Plastic trash on the beach in Ghana

Plastic pollution in Ghana. Photo by Muntaka Chasant.

Our Plastic Earth

Soon, if not already, the weight of all the plastic in the world’s oceans will weigh more than all of the oceans’ fish. Much of this plastic is in the fish themselves. Turtles and other marine animals, and especially seabirds, mistake plastic for food. It is not digestible of course, but it gives the animal the sensation of being full so the animal then starves to death. In 2019 a juvenile beaked whale that washed ashore in the Philippines was found to have died from having eaten 100 pounds of plastic bags. At least one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from encountering plastic.

boy drinking out of a plastic water container

The average person in a modern society breathes in and drinks hundreds of tiny particles of plastic every day.

Plastic pollution is everywhere, not just in the oceans. There is plastic, a lot of plastic, in the Himalayas and the Sahara. There is even plastic on Mars, left by the Curiosity Rover. The average person in a modern society breathes in and drinks hundreds of tiny particles of plastic every day. Plastic also pollutes beyond just being littered. In the process of making it, or when the chemicals used to make it seep out, plastic releases toxins into the environment. These chemicals are now in the blood of nearly every person on Earth, even the unborn. Some are known or suspected of causing a broad range of health problems including birth defects and brain damage.

For all of that, we need plastic. It is not merely a convenience. It would be virtually impossible to make modern electronic devices without plastic. Plastic packaging reduces product weight, transportation costs and fossil fuel use. Plastic is essential to the design of medical equipment. As just one example, at the time this is written (July 2020) there are thousands of patients around the world who are victims of the Covid 19 pandemic intubated with ventilators in a desperate attempt to keep them alive. This procedure would almost certainly be impossible without plastic. So the question is, how can we use plastic without poisoning ourselves and our planet?

Plastic Fantastic

Many natural substances such as rubber and silk have useful plastic-like properties. But before the invention of plastic, the only substances that could be molded were metal, clay and glass, which are heavy and rigid after being formed. Rubber has many of the properties of some plastics, but it loses its ability to retain its shape after repeated stretching or bending. These natural plastic-like materials are made up of long molecular chains called polymers that are formed of simple repeating units. The invention of plastic came from studying the chemistry of polymer chains. Now plastics can be made rigid or bendable and formed into almost any shape to make toys, appliances – in fact most of the products of the modern world.

Alcohol, acid or gasoline can be carried in lightweight plastic containers without dissolving the container itself. The plastic called acrylic can be made so clear that light can travel through a one-meter thick piece and still retain 80% of its strength. Plastics can be much stronger than steel for some purposes while weighing much less. Some plastics can even be bulletproof. Polycarbonate can be made practically unbreakable. It is hard to imagine how many modern devices such as solid-state electronics and medical instruments could exist without plastic. Recent advances in chemistry continue to make plastics ever more useful.

Single-use plastic products account for about 50% of all plastics produced.

Plastics are lightweight, durable, inexpensive, relatively easy to manufacture, and produced from common materials. Almost all plastic is made starting with petroleum as the basic ingredient. There are at least ten kinds of plastic in common use, and many more specialty types. The way each is made or the additives included in the process will determine its properties such as flexibility and durability. Single-use plastic products account for about 50% of all plastics produced. Most plastic has been made by US, German, or Japanese companies, with Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and China recent challengers.

Tiny particles of plastic can even transverse the protective barrier between blood vessels and the brain.

Plastic has been without doubt a benefit to mankind, but like other benefits of an industrial society such as petroleum, pesticides, or antibiotics, our over-reliance is harming both the human race and the natural world. Plastics keep their same chemical nature when they are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, even after becoming too small to be seen through a microscope. Because they are similar to natural substances, these tiny pieces can be readily absorbed directly into the blood and tissues of living organisms. They even transverse the protective barrier between blood vessels and the brain.

An Ocean of Plastic

Every type of sea life has this microplastic in its body, and so do the land creatures that eat them.

The Mariana Trench is the deepest place on Earth, almost seven miles below sea level. Exotic deep-sea creatures have been collected from near the bottom of the Trench, and plastic has been found inside of every single one. Over 400,000,000 pieces of plastic were found in the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, home to about 600 people and one of the most remote spots on the planet. The highest density of plastic pollution anywhere may be on the beaches of Henderson Island, a tiny uninhabited dot in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch that revolves between California and Hawaii is twice the size of Texas. The garbage is mostly of plastic, perhaps as many as 2,000,000,000,000 floating pieces. This is one of five such vortexes – there is another in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean. But if you were able to remove every piece of the plastic you might see in and under the water, it would not fix the problem. Most of this plastic has been broken into tiny pieces referred to as “microplastic.” Every type of sea life has this microplastic in its body, and so do the land creatures that eat them.

According to a report in Scientific American, on average about 80% of the plastic in the oceans is washed from the land on ten rivers, two in Africa and the rest in Asia. China produces more than one quarter of the world’s plastic pollution and almost three times as much as the next highest polluter, Indonesia. Much of the rest of the ocean’s plastic comes from various kinds of ships in the form of abandoned fishing nets and gear and debris either lost or tossed overboard. These disposal practices are forbidden by international agreement but are ignored without any consequences.

Death by Garbage

Submicroscopic particles of broken-down plastic can float in the air like dust and be inhaled.

Plastic debris makes its way into the ocean because the great majority of it on land is littered or thrown into landfill without adequate safeguards. It is impossible to picture the amount of plastic waste we dump into the environment in even a single day. In the time it takes you read this about fifty thousand plastic bottles will have been thrown away. These bottles and bottle caps make up about one-third of all plastic trash. Another third is plastic bags and food wrappers. Other food-related items – lids, straws, cups, plastic utensils and plates – make up the largest share of the rest.

Submicroscopic particles of broken-down plastic can float in the air like dust and be inhaled. This miniaturization is sometimes done purposefully, as with microplastics added to cosmetics and toothpaste. Though intended to be washed into waste water, these added particles still find their way into the drinking water supply all around the world. The US has the most plastic in its tap water, with contamination found in more than 90% of the water tested. Bottled water is no better. A study in Frontiers in Chemistry found that 93% of bottled water contains on average 325 particles of plastic per liter.

The US has the most plastic in its tap water, with contamination found in more than 90% of the water tested.

The smallest of these micro-particles can pass from the digestive system into the blood stream and spread throughout the body, including passing through the blood-brain barrier. By drinking American water and breathing American air, an adult in the US will consume about 100,000 microplastic particles in a year. But plastic does not have to be littered or ground into microparticles to pose a threat to health and the environment. Although very durable, plastics do eventually decompose. The byproducts of decomposition can release toxic chemicals.

Living with Leaches

Most plastics, if they existed in some pure form and were properly disposed of, would pose little threat to the environment. The reality however is very different. Some of the monomers – the repeating units in the polymer chain that is the plastic – are “loose” in the material because they are left unbound after the chemical reactions that form the plastic. The monomers that make up many plastics are known to cause cancer or birth defects – the monomers of PVC for example are responsible for an otherwise rare form of liver cancer found among chemical workers. Tests on laboratory animals show reproductive harm from monomers at lower blood levels than found in the average person living in an industrial nation.

In many cases the most hazardous substances in plastics are not the loose monomers but additives that are left in the material during manufacturing. Several thousand different additives are used in plastic production. They are catalysts to speed up the formation process, other compounds that can make the plastic more flexible or more rigid, some to make it transparent, more durable, and so on. As plastic ages or is exposed to sunlight and moisture, these additives are leached into the environment and into any liquids the plastic may contain. Three chemicals related to plastic known to cause serious health problems:

  • Phthalates

    Phthalates are used to make plastic less brittle. They are often found in cosmetics, packaging, cases for consumer electronics, and plastic upholstery. Phthalates are not tightly bound within the plastic molecules and seem to find their way easily into the human body. Phthalates are commonly consumed by eating fast foods and other fatty foods like butter and meat. They depress the action of male hormones. Phthalates are linked to birth defects, reduced fertility, and brain disorders in children. Some phthalates are banned from use in making children’s toys, but they are still so common that they are present in 99% of people tested.

  • BPA

    Bisphenol-A, or BPA, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as a potential problem. BPA makes plastic tough. It allows plastic to be used to make food containers, sports equipment, and DVDs. Plastic baby bottles were once a major source of BPA exposure for infants, but this use has been banned in many countries. BPA-based material is used to line food and beverage cans to keep them from corroding. It is one of the most commonly produced chemicals in the world. Indoor air contains small amounts of BPA. Young children have higher blood levels of BPA than adults.

    BPA mimics the female hormone estrogen. Those most susceptible to its effects are children and women of child-bearing age. Above some concentration in the blood, BPA is linked to a whole host of health problems. It is a matter of debate at what level BPA exposure is safe. Health agencies often determine acceptable levels from the dosage that will cause problems after a short period of exposure, but BPA is eliminated rapidly from the body so BPA is thought by many experts not to be of general concern. The effects of frequent, daily exposure at low levels occurring over many years, which is by far the most common situation, are unknown.

  • Dioxins

    Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is generally believed to be the worst plastic for health and the environment. It is strong and durable and is commonly used for pipes and building materials. It is almost impossible to recycle PVC. Although PVC itself is very stable, some chemicals left after manufacturing are not strongly bound within it. Over time, or when it is incinerated, which is a common means of disposal, PVC releases dioxins. When PVC is used as a container for food or liquid, dioxins can leech out and end up in our bodies. Many companies have phased out its use because of this.

    Dioxins are a family of chemicals that stay in the body for years. The toxicity of dioxins varies widely; some types are poisonous. High exposures result in skin and liver disease, but such exposure levels are rare. Dioxins are known to cause cancer but at what dosage is unknown. Low doses cause developmental defects in children, such as cleft palates and retarded sexual development. Dioxins have also been linked to low birth weight, learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Dioxins are commonly found in breast milk.

Other Chemicals

In addition to these chemicals, over time some plastics will leach out lead, cadmium and other heavy metals left over from manufacturing. Some chemicals left in plastic from manufacturing are especially poisonous to marine life, like copper chloride or methanol. PBDEs are flame retardants and were added to children’s sleepwear, furniture, and other products. These are widespread in the environment; studies have linked PBDEs to a reduction in IQ in children. Plastics can also absorb and concentrate chemical pollutants that are already present in the environment, such as pesticides, and then pass them up the food chain when an animal ingests the plastic.

Plastic Surgery

The best way to deal with plastic pollution is to avoid using plastic. Cleaning plastic from the environment at present is just too difficult and expensive, and most items made of plastic are not recycled at all. Using metal or ceramic to store food instead of plastic containers is a healthy choice. Major cities world-wide have banned the use of foam take-out containers. There is little need for single-use plastic water bottles, which in fact are often sold containing tap water. In the US, the amount of water that would cost you $1 if drawn from your tap would cost you close to $1000 if you bought it in bottles. While the plastic used for these bottles, PET, is recyclable, most of it ends up in landfills and in the ocean.

shopper carrying plastic shopping bags.

Since ordinances in California banning the use of plastic shopping bags have been in force, 13 billion fewer bags have been used.

The greatest reduction in the use of plastics has come from regulating single-use bags for shopping. Fees or outright bans on their use have been passed around the world in response to public demand. As one example, Suffolk County in Long Island, NY was suffering a blight of plastic bags on miles of its famous beaches. The county passed a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags and the following year saw a reduction of one billion bags used. It’s estimated that since ordinances in California banning their use have been in force, 13 billion fewer bags have been used. The entire European Union plans to ban these bags by 2021, and similar action is being taken by countries on every continent.

But the benefits of using other materials in place of plastic are not always straightforward. Thicker, reusable plastic bags have taken the place of single -use bags for many shoppers, but these bags also get thrown away after a time. And in the pandemic of 2020, single-use plastic bags are again being used as a hygienic means of shopping. As for plastic bottles, using glass instead would increase the product weight and greatly increase the fuel needed for transportation. Online giant Amazon has replaced many cardboard shipping containers with lightweight plastic. Given the volumes of merchandise involved, the cost savings for online merchants from this trade-off are significant.

Plastic is not going away. It is too useful and we have come rely on it. What about reusing it?

Curb Your PET

Individual action can make an important difference in the plastic problem. Most single-use plastic can be recycled, at least in theory. Single-use packaging is made mostly using PET and related plastics and are collected by municipal curbside pickup. Recycling saves about one-third of the energy compared to making entirely new plastic starting with only petroleum. PET and related plastics are not as harmful chemically as other types, and recycling reduces litter and keeps microplastic from polluting land and sea.

When possible, try to use only plastic labelled 1 or 2. These are easily recyclable and seem to produce fewer harmful chemicals.

High-numbered plastics (3 through 7), are either recycled only in insignificant amounts or cannot be recycled at all. They are much more likely to produce chemicals harmful to health and the environment.

Any plastic material with food residue cannot be recycled.

The plastic symbol codes (“RIC”) are deceptive. Although they look like recycling symbols, they do not indicate that the plastic is recyclable. In reality, only #1 and #2 are recycled in any meaningful quantities, around 30% in the US, more in Europe. Overall less than 10% of all plastic is recycled and even this dismal number is misleading. The worst plastics, in terms of health and the environment, essentially are not recycled at all and end up in landfill, the oceans, or in the air through incineration. Paper, metal, glass and plastic are all collected for recycling in much the same way, but paper, metal and glass are recycled at much higher rates. The additional treatment required is what holds plastic recycling back.

It is important that recycled plastic is clean and that municipal regulations for separation are followed. Any plastic material with food residue cannot be recycled. Food waste can contaminate an entire load of mixed recyclables and turn it into landfill. Do not include plastic bags in curbside pick-up unless your municipality expressly allows this. Although they are made of recyclable types of plastic, the thin sheets clog conventional recycling equipment. Black plastic, even PET, is not accepted for recycling because it cannot be sorted using laser scanning, and sorting it by hand is prohibitively expensive. The entire load may simply be thrown away.

Landfill or Litter

Plastic is recycled by first sorting and cleaning it, then melting it to form pellets that are sold back to plastic processing companies. The low temperatures at which plastics melt is a major problem for recycling. While this lower temperature saves energy, it also allows contaminants – the types that get burned away when recycling glass or metal – to remain in the plastic mix and ruin its usefulness. Recycled plastic is usually made into lower-value products such as carpet fiber or simple building materials. Plastic can often only be recycled once or twice into a new product, and recycled plastic always contains a large percentage of fresh virgin resin in order to maintain its useful properties.

Plastic can often only be recycled once or twice into a new product.

Without government subsidies, it would generally be unprofitable to recycle plastic at all. Plastics other than PET or HDPE (#1 and #2) either are not profitable to recycle or cannot be recycled even in theory. “Styrofoam” is a good example of material that is not profitably recycled. Its virtues as a packaging material – it is very lightweight and it resists compression – mean that the costs of transporting volumes of it are greater than can ever be recovered reselling it. It ends up as landfill or litter.

Many older plastics cannot be recycled because they contain chemicals, like phthalates, that have since been banned or are no longer used. To encourage recycling, many communities started single-bin curbside pickup to so consumers didn’t need to sort their trash into separate bins. This greatly increased recycling but led to more contamination. And now, because of the poor quality of contaminated plastic from the US, China will now only accept recycling that is 99.5% free of contaminants. This has so harmed the US recycling industry that some companies are facing bankruptcy.

Because plastic is so useful, great quantities of it will continue to be made. But because it is now impractical to recycle much of it, other means of recovery need to be found. There are two general possibilities: new types of plastic, and new methods of recycling.

Breaking the Mold

Plastic can be made starting with other natural polymers besides petroleum, like starch, vegetable oil and even bacteria. Some of the plastics made this way, “bioplastics,” can be turned into compost. The greatest potential for biodegradable plastic at present is in food service. Containers made of compostable plastic do not need to be cleaned before both the container and its food waste are placed in the compost. This avoids contaminating other recycled materials and also saves water. Other biodegradable plastics are commonly found in clothing, as medical sutures that dissolve in the body, and as trash bags for municipally-collected compost.

Bioplastics do not enjoy the same economic incentives that originally spurred the invention and development of petroleum-based plastic.

So far however, biodegradable plastics do not entirely live up to their promise of being easily compostable. They will not decompose in ordinary home compost or in typical landfills, they need to go to a commercial facility where they will be exposed to elevated temperatures. And not all bioplastics are even designed to be biodegradable. Even so, unlike the petroleum used to make conventional plastic, bioplastics are made using renewable sources. Many of these new plastics require considerably less energy to manufacture and require fewer hazardous chemicals in their manufacture.

Bioplastics do not enjoy the same economic incentives that originally spurred the invention and development of petroleum-based plastic. Unlike the first plastics, these new plastics are competing with materials that are less expensive and already perform well. Bioplastics still have a long way to go before they perform as well as conventional plastic. Like other materials causing environmental harm, such as petroleum, economists say the true cost of conventional plastic should include “externalities” – that is, the cost of disposing of it is not included in its price. One solution is to subsidize the development of new plastics, possibly either with fees collected from plastic manufacturers or by providing tax incentives for new development.

Nature Fights Back

For all of their persistence in nature, plastics are not immune to attack from living things. Wax moth caterpillars are known to eat polyethylene. In a waste dump in Germany Pseudomonas bacteria were discovered eating polyurethane, another widely used plastic component that cannot be recycled and releases toxins as it degrades. And in Japan, scientists discovered the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis eating PET. As mentioned above, PET is recyclable. Still, most PET is thrown away and much of that is contaminated with food waste. Having it eaten by germs sounds like a good idea.

Researchers at Stanford University are evaluating using mealworms to consume polystyrene (“Styrofoam”), one of the most problematic plastics for disposal. Mealworms will eat plastic, and are commonly used as feed for chickens and other livestock. There is concern that feeding plastic to mealworms and then feeding mealworms to livestock will concentrate even more toxins in our food; polystyrene contains a flame retardant and suspected neurotoxin that is being phased out in the EU. Results so far show that the worms can consume the plastic and eliminate the toxins from their bodies so it can be disposed of safely.

As promising as these sound, the practical applications of “plastic predators” are not close. The processes are very slow and the habitats are complex, which means they are expensive. More research is needed to be sure that the plastics are really being digested rather than broken into microparticles. But the idea of nature adapting to our careless mistreatment has a basic appeal that is likely to keep this research moving forward. “When you have huge amounts of plastic in the environment, that means there is a lot of carbon and there will be evolution to use this as food,” says Hermann J. Heipieper, an environmental scientist in Leipzig, Germany. Researchers hope to create in the laboratory the plastic predators that will eventually evolve in nature.

The Deep Blue Clean Sea

According to Ocean Conservancy 643,562 straws and stirrers were picked up during their 2017 global beach cleanup—a situation that one astute kindergartner made the basis of his math project.
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Outright disgust over ocean garbage has spurred people to action. Dutch teenager Boyan Slat gained a good deal of attention, and venture capital as well, when he founded Ocean Cleanup to remove plastic trash from the sea. And  Ocean Voyages Institute, a nonprofit organization, is enlisting the help of commercial shipping to identify ocean trash. It distributes GPS markers to shippers who place them on large concentrations of plastic that they come upon. A trawler then follows the signals to the location to collect the garbage. And new ventures like Waternet, Clearwater Mills, and New Naval are already at work to remove plastic trash from major waterways before it reaches the ocean.

Where do we go from here? Change is not only possible, it is happening. Nine European countries recover more than 80% of their plastic waste. Some large companies like Coca-Cola, Marriott and Dell Technologies have pledged major changes in the way they use plastic. There is no single solution, but success will be a combination of efforts to:

  • Educate consumers about plastic
  • Implement better recycling and subsidize effective clean-up projects
  • Reduce the use of plastics based on a judgment of their importance versus their harm, for example plastic tubing used for life-saving medical procedures vs. mass-distributed plastic  straws with soft drinks
  • Subsidize biodegradable plastics use and research
  • Regulate toxic additives
  • Regulate of harmful production and waste management
  • Grassroots movements and economic boycotts to address all aspects of the plastics problem

Change won’t be cheap, but for too long we have been living off our planet’s capital without a thought to the future. The cost of doing business as usual will far exceed the cost of correcting for our blindness. We have no choice but to deal with these problems, or they will surely deal with us.

photo of a storm in a desert

Plastic Rain Is the New Acid Rain

Matt Simon, Wired

Researchers find that over 1,000 metric tons of microplastic fall on 11 protected areas in the US annually, equivalent to over 120 million plastic water bottles.

A plastic jug floating on the ocean

Watch: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Not What You Think It Is

The Swim

It’s not an island twice the size of Texas. But it is severely impacting marine life and human health… and incredibly hard to study.

front-end loader pushing garbage around a landfill

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

NPR

It costs more to recycle most plastics than to dispose of it as garbage. The makers of plastic have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.

pan of bioplastic ingredients on the stove

Try this at home!

Make Biodegradable Plastic
Need a glass pie or cake pan and pot.
Liquid vegetable glycerin is inexpensive and readily purchased online.

Place 4 tablespoons cold water in a pot
Add 1 tablespoon corn starch
Add 1 teaspoon vinegar
Add 1 teaspoon liquid glycerin
Add 5 drops food coloring [optional]
Slowly bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer for 5 minutes continue to stir. Pour into pan and dry in oven at 150F for 1 ½ hours.

Featured Books:

The Future

Six Drivers of Global Change

Al Gore

No period in global history resembles what humanity is about to experience. Explore the key global forces converging to create the complexity of change, our crisis of confidence in facing the options, and how we can take charge of our destiny.

The Big Ratchet

How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis

Ruth DeFries

Human history can be viewed as a repeating spiral of ingenuity—ratchet (technological breakthrough), hatchet (resulting natural disaster), and pivot (inventing new solutions). Whether we can pivot effectively from the last Big Ratchet remains to be seen.

The Sixth Extinction

An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert

With all of Earth’s five mass extinctions, the climate changed faster than any species could adapt. The current extinction has the same random and rapid properties, but it’s unique in that it’s caused entirely by the actions of a single species—humans.

Related:

The Planet We Inherited
The Human Footprint
The Rocky Road to a Sustainable Future

Further Reading

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