The world has become obsessed with plastic, and it is easy to at first see why. It is lightweight, water-resistant, durable, versatile, strong and seemingly inexpensive. The very properties that make plastic so popular, are the same reasons why it is destroying our planet. This issue has become so significant that the UN declared war on Marine Debris in February 2017. Plastic’s chemical makeup and single-use nature enable it to threaten marine life, the world’s ecosystems and human health.
It is important to first understand the chemical make up of plastic and how plastic is made. Plastics “belong to a chemical family of high polymers, they are essentially made up of a long chain of molecules containing repeated units of carbon atoms” (Plasticpollution.org). Oil companies make plastic through fractional distillation of crude oil because the boiling point of hydrocarbons increases with molecular size. These companies will use the practice of “cracking” to convert the higher-boiling fractions into gasoline and plastic by cracking the molecules to the C4-C10 range. Since plastic is made from the same polymers that gasoline is made from (Molecules with 4 to 10 carbon atoms) oil companies far the trade off producing gasoline or plastic. it is worth noting that “making [water] bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 millions barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year” (Pacific Institute).
According to a 2014 report from the EPA, The United States produced 258 million tons of waste. 12.9% of this waste was plastic waste and this percent is deceivingly small. 12.9% of 258 million tons is over 33 million tons of plastic waste! This 12.9% of trash is far more damaging to the environment than the 61% of waste from paper, food, yard clippings and wood. On a global scale, 299 million tons of plastic were produced in 2013. While plastic debris makes a small percentage of on-land waste, it makes up a disproportionate amount of marine debris. The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution determined that of the 80% of the world marine pollution, 60-95% of the waste is plastic debris.
Plastic marine debris wreaks havoc on every aspect ecosystems and can do so for hundreds of years. Since plastic has a very high molecular weight and stability due to its long chain of repeated carbon molecules, it does not degrade quickly. For example, a banana peel would take 2-5 weeks to decompose while a plastic bottle would take 450 years. The convenience of plastic’s lightweight means that plastic will be buoyant enough to float on the ocean’s surface and be carried by currents around the globe. Plastic will absorb waterborne pollutants as it travels and leach toxic compounds, such as Bisphenol A (BPA). This means that not only will plastic make the water it inhabits more toxic, it too will become more toxic. The toxins that are released as plastic degrades will contribute to increasing ocean acidification.
Marine animals die from plastic by either consuming it or getting entangled in it. It is estimated that 100,000 marine animals and 1,000,000 marine birds die each year from plastic marine debris. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish causing them to suffocate to death. Plastic is in the environment for so long that it is entirely possible for a turtle to consume a plastic bag and after that sea turtle dies, the plastic bag will resurface and then be re-consumed. Seals and dolphins get entangled and drown in floating trash. Not even the mighty Blue Whale is safe from mile long ghost nets. (Ghost nets are fishing nets that been purposefully discarded or accidentally lost in the ocean.) Marine birds are particularly susceptible to marine debris because floating red pieces of plastic look exactly like their favorite pray, the shrimp. That is why it is nearly impossible to find any red/pink small pieces of litter in the ocean. “It is estimated that of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses which inhabit Midway, all of them have plastic in their digestive system; for one third of the chicks, the plastic blockage is deadly, coining Midway Atoll as ‘albatross graveyards.’ Since plastic is able to break into smaller and smaller pieces but remain plastic, even the microscopic zoo plankton will consume plastic debris” ( ).
Biomagnification makes the plastic consumption issue relevant to human health. It is estimated that 66% of the world fish population has plastic in their digestive tract. Since plastic can not be broken down by any animal’s stomach, as fish are eaten by predators higher on the food chain, those animals will build up plastic in their own stomach. Plastic releases Bisphenol within an organism (as it does in the environment). The problem with this is that the animals at the top of the food chain, such as Tuna and Swordfish, will have large quantities of Bisphenol in them. Unfortunately, these are also some of the most popular consumer fish in the world. Biomagnification is why there has been a documented increase of Bisphenol in humans. A 2008 study published in the Journal of American Association found that higher Bisphenol A levels were significantly associated with heart disease, diabetes, and abnormally high levels of certain liver enzymes ( ). Other studies concluded that Bisphenol A increase breast cancer risks and exposure to Bisphenol A at young ages leads to externalizing behaviors ( ).
Single-use plastic products and private companies/unions and are the 2 main culprits of marine debris. The fact that we have a products that are intended to be used once and then thrown out has altered how we treat all consumer goods. No product in the history of humanity has been designed to be used once and then disposed of. The Ocean Conservancy organization does hundreds of beach cleans each year and tally what kinds of trash is ending up on the beach. Out of the top 10 items frequently found only the most found item (cigarette) and least found (paper bags) are not a single use plastic items. The cheapness of these products makes people naturally assume they are trash. At the very most, 25% of plastic debris is recycled in the United States. (Utah Recycles) This means that the other 75% of 33 million tons of plastic is sitting in landfills or polluting the environment. While there certainly needs to be reform to Americas municipal solid waste service in order to better handle and treat the increased amount of plastic, it would be easier to not even have the plastic to begin with. For a personal example, in my first week of personal trash collection I realized that I had used 6 sets of plastic utensils. I did not even realize I used that much in a week because once I throw the product away, I forget about it. I now carry metal utensils with me when I eat. Not only does this save plastic, but I get to use a better product that is available at all times.
Major Corporations, such as Kelloggs and Coca Cola, have billions of dollars in assets and are doing everything they can to fight any legislation that would increase standards for plastic pollution. These companies pay groups such as the Progressive Bag Affiliates and America Chemistry Council to lobby against reducing plastic. Both of these companies helped pass legislation in Arizona that made the banning of plate bags illegal. A 2010 bill that was introduced in the Senate that would outlaw single-use carryout bags of any material failed after the American Chemistry Council spent millions on lobbyists to defeat it. In Europe, Cocla Cola has been spent one million euros to lobby against deposit return schemes(DRS). The DRS laws charge an extra tax on all plastic bottles that will be returned to the customer when the consumer deposits their purchased plastic bottles. The movement was intended to reduce the amount of plastic that gets thrown away, but Coca Cola feared that it would reduce their bottom line. While these companies try to reduce environmental legislation in their usual markets, they send their trash to foreign markets where there is little to no anti-plastic legislation. This why china recovers 56% (by weight) of waste plastic imports worldwide. In China, trash can be deposited at low-tech, unregulated facilities that destroy the local environments because there is no legislation in place against such practices.
Yet, there is hope. The world has the ability to increase how much plastic is recycled, to develop new uses for recycled plastic and to make environmentally-friendly plastic. San Francisco is paving the way towards high recycling rates. The city has already reached an 80% recycling rate and has shown that if a megacity can do it, then so can any city. Every extra ton of plastic recycled saves 5,774 kWh of electricity, 685 gallons of oil, 98 millions bTu’s of Energy and 30 cub yards of landfall space. Not only is this economical beneficial to society, every ton recycled will be one less ton entering the ocean. There have been studies that demonstrated that plastic bottles shredded into small polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can be used as sand-substitution aggregates in cementitious concrete composites. If this can be done on a large scale, the world can use plastic in landfalls to make a cheap legitimate building material. Another research group was able to create plastic that is decomposable by adding biodegradable polyolefin’s synthesis (active additives such as pro oxidants and starch). There are several other potential solutions, but there should be more. As attention to this issue grows, so will the funding necessary to develop solutions. However, technological advances will not be enough. We most change our behavior as humans.
This does not fit into my analysis of the issue, but is certainly worth reporting. I took a environmental course (ENVRON 346) in which we learned about the different issue affecting the world’s oceans. I learned about how plastic was produced from oil, but I had trouble recalling all the part of the process. I searched on google “how is plastic made from oil” and every answer on the first page was biased! The first result is from Plastic Europe the Association of Plastic Manufactures, the second was the Independent Statistic & Analysis U.S. Energy Information Administration then the third American Chemistry Council and forth Polyplastics Solution Platform for Engineering Plastics. There are countless sites after the first page that are also run by fraudulent organizations. None of these websites accurately represented how oil was made at all. All the sites made the process seem organic and healthy and even said that recycling is incredibly efficient. None of the sites made it clear that the same hydro-carbons used for plastic were the same used for gasoline production. These organizations have managed to use their massive budgets to buy prime internet space, space that is supposed to be for open and true information. This should trouble every individual.