What is there to know. Myths and misconceptions. and of course, what we know.
Plastic has replaced virtually every naturally occurring material humans used in the past: glass, wood and rubber, metals, stone, linen and cotton, silk, etc. Virtually anything can be built using the petrol based polymers.
The fact that plastic can render any shape, opacity and brittleness, density depending on the methods used for its production also makes it very attractive. This cheap material encompass many properties like thermal and electrical isolation, hydrophobicity, and sterility.
The latter make plastic ideal for storing food, medicines and other good that would otherwise easily decompose due microbial attack. This last property has a second edge: plastics’ molecular configuration resist microbial attack and therefore it is very hard to decompose. Bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms may colonize the surface of a plastic but cannot feed on it.
A single use PE bottle can linger on the ground for centuries before breaking down and remineralizate into water and CO2. Some decades ago, the new array of plastics, called OCO-degradable plastic, became famous because it disintegrated within months, leaving no visible trace behind. The reality is, that these plastics didn’t degrade but broke down into smaller pieces. Interwoven in their molecular structures, there are compounds that react to UV light and break down. This simply caused the long polymeric chain of plastic to become smaller bits of the big chain, however these micro bits where no better than the fully integrated past self.
Each year more than 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide, from which 45 - 57 % makes up packaging or what is normally called “single-use plastics”. These products, after having fulfilled their purpose, are discarded and never used again.
No more than 10% of all discarded plastic worldwide reaches recycling facilities each year. When recycled, plastic looses many properties and, unlike glass or paper, it can only be downgraded, i. e. a recycled plastic bottle cannot longer be a plastic bottle, but something more opaque, less flexible, let’s appealing and definitely not suitable for single-use products. Besides, costs of waste transportation and the actual process make recycling an unsuitable solution to manage plastic waste.
The other 90% of the plastic discarded either ends up in landfills where it accumulates consuming valuable space, or reaches the wild. The fate of almost all the mismanaged or carelessly discarded plastic in the world is the ocean: thanks to the action of the rain and the wind, and flowing currents of the rivers, single-use plastic make their journey to the shores.
Plastic has been found in every aquatic system of the planet, including the abyssal plains, thousands of metres under the surface. It’s been decades of this massive input which hardly stops. Each year, mangrove plains, rocky and sandy shores, estuaries, polar seas, gulfs and giant gyres in the biggest oceans, are full of trash and microplastics, swirling endlessly and causing damage to sea creatures. Big pieces of trash get stuck in animals throats or gills, suffocating them. Birds and fish often mistake smaller bits as pieces of food and, since they cannot digested their guts slowly fills with plastic until there is no space for real food. Even smaller pieces of plastic can get stuck in gills, or enter the circulatory system of organisms where it could clog causeways or yield additives that can cause any number of physiological disruption.
The threats of plastic pollution in the ocean are many, and the consequences go beyond loss of wildlife. Humans are in danger of ingesting themselves plastic that is inside fishes, so part of what we discard returns to us.
There is many organization and NGO investigating solutions for this massive “worldy” problem. However, it doesn’t matter how many beaches humans clean if we don't close the tap first. This requires lots of international cooperation, both from customers, private and public industries and government themselves. It is sad, tho, tha albeit there seem to be a massive wave of awareness and new laws agains single use plastics, some politicians’ interest lie somewhere else other than environmental health. That is a hot topic for another opportunity.
Biotechnological advances are also a key point in the solution seeking. For the last 20 years there’s been breakthroughs in bio-polymer productions. These polymers are widely known as bioplastics, and they have properties that are very similar to the plastics known from heydays.
What is a BioPlastic? A bioplastic is a polymeric compound that is made from renewable sources like plants and microbes OR a compound that undergoes microbial attack and biodegrades. This definition includes compounds made from petrol that also biodegrade AND compound made from plant matter that doesn’t degrade but lingers in the wild. The holy grial of BioPlastic (let’s call it like that for dramatic effect) is a compound that comes from renewable source AND also undergoes biodegradation. Such products exist nowadays but they are still in developmental stages and currently it’s price/mass is around 4 times more than conventional plastics. It is simply no good to compete against conventional plastics rtight know.
There are other compounds like PLA (acronym of polylactic-acid), a product made from the fermentation of plant matter. Nowadays, the most used products to make PLA are starch and corn which are both super affordable. Prices of PLA are as low as conventional plastics and there’s been a change of paradigm worldwide involving PLA as single-use products. Near half of the bags, bottles, cuttlery and dishes sold in the wolrd are made of PLA.
This are good news in part because it solves the problem of our dependence to fossil fuel (albeit only 5% of fossilfuel become plastics and there are other problem involved in our dependency towards them). However, PLA is one of those bioplastics that doesn’t undergo biodegradation easily. It is foolish to think that PLA is a magical solution.
There is a thing that I didn’t mention. Biodegradaibility and Compostability standards worldwide. There are standards that need to be reached in order for a product to be acknowledged as Biodegradable. In Europe and Israel most of the products are surveilled under the European standard (EN 13432) whereas in the Americas, they use the American Standards (ASTM). There are many other standards but the before mentioned ones are the more widely used and also the strictest.
When a product pass the standards’ tests, tested by a certified organization, it is given a seal of approval which is should be recognized by the customers. One of the test a product undergoes is the test of Biodegradability in which the product undergoes a biodegradation period of 6 month in a compost facility (at 50 degrees Celsius with controlled humidity conditions). After a certified product is sold, used and discarded, it will definitely biodegrade in under 6 months under those conditions. Is the temperature is not reached, let’s say, a tropical area with average 26 degrees throughout the year, the product will take longer to decompose.
In the ocean, temperatures seldom reach 26 far away from the coast. What’s more, the average is 4 degrees in the aphotical zone (under 200 metres) where most of the plastic is. Also salinity doesn’t help and the microbe count is not the same as in the compost facilities…
This means that a PLA product that decomposes in 6 months on land, could take centuries to fully degrade in the ocean.
Again, it is foolish to think that bioplastics are a magical solution, and some of the scientific communities think that we are way to ahead environmental chaos to put a stop and the only thing we can still do is to slow down the inevitable. On the brighter side, there is faith that awareness will spread and that slowly slowly new laws will pass to favour new environmentally friendly products and new research and discoveries. According to polls made by European Bioplastic, 45% of the people polled are willing to pay an extra price in their single use products as long as they don’t contaminate.
That last sentence only makes us realize that is hard for us stubborn comfy humans to change our ways, we better change our waste.