What is the solution to global plastic problem? This week we are starting a conversation with you about plastics. Yes, yes, there’s so much already said about plastic. It is no doubt bad for the environment and sometimes for us. But what is it and how much of it is in the eco-system exactly? If it was just pure evil, wouldn’t someone had already banned it or came up with a solution to eliminate it? Don’t you think?…
We are going to discuss all of these and also talk about the Super Wax Worms and Mutant Microbes that can rid the Earth of all those billion of tones of plastic waste.
What is plastic?
The word plastic derives from the Greek word πλαστικός [plastikos] meaning “capable of being shaped or molded”. The simple definition of plastic is that it is a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers. When we think of plastic, we usually imagine something manufactured, human made, but did you know that there is naturally occurring plastic? Oh, yes! Humanity had been using plastic from rubber trees as way back as 3.5k years ago.
Nowadays, though, we mostly use plastic made from fossil fuels… Did you know that 8% of the global oil industry serves plastic production?
Brief history of plastic
As it is with everything, plastic did not start its journey in the world as a pure evil, as it is being portrayed now. Before 50s, plastic was used mostly for the industrial and military purposes: it made aircrafts lighter and safer to fly for the pilots. Just imagine, our grandparents might still remember the time when not everything around them was made from plastic!
All had changed, of course, with the end of the war, when plastic was used and abused as a fuel to grow our consumerism sickness to the levels it had never reached before. Plastic went into the consumer market. During 60s global plastic production went up over 400% and by 1979 we were producing more plastic than steel! “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic” (quote from Aqua song “Barbie Girl”).
In 2017 the global plastic market size was valued at USD 522.66 billion, and despite all the controversy and hype about going ‘plastic free’, it is expected to reach USD 721.14 billion by 2025. In comparison, the value of the global movies and entertainment market in 2016 was USD 80.89 bn , size of the contraceptive market is USD 24.12 bn and global wine industry is worth USD 302.02 bn … So yeah, plastic is actually more important to us than entertainment, booze and sex combined…
Are there types of plastic and is any 1 worse than the other?
Yes, there are lots of different types of plastic and that is the reason recycling gets so complicated sometimes, but more of than later.
The number inside the little arrowed triangles at the back of the plastic item is what actually tells us, the consumers, that type of plastic was used in production of this particular item.
1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
2 – High-density Polyethylene (HDPE)
3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
4 – Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE)
5 – Polypropylene (PP)
6 – Polystyrene (PS)
7 – Other plastics
Plastic is generally lightweight with significant degrees of strength. It can be molded, extruded and cast; it can even be drawn into fibers for textiles – Nylon it is. Many types of coatings, glues and even your chewing gum is plastic too! So next time, you are chewing a gum or putting on a nylon shirt, don’t forget that it’s plastic… Life is indeed plastic.
Where is plastic used?
To no one’s surprise, the vast majority, about 40% of the plastics is used in packaging – beverage bottles, coffee cups, plastic bags, six-pack rings, etc.
Then goes construction – yes, although they look concrete, you won’t believe how much in our houses is made from plastic: cables, pipes, windows, doors, shutters, acrylic paint, floor covering, wall linings, ceiling panels, roof coverings, sinks, basins, insulation… and that’s not even the full list.
And only after goes plastic consumer goods, automobiles, electricals, agriculture, medical devices and furniture.
Just think – virtually everything that surrounds you right now is either made solely from plastic or has a plastic component.
Is plastic bad? Why?
Plastic is so versatile, it has just so many good qualities: it enabled us to do things that were simply impossible before, made our lives so much more convenient! It did even help us to travel more by making airplanes lighter and cheaper to operate.
But everything has a dark side, and plastic’s dark side is hard to ignore. All we hear right now is the global plastic pollution, the North-Atlantic garbage patch and the plastic-free movement. But it’s not just that…
Plastic effects human health. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments. In 1977 Coca-Cola & Monsanto plastic bottles that were used for 30 years for food and beverage containers had been banned, as proved to be harmful for humans. Guess in collaboration with whom did Coca-Cola produce those bottles? Yes, Monsanto! I know, it seems like this corporation made a footprint into anything that has to do with harming people’s health or the environment.
That’s not it! Plastic is made from fossil fuels, right? So it kinda makes sense when we tell you that plastic spoils our groundwaters. There are thousands of landfills where plastic waste is dumped. Toxic chemicals from plastics drain out and seep into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers. You already know what happens next… Part of it destroys the natural habitat of wildlife, part poisons this wildlife and the remaining gets drunk or eaten by us – circle of life.
How much plastic is there?
Each year we are producing roughly 400 million tons of plastic. 40% of which is single-use plastic and only 12% is currently being reused or recycled.
The accumulated plastic waste that had been produced since 50s that had not been burned or recycled come to about 6.3 billion tons! Imagine 19k Empire State Buildings, or 60m Blue Wales, or 840m elephants… Well, that is how much of plastic rubbish we have right now accumulated on the planet.
What is being done?
All the problems with plastic come out of its 3 characteristics:
(A) most of it is not biodegradable
(B) it is not properly recycled
and (C) there is more plastic produced each year, then we can cope with.
Here is what is being done in the world to solve all these 3 issues.
First of all, rubber tree plastic is used again and is growing its popularity among consumers and manufacturers. Such biodegradable bioplastics can degrade as fast as in 1.4 months. 100s of years of 1 and half months… there’s some difference, right?
Second, a few years ago, scientists had discovered that wax worms and mealworms can digest plastic and turn it into compost. The discovery was led by Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain.
The other scientific research discovered a mutate microbe, Ideonella Sakaiensis, that can shrink the time that plastic takes to degrade from 100s of years to a few days.
It works by secreting an enzyme known as PETase.
The problem with both of these 2 wonderful discoveries that using them to break down plastic for recycling is still easier said than done.
It would take 100 worms nearly a month to completely break down a plastic bag. And the physical properties of plastics make them very difficult for enzymes to interact with. But those are researches and they certainly give us hope for the potential future solution to the current plastic waste crisis.
The other problem with plastic is that it can actually, in theory, ALL be recycled, but only 12% is. Why is that so? It’s just because there are so many types of plastic and the method of its recycling depends of this type. In addition to that, many consumer goods are produced with mixed plastic materials. For instance, a plastic bag with a foil lining or a disposable coffee cup made of paper with a plastic lining. These are especially difficult and expensive to separate. They are considered in many cases contaminated and worthless. The value of each recycled type of plastic also varies significantly in price. Some types of plastic are currently worthless if they are being recycled. And that’s another reason, why not all types of plastic are being requested for recycling in your town. It’s either worthless when it is being recycled or it is too hard and expensive to separate, if we are talking about mixed plastics. Black coloured plastics are a particularly troublesome example, since they contain pigments that make packaging harder to detect by sorting technology.
All plastic can be recycled, but it is not always economical to do so
– Bottles attract the best prices, especially clear ones, which is why almost all councils recycle them.
– Coloured plastic is less desirable because the colour cannot be removed, restricting its reuse.
– Polystyrene is almost never recycled because there is no market for it.
The research also shows that 47% of people argue at home what should go into recycling and what shouldn’t and 26% of them say that they have such disagreements about recycling more than twice a month. People are simply confused about what goes in which bin, and are not always very careful about what they put in. Plastic is also often contaminated with food waste and in areas where all recycling is collected in one bin, one type of waste can contaminate another. It simply means that the plastic that we give away for recycling, can often become too contaminated and have to be sent to landfill instead. All our efforts in sorting rubbish into recycled and not, all the taxpayers’ money put into recycling programs all of these goes to waste, if plastic gets contaminated.
One thing that can be done about it is limiting the types of plastic to a single standard, which is easy to recycle. This might mean fewer coloured plastics. But is coloured plastics as important to us as having clean lakes and water?
The other solution that some producers are adopting is designing packaging that is easier to separate, for instance by having an outer layer that can be removed by the consumer and using water-soluble glues.
There are lots of groups trying to help tackle plastic pollution and cut the amount of plastic we use. Introduction of a small fee to plastic carrier bags resulted in a drop over 80% of the number of plastic bags that we use. Certain cafes and restaurants are now only giving out straws if people ask for them. Some are also swapping them for paper ones. Plastic microbeads have been banned from products like face scrubs and toothpaste.
Companies like TerraCycle accept almost all plastics for recycling. Another start-up company, Loop, co-operates with several world-known brands, like Tyde, Haagen-Dazs, The Body Shop, Pantene, Gillette, Dove, Tropicana and others, to offer eco-friendly packaging that are being collected after the use and reused or recycled by the Loop.
Market Research Future found that the recycle market value was almost USD 37 bn (USD 36,966.5 Mn) in 2017 and is expected to expand to reach USD 54 bn by the end of 2023.
The topic of plastic is a highly controversial one, it’s not black and white. Plastics have many great properties; they make our lives easier and enable us to have such diverse experiences. Even though plastic is a new material and some of us can even remember times without plastic, there is absolutely no way, we will abandon it completely right now, it is way too valuable for us.
Regardless of all those wonderful things about plastic, it is also detrimental for our health and our planet if we continue using it the way we had being doing for all these years. Half of the plastic we are currently using is absolutely unnecessary and can be eliminated, there is no need to sell cucumbers in several plastic layers, only to collect them in plastic bags, which will then be put in another plastic bag at the supermarket casher. That’s absolute none-sense. The way packaging and plastic consumer goods are designed also needs to be done smarter, using less types of plastic and where mixed plastic is being used, manufacturers need to enable consumers to separate them easily. Our recycling programs need improvement. At the moment raw feedstock for most plastics, fossil fuels, is cheaper to use than recycled material.
Finally, we, as the humanity, all need to participate in those efforts to reduce plastic waste equally. At the moment, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines are dumping more plastic into the ocean than ALL the rest of the world combined. This is partially due to them accepting our waste, and they have no more space for it. All these countries had either already banned waste imports or planning to introduce them very soon.
And remember those Super Wax Worms and Mutant Microbes are not ready yet to save the Earth from plastic, just hang in there.
The above article was written and edited by myself for OLLIMONO.