What is wrong with plastics?


Plastic materials are so integrated into our everyday life that sometimes is hard to find plastic-free alternatives. Once praised for its durable and indestructible properties, plastic came back to our ecosystems as a boomerang.

Plastic pollution is everywhere - in the deepest oceans, soils, animals, and remote places like Antarctica and Mount Everest! 

But besides the visible impacts of discarded products, there are several other problems related to plastics.

So let's discuss some of them in more detail.

Garbage in the Himalayas.
Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel on Unsplash

 

1. Microplastics

 Microplastic pollution

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles smaller than 5mm in diameter whose sources can be various, from synthetic fibers, plastic packaging to tires. Since these fragments are so small, they can easily circulate in the environment and enter our bodies.

A recent study of the plastic pollution in the Arctic seawater discovered microplastic fibers in 99% of samples, with the majority most likely from clothes washing in Europe and North America (over 70% polyester). What is more depressing, the samples were taken at the 3-8 meters depths in the area where most of the marine life feeds. If we take the figure of 11 kg of discarded clothes per person in the EU (2/3 of synthetic fibers) the results are not surprising.

Microplastic particles were found in atmosphere dust, mostly as particles from tires, and broken plastic waste. Once blown in the atmosphere, particles can remain there for a week and be blown away across the globe. What is concerning is the fact that humans can easily inhale plastic fragments and pose health risks. Also, there is no place safe from microplastic pollution anymore.

Microplastic is also a common ingredient of personal cosmetic products in toothpaste, shower gels, shampoos, and make-up. They include but are not limited to Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), Nylon (PA), Polyurethane, and Acrylates Copolymer.  The function of plastic ingredients in cosmetic products varies from viscosity regulators, emulsifiers, skin exfoliants, sun filters, and many others. Around 1500 tons of microplastics from personal care products enter the oceans annually.

Also, imagine how much plastic packaging is produced and thrown from cosmetic products? Approximately 120 billion units of cosmetic packaging are produced globally every year!

Bottled water and other plastic containers shed tiny plastic particles into water. Microplastic is found in groundwater, tap water, soilhuman body and stoolmarine animals, even bees

Microplastic seems like the most common seasoning!

 

2. Climate change

Majority of virgin plastic is produced from fossil fuels, making it one of the contributors of climate change. Producing one ton of plastic generates up to 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

With the current production rates, it is estimated that by 2050 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from plastic could reach 1.34 billion tons per year.
At the moment, it accounts for approximately 400 million tons of GHG emissions per year globally. 
And every stage of plastic's life cycle has a significant carbon footprint, from extraction, manufacturing to waste management.
Even plastic waste in the environment releases the greenhouse gases methane and ethylene when affected by sunlight.  

3. Overproduction

We are facing with the plastic overproduction which is growing exponentially every year. Plastic production in the 1950 was 2 million tons. In 2019, it expanded to 368 billion tons! 

    2 000 000 t in 1950

368 000 000 000 t in 2019

Look how many zeros we added? And more than a half of it was produced in the last 20 years! 

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

4. Low recycling rates

Well, we can recycle the plastic, close the loop, and problem solved? 

Not really!

From all the quantities ever produced, only 9% of plastic has been recycled, almost 80% ended in the landfills or the environment, so imagine the scale of plastic pollution circulating the planet!

Why don't we recycle more?

There are several reasons.

The first one is the price of virgin plastic is much lower due to the oil price drop than the recycled one, and well cheaper option wins. The demand for recycled plastic is insignificant.

Second, plastic recycling is a more complicated process than, for example, metals.

There are seven commonly used types of plastics :

1) Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

2) High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

3) Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)

4) Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

5) Polypropylene (PP)

6) Polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam)

7) Other.

Five out of seven plastic types, when recycled, reduce in quality - downcycle, and their recycling with current methods is expensive.

Several types of plastic (polyvinyl chloride, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polycarbonates) contain toxins, carcinogens, and other pollutants, making them even harder to repurpose.

Also, plastic must be sorted by type before the recycling process, which is not always an easy task. 

5. Problem shifting and environmental injustice

Plastic doesn't only cause environmental issues it also supports social injustice and poses certain health risks, especially for the most vulnerable parts of society all around the globe. A recent study from UNEP covers the environmental justice impacts of plastic pollution, a topic not widely represented in the discussion related to this problem.

From plastic production, oil extraction, and refineries to recycling and incineration, facilities are often built in regions with lower economic income or minority populations, reducing the quality of life in the surrounding communities. Those facilities emit toxic, cancerogenic chemicals and air pollution, directly impacting the health of the people living nearby.
We all remember 
the Erin Brockovich movie, based on a true story of water contamination from the natural gas pumping station. There are numerous cases like this worldwide, especially in the developing countries where local communities are affected by the pollution of often unregulated or poorly managed industries. 

Countries such as China, Southeast Asian countries, and Turkey have been flooded by the plastic waste exported from Western countries. Rich developed countries are shifting the waste issue by exporting enormous quantities of unsorted waste, even illegal one, instead of dealing with the problem in their yard. The trouble gets more serious, as the export of plastic waste not destined for recycling is illegal, yet plastic is often dumped illegally in the environment or burned in the open air, causing severe environmental and health issues.

Photo by Muhammad Numan on Unsplash

95% of European and 70% of American collected plastic waste was exported to China before 2017 when China decided to stop this unethical, problem-shifting, unsustainable practice and forbid the import of 24 solid waste categories after being overwhelmed with the amounts of waste from all over the world. However, that wasn't an alarming sign to finally start tackling the problem at its source, as the new victims of exported waste became South Asian countries with more than double amounts of waste input. In 2019 Cambodia returned 83 containers to the US and Canada because they were labeled to contain recyclable goods, but were full of plastic trash. Similar cases occurred in Indonesia and the Philippines too.

 6. Health risks

As previously mentioned, plastic contain various chemicals that may pose a significant risk to people and the environment. Over 10 thousand substances are added to the different types of plastics, and almost a quarter of them can harm humans and other living organisms. 

Oil extraction, refining, and plastic manufacturing emit toxic chemicals, like benzene, VOCs, and styrene, linked to cancers, neuro-, reproductive, developmental toxicity, and irritations.

Plastic products in use shed tiny particles of microplastics which can lead to toxic chemical exposure of additives. Moreover, microplastics tend to absorb heavy metals from the environment. Higher temperatures increase the amount of plastic shed, so the best way is to avoid exposing plastic utensils, especially kitchen ones, to the heat. Another issue connected with microplastics is that  due to their size, particles can enter the body and potentially accumulate in the tissue. 

The effects of plastics on humans and animals are still unknown, as present data is limited and more research is necessary. But despite the knowledge gaps, the impacts of every life cycle part of plastics on our health are highly concerning. 

 

What can you do?

  • Use plastic-free alternatives! Today there are so many plastic alternatives available, locally and ethically produced with a lower environmental impact. Soaps, shampoo bars, toothpaste, deodorants, cleaning products, clothes...options are numerous.
  • Avoid buying plastic materials like polyester, nylon, and similar, because they release microfibers with every washing. In case you already own some, wash them in special bags which reduce the microfibers released in the environment. Consider materials like linen, hemp, Tencel and similar when buying clothes. Explore the world of second-hand and vintage stores.
  • Don't buy single-use plastic products! Reusable bottles, coffee cups, shopping bags, face masks - do we need to repeat this? There is no excuse for single-use plastics, so don't be lazy.
  • Buy in bulk or visit farmers' markets which often offer plastic-free products! How annoying is that plastic-wrapped cucumber? You can find veggies, fruit, grains, dairy, bread, spices, cosmetics, cleaning products, and many great items ready for your reusable packaging.
  • Avoid heating your food or beverages in plastic containers.
  • Learn how to properly separate and dispose of plastic waste in your municipality. It is important to close the loop and not release new quantities in the environment. If the packaging doesn't have a recycling mark, it probably can't be recycled and only complicates the plastic sorting process.
  • Reuse! Even if you buy something in plastics, don't throw it away if you can find a new purpose. You can always plant some herbs in a plastic container.
  • Be creative! For example, make your own food instead of buying one wrapped in plastics. 
  • Don't pass by the trash outside, pick it up because it may not be your trash, but it is your planet. It takes hundreds of years for plastic to degrade in the environment.
  • Educate yourself and the people around you about raising plastic pollution problems! Show through your actions that it is possible to avoid unnecessary plastics in life.