Swimming in Plastic: The Worldwide Problem of Plastic Pollution
In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman plays the part of a twenty-one-year-old, freshly minted college graduate named Benjamin Braddock. To celebrate Benjamin’s graduation his parents throw a dinner party and invite a few friends over. At the party, one of the friends of his parents gives Benjamin some sage advice, just one word: plastics. Looking back at that simple bit of advice, it was so prophetic—plastics. Since then, the amount of plastics made and used on the planet has exploded. You would have to travel to the most remote corner of the Earth not to run into something made of plastic. This tough, durable material made from petroleum has been around for over a century and has been made into everything from drinking cups to parts of space vehicles. The problem is that it is so tough and durable it doesn’t easily degrade. That plastic spoon your mother used to feed you your baby food and then threw away is still around somewhere; hopefully it has been recycled into something else, but probably not. If it wasn’t buried in a landfill, then it may be washing up on some beach in Indonesia by now. We, the people of planet Earth, are literally swimming in our own plastic waste. This has got to change!
Plastics have been around a long time, starting in 1907 when Leo Baekeland invented the first synthetic plastic, called Bakelite, and coined the term “plastics.” Since then, clever people all around the world have developed new and more useful products from synthetic organic polymers of high molecular mass from petroleum. And this stuff is nearly indestructible; it can take hundreds, or even thousands of years to fully decompose. Now we are at the point where much of the products we consume have a portion of plastic in them. Think of your drink cup, bottled water, a straw, computer case, pen, throwaway spoons and forks, and the list goes on and on.
About 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.To give you an idea of just how much plastic is around, the typical Ford F-150 pickup truck weighs around 5,000 pounds. Doing some math, you come up with the equivalent of 3.6 billion F-150s worth of plastic have been produced in the last 70 years. Since there are around 7.6 billion people on Mother Earth, each person could have roughly a half of a truck’s worth of plastic. So think about half a truck worth of plastic parked in your driveway for every member of the household, and maybe that will give you some perspective on the problem. And most of the plastic is still around since only nine percent has been recycled and twelve percent has been burnt. That means nearly eighty percent of the plastic ever produced is somewhere.
The oceans are becoming littered with plastic. It is estimated that by 2050 the oceans will contain as much plastic as fish. When plastic gets dumped into the ocean, the effects of the wave motion, salt water, and ultraviolet light start to break apart the plastic into “microplastics,” which are small enough to be eaten by fish. With an estimated seventy percent of the fish having some exposure to microplastics, that means this plastic waste is entering the food chain. Scientist have just begun studying the problems associated with the ingestion of plastics by humans. So far, the results are all negative. No surprise; eating plastic isn’t a good thing for humans.
Who Is to Blame?
You would think the more affluent Western cultures of North America and Europe would be most responsible for the problem of plastic pollution—not so. Most of the land-based plastics that enter the oceans come from the fast-growing East Asia, where waste-collecting systems are flawed or nonexistent. In October 2017, scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Germany, found that ten rivers—two in Africa and the rest in Asia—discharge roughly 90 percent of all marine plastic. The massive Yangtze River in China alone carries 1.5 million tonnes a year of plastic trash into the ocean. Going back to the analog of the weight of an F-150 truck, the amount of plastic is over 600,000 equivalent trucks made of plastic that float into the sea each year just from the pollution in this one river!
Things may be starting to change in China. In late 2017, China announced that they are stopping the import of 24 types of scrap material into the country. For decades, China was the world’s largest importer of waste. The ban has been hailed as a big win for global green efforts by environmentalists, who said it would not only clean up China, but also force other countries exporting their waste to China to better manage their own trash. Greenpeace East Asia plastic campaigner Liu Hua said: “This regulation will send shockwaves around the world, and force many countries to tackle the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude we’ve developed towards waste.” Hua calls Beijing’s move “a wake up call to the world.”
Recently, some innovative solutions are starting to come to fruition. Unfortunately, each of the solutions is only a good start. The big answer to the problem doesn’t seem to be imminent. Plastic pollution will be with us for years to come.
Some organizations and governments are starting to take action:
- On July 9, 2018, Starbucks Coffee announced it would stop using plastic straws in their shops by 2020.
- Dell Computer Company is beginning to create laptop packaging recycled from litter found on Haitian beaches. The company estimates this will keep 16,000 pounds of plastic out of the ocean.
- Clothing designer Stella McCartney announced in 2017 that she will use ocean plastic in lieu of woven or recycled polyester in some of her products. She has previously worked with Adidas to create a sneaker made from material retrieved from the ocean.
- Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat has invented a system of floating barriers with underwater screens to extract plastic and wants to test it on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an expanse of ocean off the California coast where plastics litter has accumulated.
- Efforts are underway to make the producers of plastic responsible for the environmental impact of their products through mandated regulations. It is estimated that drink companies alone produce 500 billion disposable plastic bottles each year.
- Some countries, such as Bangladesh, France, and Rwanda, have banned plastic bags. Since 2017, anyone offering plastic bags in Kenya risks four years in prison or a fine of up to $40,000.
- The fast food giant, McDonalds, plans to make all its packaging from recycled or renewable sources by 2025.
- The European Commission is calling to ban all single-use plastics. In a report recently released by the Commission, they claim, “The legislation is not just about banning plastic products. It also wants to make plastic producers bear the cost of waste management and cleanup efforts, and it proposes that EU states must collect 90% of single-use plastic bottles by 2025 through recycling programs.”
Plastic Pollution Video Narrated by Jeff Bridges
Technology to the Rescue?
Thankfully, for every problem created by a new breakthrough technology, such as the plastics revolution and the resulting pollution, a new technology can be developed to combat the problem. Unfortunately, at this point in time, none of the new technologies seem to be very effective or commercially viable. There is hope, but as always, more research is needed.
Plastic eating bacteria. A team of scientists searching through sediments at a plastic bottle recycling plant in Osaka, Japan, have found a strain of bacteria that has evolved to consume the most common type of plastic—plastics made from ethylene terephthalate, commonly called PET, which are used in polyester fibers, disposable bottles, and food containers. Plastics feature long molecular chains called polymers, which most organisms can’t break down. Lab tests show the bacteria uses two enzymes to break up the polymers before they’re consumed. Inside the bacteria’s cell the plastic is further broken down and its carbon and energy is used to build more cells. “We hope this bacterium could be applied to solve the severe problems by the wasted PET materials in nature,” said Kohei Oda, one of the researchers on the project. Currently, the research is just at the laboratory phase, not ready for introduction on a large scale suitable for commercial application.
Bioplastics. Plastics can be made from plant matter rather than hydrocarbons. Some plant-based bioplastics already exist; for example, packing peanuts, which can be made from starch instead of styrofoam. Not all plastics made from biological sources are biodegradable since they are chemically identical to petroleum-based plastics. In specific cases, products made from bioplastics can be triggered to biodegrade in the correct environment.
Converting plastic into oil. The Japanese inventor, Akinori Ito, has developed a machine that converts plastic bags into oil. In the process, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of plastic can be converted into one liter of oil. The conversion process takes approximately 1kWh of electricity. The conversion begins with the heating of the plastic and then feeding it into the pressurized oxygen-free oven. The oven temperature reaches 427° C (800°F), which converts the plastic into a liquid. The machine then transforms the liquid into a gaseous state where it is trapped and allowed to cool. The vapors condense when cooled and form a mixture of gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and heavy oil. The resulting crude oil can be used for heating or refined into higher grade petroleum products like gasoline. The machine is a bit pricey for the average household, at around $10,000. Depending on the price of oil and electricity, this process will likely become more economically viable and widespread.
Recycling. Recycling, or converting used plastic trash into new plastic products, is a great idea; however, the realities aren’t as appealing. The rate of plastic recycling has remained low, less than ten percent, due to the very nature of the plastic itself. Plastic products contain unique blends of proprietary additives that prevent recycling of mixed batches of products back into original products. Unlike glass and aluminum, which can be recycled back into its original consistency, most plastics recycling is considered “down-cycling” into a lower quality, hybrid-plastic end-product. Much like the case of recycling lumber, which ends up as a composite “particle board.” Except for the small fraction of plastics suitable for recycling or combusted for energy production, all plastics eventually end up as trash in landfills or as litter.
Be Part of the Solution
In our everyday lives, we can be part of the solution to the problem of plastic pollution. Since it would be virtually impossible to stop using plastics all together, there are a few simple strategies that will help.
Recycle: Think about where you are disposing of the used water bottle or plastic plate or cup; put it in a recycle bin or start recycling around the house. Some trash services make it very easy with special bins just for recyclables. The recycling process for plastic isn’t perfect, but it helps.
Avoid plastic bags. Next time you go to the grocery store and the person bagging your purchases asks “paper or plastic,” respond by giving them your reusable bag. They are cheap and a lot sturdier than the micro-thin plastic bags provided by the store.
Avoid items wrapped in plastic where possible. For example, my wife sent me to the store to pick up some items, one of which was sweet potatoes. Thinking back, I screwed up, I bought the potatoes already washed and wrapped in plastic, ready to throw in the microwave. I should have bought the loose potatoes in the bin—they were probably cheaper anyway. I’ll do better next time, but little things like this can add up to reduce the total plastic usage on the planet.
Avoid products with microplastics. These are present in many common products, such as toothpaste, cosmetics, and clothing. The small bits of plastic are too small to be filtered out of the water supply at sewage treatment plants. Once in the water supply, they end up in rivers, travel to the ocean, and are consumed by marine life and ultimately end up back in the food chain. Look for and avoid products that have the word “microbeads.”
Contact your representatives. Let your local, state, and national legislative representatives know you are concerned about the problem of plastic pollution. We pay them to help us, so put them to work.
I would love to give a happy ending to this article and feel confident the problem of plastic pollution is going to go away quickly and easily. However, not all stories have a happy ending and the problem of plastic pollution won’t be resolved any time soon. Projections indicate that even more plastic products will be produced in the coming decades and then thrown away. The mountains of plastic trash on land and sea will grow a little bit higher. It will take years of debate and legislation at the local, state, country, and international levels to enact meaningful laws to curb the growing problem. And technology doesn’t seem to be much of a help as a commercially viable solution doesn’t appear close at hand. All we can do as citizens of planet Earth is to daily try to reduce our reliance on plastic products, recycle, and encourage those in charge to put an end to this global problem that affects each of us.
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