Plastic is a material that is deeply intertwined with our modern lives. Plastic exists in nearly every industry, from food to cars to footwear to space equipment –but we talk about it as both being incredibly useful and dangerous for species worldwide, as it contributes to plastic waste, plastic pollution, plastic debris, plastic packaging waste, and plastic waste generation. The plastics industry is notorious for being bad for the environment.
👉 But what is plastic? And what makes plastic so harmful to the earth and human health?
What is plastic?
Plastic is a material that can be shaped or molded easily and can be synthetic, semisynthetic, or natural. What makes plastic so malleable is that it is made up of polymers.
At the molecular level, polymers are long chains of individual monomer links which bond easily to each other. Polymers are also so bulky that they don't stack together well. This results in a compound that:
can change shapes or forms easily;
is not particularly dense.
In comparison to other materials, like metal or glass, plastic is usually lighter and more flexible. This makes global plastic production particularly useful for a wide range of purposes, and is precisely why the plastic industry has found so much success in creating beverage containers for several other industries, such as plastic bottles, milk bottles, a plastic bag for grocery shopping, ice cream tubs, shampoo bottles, food wrappers, food containers, or other plastic additives such as plastic films used for new containers or shipping products like food packaging. However, the problem with fully synthetic plastic is that it doesn't contain any molecules from our natural environment – meaning that engineering plastics like these requires even more industrial activity, which results in even more emissions.
What makes plastic items recyclable? Plastic can be melted and then reshaped, so most plastics can be heated until they can be formed into something else. Knowing this about the recycling process helps explain why it's bad to throw a banana peel in your recycling bin – it could get heated in with the plastic, rendering the reformed banana-plastic useless!
Where do plastic materials come from and how is plastic made?
Plastic can be made in a variety of ways with a variety of materials. These materials can come from natural sources like latex from tree sap, tar, and amber. However, it is much cheaper and easier to make plastic from fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas, partly because our industrial system is based on these fuels.
Intense heat or pressure is required to shape the plastic into something functional. For example, crude oil is heated in a furnace in the refining process before it is distilled into lighter compounds. Through a process called polymerization, the light compounds are connected into polymers either with the addition of a catalyst or the removal of water.
How does plastic harm the environment?
Every part of the “plastics life cycle” is harmful for the environment and creates pollution. That includes:
Extraction of fossil fuels
Production of plastics
Distribution and use of plastic products
Disposal: recycling, incineration, litter.
The extraction of fossil fuels has negative impacts on local ecosystems by disturbing wildlife, polluting ground water systems, and causing oil spills in the ocean.
About 12% of the plastic produced ends up being incinerated. The fumes from both recycling and incineration add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And then, of course, the rest is plastic pollution.
We have produced a striking 9.2 billion tons of plastic since 1950, with production doubling each year on average. The most long-lasting plastics can take up to 500 years to decompose. Also, during the production process, tons of different chemicals are added depending on the use of the plastic.
About 40% of plastics produced are single-use – they have an intended short lifespan. Think of plastic bags, packaged water, to-go containers and plastic ware. They all often end up in landfills or in nature. Therefore, how much plastic waste is produced is irrelevant, as plastic waste inputs damage to the planet even if plastic consumption is reduced.
Why is plastic bad for the ocean?
Plastic, coming in many shapes and sizes, can end up polluting nearly every corner of our world – bodies, ecosystems, atmosphere. But as you probably already know, plastic ends up in and around our oceans, which harms marine life, our natural environment, and contributes to ocean pollution. Due to gravity, water collects in rivers and lakes, winding its way to the ocean. Water collects any and everything on its path.
At the current rate of primary plastic production and disposal, plastic could outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050. Many aquatic animals consume plastic, believing it to be prey. Plastic threatens ecosystems, lowers biodiversity, and can even change the flow of nutrients between plants and animals.
As plastic is worn down by seawater and sand, it creates microplastics. These are plastic bits smaller than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches). Microplastics are more pervasive than larger plastics – they have been found in the guts of plankton, one of the ocean's smallest living creatures.
Microplastics also show up in sediment layers of the ocean floor. The accumulation by year is on pace with the historical trend of plastic production worldwide.
But even larger plastics have been found in the depths of the ocean. When buoyant plastics like water bottles and plastic bags are in the water for long enough, algae and other life grows on them, weighing them down enough to sink to the ocean floor.
Solutions to plastic use
Unfortunately, recycling plastic isn't all what it's chocked up to be. As we've discussed, it is not an efficient use of energy. And not as much plastic get recycled as you may think.
Yet much of the American plastic that is transported abroad for recycling cannot be processed. Just ask China and Hong Kong – in 2015, they received more than half of the plastic that Americans placed in the recycle bin. Yet most of this load ended up in a landfill due to contamination of the plastic. As a result, China now only accepts plastic that is well cleaned. This is why waste management systems should seek to rectify the way plastic waste is created and overall plastic collection, as most plastic is ended up in landfill.
Bans on plastic
Some places have turned toward banning certain types of plastic in order to limit its impacts and the need for the government to deal with its recycling.
India has their own ban on single-use plastics. They elected to ban ear buds in addition to straws, cigarette packets, cutlery, and more.
Still, plastic bans don't get to the root of the problem – behavior. In a consumptive society, we will continue to need to create, use and dispose of items.
A way to combat this is to try to find ways to cut out your need for single-use items. Some people may ask, “How can I limit my plastic use?” Greenly can suggest:
Use a reusable water bottle.
Shop at bulk food stores and use ration containers for dry goods.
Rely on reusable cloth bags.
Bring a durable container with you when you get take-out food or when you need a to-go container at a restaurant.
Wash with a bar of soap rather than liquid soap.
Not only will you limit your environmental impact by changing your habits, but also you will be kind on your pocket.
Scientists have found some solutions to break down plastic without heat and are working at implementing them.
Wax worms and mealworms can break down plastics into compost that can be used as fertilizer. There are some microbes that can decompose plastics in mere hours, rather than the usual years needed.
Until our society can ween off plastic, we can turn to natural sources of rubber, like the rubber tree. It produces latex, which can be used like plastic. Amber has latex which can also be used like plastic. It is sometimes found while mining for other minerals.
Of course, these solutions do not solve the root problem of our consumptive society requiring so much plastic. It is energy intensive at every step of the lifecycle. Ideally, we change our behaviors and encourage governments to ban the most harmful plastics.
What about Greenly?
If learning about the negative impacts of plastic on the environment has encouraged you to want to do more to limit your impact on the environment, don't hesitate to contact Greenly. We can get you and your business set up with a greenhouse gas emissions report and with verified carbon offset programs.
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