lightweight packaging option for extending lifespan of food products exponentially.3 These hard to beat properties paired with very little restrictions on it's use means that companies have used it fulfil the needs of us, the consumer for decades.
The name plastic or plastics is derived from ‘plasticity' a term in engineering used to describe a material that has a property of being able to deform without fracturing.4 Plastics are a synthetic polymer, opposed to bio-polymers, like that of cellulose which is naturally found in plants, algae or commercially in paper or cellophane wrap.4 Traditionally made from distillation of crude oil, the production of plastics begin with the extraction of a key chemical called naphtha. Followed by polymerisation and polycondensation which is then5 used to form long polymer chains from ethylene, propylene and then butene.6 These key processes ultimately create resins7 or granules (the base of plastics) which can be categorised in to either thermo or thermoset, with additional chemical compounds added during the manufacturing process to create or remove unwanted properties.4 There are a number of different types of plastics for a wide variety of uses with the six most common often marked with a code8 and a seventh used indicate other.9 This serves as a way to distinguish them from a safety point but to also aid in dividing them for recycling at their end of life use, as they can't all be and certainly not be as a single component.
Bottles for water, soft drinks, juices cleaners etc.
Toys, milk bottles, shampoo bottles, pipes, houseware etc.
The relative low cost and versatility of plastics paired with limited restriction on it's use its hard to imagine any other scenario playing out other than worldwide dependancy at an accelerated rate, and that’s exactly what’s happened. 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, with no sign of slowing.13
Plastic Production Growth Per Year
(6.3 billion tons)
of ALL plastic ever Made
has gone to waste
Equivalent to filling
olympic sized swimming pools
Cradle to grave
You may 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 what we encounter on a daily basis is packaging.14 This is the plastics protecting our delivered goods, wrapping our food and bottling soft drinks and in the case of bottled in particular it's at an astonishing rate of 1 million bottles a minute,15 and it's largely destined to go to landfill after one single consumer sale.
Plastic Waste by Industry 2015
Safe disposal of plastics is paramount and is challenging society to change our buying habits, but it's not the route problem it is the lifespan of the material, it doesn’t degrade nearly fast enough. If we could just throw a soft drinks bottle in a bush knowing it would bio-degrade like an apple core then there of course would be no issue but it doesn’t. Evidence of plastic is 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 Some types last so long that if our early ancestors used plastic it would still be found in some form on earth today.23
Stages of Degradation
DEGRADE vs DECOMPOSE
Most plastic types will degrade i.e. breakdown or fragment in to smaller pieces as a result of weathering25 but plastics do not decompose. That is where by the process of bio-degradation transforms matter in to other organic materials26 or fully in to carbon dioxide, water and inorganic molecules known which is called mineralisation.27 Plastics are a man made, categorised as a synthetic polymer so 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 in to smaller pieces is often misconceived as a good thing as it’s disappearing in to smaller pieces, but this taking place in the natural environment is a disaster 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
Recycling should play a large part when plastic reaches the end of it’s life but sadly not all types can be, and of those that can recycling on large scale 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. This is due to a trio of reasons, poor education, slow transition to single stream recycling and very limited investment in research and infrastructure until recently.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
THE Biggest Polluters
Everyone is to blame! Some 90% of all plastic leakage in to the ocean can be traced back to just 10 rivers30, 31 found in some of the most impoverished regions of the world30 and it isn’t just their domestic waste. MEDCs (More economically developed countries) have been using it as a dumping ground for decades. China in particular had been previously been taking 56% (by weight) of 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 has left western countries scrambling. Waste management in many of the countries are already overloaded with insufficient infrastructure to handle demand35 a large portion of the western worlds governments have poorly handled the issue collecting and shipping our waste designated as recycling and it not being processed as such. 36
AVERAGE USE TIME OF A PLASTIC BAG
ESTIMATED Time to degrade
Once plastic finds it's way in to the natural environment it has a plethora of negative impacts, from the widely publicised and graphic entanglement39 to the ingestion by a documented 400 animal species45 causing injury and starvation.40 The impacts to terrestrial wildlife and us the homosapian and creator of the material are not as widely documented but are becoming more of an interest as concerns grow globally.
One of the larger land animals effected are cows in India, 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 large amounts of plastics in the process and often ingesting. It’s estimated nearly every dead cow India will have an average of 30kg of plastic in its stomach.47 in the case of one cow 80kg was removed from its stomach after a three hour operation.46 Another range of species that is being significantly impacted by plastic pollution is ocean-foraging birds it is estimated by 2050 almost every bird may be eating plastic.48
Research in to the impacts of plastics on the terrestrial environment has been much slower than that in the marine,21 however the use of plastic mulching within farming in China over the past few decades has started to show its side effects. A study by a team of researchers in 2016 discovered that the soil biomass showed plastic residues and those with increased levels resulted in lower metabolic activity and functional diversity.49 Another study by a team from he tnetherlancs discovered that worms ingested plant litter tainted with micro-plastics grew slower and died earlier.50 A large number of studies have indicated that it effects reproductive systems, evidence was not found in this study but another revealed gut inflammation.51
If plastics are making their way through terrestrial animals and organisms then 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 uptake by the plants, and rapidly accumulated.52
Source: YouTube Filmed by Christine Figgener, marine biologist at Texas A&M University.
There’s so much plastic floating in some parts of the ocean that each square kilometer of surface water holds almost 600,000 pieces of debris,53 it’s created five large swirls known as ‘garbage patches’,54 and much of the plastic debris on the surface of the ocean collects in these debris patches driven by gyres and currents.54 The larger plastic material such as discarded fishing line, nets or bags plastic will often entangle or ensnare animals restricting their movements, often injuring, suffocating or leading to starvation, unable to hunt or feed, they die38 and if they are lucky enough to survive and get caught they may develop growth defects.55 As plastic breaks down further, it starts being ingested by smaller animals and organisms entering the food chain41 due to the collecting algae and confusing chemicals it’s often mistaken as food,38 obstructing air-ways or digestive tracts causing internal taring or ruptures, leading to infection or false fullness56 starving the victim, leading to death. It’s widely known that a turtle can ingest a plastic bag mistaking it for a jelly fish57 but a turtle can also become entangled in nets or debris on the surface, heightening the chance of being struck by a boat which if they survive sometimes can cause “Bubble Butt” syndrome58 where air gets trapped in the top of the shell, causing an uncontrollable buoyancy effect that results in not being able to dive and feed, becoming easy prey or increasing the chances of causing further injuries59 or killed.
Another study has also shed light on the impact it has on coral reefs and discovered 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.60 The plastic debris acts as a vector for diseases such as skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease61 increasing their chances of infections by carrying bacteria and pollutants infecting coral when coming in to contact with the reef habitats.
Plastic particles aren’t just choking the ocean or permeating the food chain, contaminating wildlife and organisms they are now in our drinking water.21 From a study conducted by of the samples taken from tap and bottled water from five continents over 80% tested positive for the presence of plastic fibres21
“if they are in our water they are almost certainly in our food as well.”21
Studies now show that particles of smimilar size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.21
WILDLIFE & HUMANs
This is by far the more terrifying and potentially catastrophic impact of plastics on wildlife and humans, the lifespan of plastics isn’t the only concern, depending on the type it can be manufactured using an array of chemicals to create attributes to suit it’s use, many of which are toxic and leach in to the envornment as they degrade. The problem is compounded when material is left circulating in the natural habitat, a study has shown61 that plastic not only leaches chemicals but absorbs them like a sponge, becoming more and more toxic, poisoning more animals and potentially us as it remains in the environment.
Plastic particles aren’t just choking the ocean or permeating the food chain and contaminating wildlife and organisms they are now in our drinking water.21 From a study conducted by of the samples taken from tap and bottled water from five continents over 80% tested positive for the presence of plastic fibres 21
“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
Table Source: OrbMedia.org
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
If the devastating physical and chemical effects on the environment weren’t enought around 4 percent 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.64
Like it or not plastic is a very useful material and banning all from the face of the earth overnight isn’t going to happen. Imagine going to the supermarket and everything being replaced with glass, metal, paper or wood, loading up your heavy shopping trolly crawling home in your very unsafe wooden car. It’s just not practical a disaster for carbon emissions and everything would become insanely overpriced. It's going to take time to engineer alternative materials and even then there is likely to be no silver bullet and is going to depend on a variety of different, sustainable approaches, so what can be done?
Reduce Reuse Recycle
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, it’s a solid approach that everyone should abide by and 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 it’s versatile use. Reuse is great but only goes as far as the design or material quality in the original product or packaging, plastics such as sweet wrappers are obviously not easily re-usable in that case then recycling must play it’s roll. Recycling has got better since the adoption of single stream recycling 65 in many developed countries, but as previously mentioned not all types can be and those that can are often subject to something called downcycling 66 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 as pillow or carpet fibres,67 which then in turn is made in to plastic lumber, so with each lifecycle the material degrades.
Ultimately without restrictions or tariffs on plastics particularly virgin plastics before design or manufacturing stages by companies all three are going to be less effective, reductions 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 it to possibly be taxed otherwise it’s going to cause irreparable damage to us and the environment. Taxations are never popular but the fundamental and underlying reason for tax is to encourage choosing a better alternative by financial dis-incentive. If applied to a large consumable like plastics it is 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.68
“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. 69
The general concept of a ‘carbon tax’ to directly tax greenhouse gas emissions to encourage companies to curb their destructive continuations and protect the environment,70 society as whole needs to change their fundamental philosophy on disposal and reuse of materials and adopt a closed loop or cradle to cradle approach but thats 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.
This 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.72 If the circular economy could be perfected for it would have considerable benefits to society.
Plastics to Energy
Not all plastics at the end of their life cycle can be recycled this still leaves a large percentage as waste, so what do we do with those plastics, the idea of plastic being transformed near to it’s original form; crude-oil seems like an unbelievable process but it is one that has been undertaken by Licella.73 They can take plastic along with other materials and through a process undetaken in a hydrothermal reactor change it in to a bio-crude petroleum substitute.74 This quite clearly has it’s drawbacks as the process to create it requires energy and it’s use as a fuel will also release further carbon, increasing the already large carbon footprint of plastics.
Plastic being a synthetic polymer is not naturally found in the earths ecosystems and in turn and as mentioned above it cannot be bio-degraded 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. 75
Polyurethane eating Fungi. 76
Polyethylene eating Waxworms. 77
Polyethylene Terephthalate. 78
It is far from commercial or scalable to tackle the growing plastic waste problem, its likely that either the organisms will need to be 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 all in part touch upon an end of life of exisiting plastics another alternative rather than continuing with current resins is to create another that is more sustainable by degrading in the natural 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 in constant temperatures of 50 degrees if not they act and cause the same damage as other plastics when entering the natural environment.4 This has resulted in the UN issuing a statement denouncing it as a viable solution with the additional concern that people will have false hope in technical solutions rather than making a behavioural change.79 There has also been a seperate study that 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.80
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.81, 82
Myseclium (mushroom root) alternative packaging.83
Bolt Heads Microsilk alternative to polyester in clothing.84
Alternative plastics from Red Seaweed.85, 86
WHAT CAN I DO?
Say NO tO Disposable plastic straws, Cutlery and Bottles…
Plastic Bags; Switch to durable or long lasting
160,000 bags are used every second, which is around 700 a year for every person90
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,91 swap it for a bambu or biodegradable alternative.
Give up those BAD Hang-ups
Lessen the impact on The ENvironment and Your Phone