Transforming a Plastic World
For an historical perspective on just how recently plastic entered our lives, enjoy this clip from the 1967 classic film The Graduate.
Plastic bags were a novelty in the 1970s. Now they litter the entire globe. Plastic has been found in the most remote regions of the Arctic, and Mt. Everest has been dubbed "the world's highest garbage dump." South Africans cheekily refer to plastic bags as their national flower due to their renowned prevalence in its spiky bushes.
Beginning in the early 1970s, plastics quickly found their way into every product imaginable. With so many creative minds looking to build a better mousetrap and a fortune, we now produce 300 million tons of plastic each year. Half of this is used for single-use items. Items that will be thrown away immediately after use. The problem is that there is no "away."
We now have billions of tons of plastic on the planet because it doesn’t go away. And it can't break down in any span of time meaningful to homo sapiens.
The quantity of plastic produced and purchased continues to grow by the minute. Literally. One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute globally.
Even given the prohibitions in effect in many countries, we use five trillion plastic bags worldwide every year.
And these are just two plastic products of millions.
Producing and transporting all of these bags and single-use plastics contributes greenhouse gas emissions to an already dangerously heating climate. Storing it all involves yet more environmental costs. According to architecture2030.org, globally, buildings contribute an inordinate slice of the pie: a whopping 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. While the cost of storage space for plastics would be a mathematical challenge to isolate, suffice it to say that the less storage space needed, the lower the greenhouse gas emissions. Of course transporting these unnecessary products adds deleterious fossil fuel emissions to the atmosphere as well. Again, the quantity attributable would be difficult to isolate, but according to the USEPA, the transportation industry is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gases emitted in the US. Any reduction would be welcome.
We don't think of our clothing as containing plastic, but much of it does. Plastic is in the polymers that comprise synthetic clothing.
Consider for a moment these smaller bits of plastic, like those used in synthetic fibers. These are referred to as microplastics and are just that: tiny bits of plastic used in many different products. Nanoplastics caught national attention when we began to realize that our wastewater treatment plants were unable to filter the tiny beads found in many cosmetics, meaning of course that they ended up in our drinking water. The US banned their use in 2015, but many countries have what they consider much more pressing problems and are unlikely to be able to pass or enforce health and safety legislation in those municipalities that even have wastewater treatment plants. Microplastics come in many forms and the term applies as well to just shreds or bits from single-use plastics degrading in the sun and wind, like the bags, food packaging and bottles that have come to define our landscapes, even in deep wilderness and on uninhabited islands.
Microplastics are toxic; they release toxins as they degrade. Plastic never breaks down completely. Research has shown that if ingestion doesn’t outright kill marine life, microplastics can alter gene expression, hinder reproduction and retard movement. These handicaps are not just a problem for fish and birds. The Plastic Foundation estimates that the number of individual animals affected runs into the billions. These plastics accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and worse, biomagnify as they move through the food chain, eventually landing in even higher concentrations on our seafood platters. A recent study revealed that 17 out of 22 people sampled had plastic in their blood. Think about that. You probably have plastic in your blood. Salt, beer, lip gloss, polymers leeching from a microwaved bowl - plastic is everywhere poised for our ready consumption.
Microplastics in the form of microfibers are released into the wastewater every single time we wash our synthetic clothes. These flow into treatment plants where they end up in sludge sold to agricultural companies to spread as fertilizer on our major crops. There they contaminate the soil and our grains, fruits and vegetables, another source of ingestion. Considering the copious quantity of pesticides sprayed on these crops as well, it is hard not to seriously question the value at all of foods not grown organically.
But back to microfibers. Heat releases carcinogenic chemicals from polyester clothing which an be inhaled, or absorbed through the skin with sweat, and travel to the kidneys and liver or wherever. Polyester underwear has been linked to infertility. These microfibers are ubiquitous in our environment now. Synthetic fibers containing such culinary delights as the fire retardants in children's pajamas have been found in the tissues of deep sea fish and in seabirds.
The problems are growing, and we are slowly beginning to realize how serious the adverse effects of all this plastic might be. And how difficult it will be to stop it all. For example, consumers in the United States actually complain that they need their plastic bags to carry groceries. We have come to rely upon so many products made with plastic. It will not only be difficult to transition away from these products, to say no to the newest brightest Playskool house... but too, how can we even begin to clean up the mess we’ve made?
You’ve probably heard about the great garbage patches, vortices in our oceans that have giant gobs, hundreds of miles across of trash, some of it reaching upward from the ocean floor, much of it simply floating and degrading into smaller bits, then ingested by fish and seabirds. About 12 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans annually. Lost or discarded fishing gear makes up about 10% of the total trash in the ocean and in some patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is estimated that discarded nets, lines and ropes account for close to half of the garbage. Drifting nylon fishing nets strangle fish and birds. There’s even a term for these drifting nets: ghost fishing.
Our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates it will take 67 ships a day for a year to clean up just one percent of the North garbage patch in the North Pacific. The NOAA position appears to be that there is more debris entering the ocean every day, most of it from rivers, so why bother even trying to clean it up until the steady stream is stopped?
From the rivers....
to the seas.
Can technology save us?
One thousand rivers contribute 80% of the plastic that enters the ocean by river. Undeterred by the magnitude of the project, The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit, spearheaded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has developed technologies to intercept the trash before it enters the ocean. It is focusing on those one thousand rivers. Eight of their Interceptors have been deployed in five countries. Slat is optimistic that his team can achieve a far better timeline than the NOAA projects for harvesting plastic from the ocean. The company's stated goal is to clear 90% of the trash in the oceans by 2040. To track their cleanup efforts, visit http://theoceancleanup.com/. to efficiently
riverine plastic from entering the oceans in five years f
But to realistically stop the problems, we must stop producing plastic. Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002 when it found that the bags were choking drainage channels during devastating floods. China banned thin plastic bags in 2008 as did Rwanda.
An aside to the well-meaning recycler stuffing recycled items in a plastic bag: plastic bags cannot be recycled in the classic sense and actually cause significant downtime in recycling operations when they jam conveyor belts.
Today, 95 countries have banned the use of thin plastic bags, though no countries restrict the production. Some nations have not had to pass laws as it is customary to use cloth bags and stores don’t offer thin plastic. Manufacturers of other plastic products including water bottles have seen some regulation, like the requirement for plastic water bottles to contain a percentage of recycled content. We’ve got to do something with our plastic waste so building a robust market for recycled products makes sense. Regulations encouraging reuse are one step in that direction.
While the US government lags behind in addressing the problem of plastic, some individual states and cities have stepped up to the plate, regulating bags, straws, drink stirrers and foam food packaging. Too, a small but growing population in the US uses reusable cloth bags when shopping, regularly uses a BPA-free water bottle, uses reusable silicone and mesh bags for refrigerator storage and keeps both a to-go cup and reusable utensils in their vehicle. The European Union banned ten throwaway plastics, including Styrofoam in 2018. India recently banned single-use plastic and Canada’s ban just came into effect in December 2022.
Some voluntary alliances have formed, like within the National Restaurant Association and among grocery stores pledging to make their operations Zero Waste, and one can hope that more industries will rise to a challenge most consumers seem blissfully unaware of. Thankfully, global leaders are willing to acknowledge the crisis of plastic pollution. In 2022, 175 nations endorsed a resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. International leadership is hopeful in that it acknowledges a problem national and local politicians don't want to spearhead, but precisely because of that meaningful change must come from the individual and community level. Making alternative products and practices trendy is a form of education. You've got this one.