Plastics are everywhere. Hermitically sealed from your television set to the lining of the Tetra Pak in your fridge, it has crept into our modern lifestyle and clenched its fist. Plastics has enabled great industrial leaps (such as life-saving medical devices) and simplified everyday life, but it has come at a cost.
Traditionally made from non-renewable fossil fuels, plastic is considered to be non-biodegradable (it takes several hundreds of years to break down), which wreaks havoc on the environment. Sadly, every piece of plastic ever made still exists today in one form or another: in the gut of an albatross cadaver or as the small amount that has been incinerated and has become toxic particulate matter. And it’s been around for 150 years. Furthermore, plastics can harm human health by leaching potentially toxic chemicals such as PCBs, antimony, derivatives of polystyrene, Bisphenol A (BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical), as well as estrogen.
The perils of persistence:-
The culprit is our behavior of littering. The problem stems from the fact that traditional plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Disposable plastics are the largest source of plastic pollution. They end up polluting ecosystems as whole and killing individual creatures one by one. Turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, fish trapped in plastic packaging – the evidence is undeniable. Even humans aren’t immune to accidental ingestion; as plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles, they end up being eaten by fish, and voilà, they enter our food chain.
When plastic particles are hit by the sun’s UV-light, higher doses of toxic chemicals and BPA are leached, which eventually enter our bodies. BPA, widely used in food containers, water bottles and baby bottles, can leach into food and has been detected in the blood of pregnant women and in the lactating mothers. This means that babies are born with BPA already circulating in them.
Most of us have by now heard of the enormous plastic wasteland circulating in the northern Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered in the 1990s, is huge. Greenpeace estimates it to be roughly the size of the state of Texas, with six kilograms of plastic for every kilogram of natural plankton. Ocean and wind currents have carried pelagic plastic (and other debris) to rotate as one huge mass just below the surface. Similar gyres have also been found in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, and minute particles abound in surrounding waters.
The oceans are not alone in becoming enormous plastic dumps. Deserts in the United Arab Emirates are collecting wind-blown garbage from Abu Dhabi, 19 per cent of which is plastic. Camels mistakenly ingest plastic bags; some estimate the death toll at 50 per cent of the natural population.
There is however hope in bioplastics, smart recycling and, most importantly, reducing consumption could ease the adverse effects.
From Fossil Fuel to Renewable Material:-
Making plastic begins with carbon from a fossil fuel such as petroleum. Therein lies problem number two: the depletion of fossil fuels. In an attempt to steer away from the use of non-renewable resources, biological sources such as vegetable fats and oils, starch and cellulose, or micro biota have started replacing them. Generally, this type of plastic is used for disposable items, but even long-lasting products can be obtained this way. The latter won’t biodegrade, but at least they are made from sustainable sources. The fact that disposable bioplastics can biodegrade also reduces the physical environmental burden.
Compared to petroleum-based plastic, this appears to the better alternative, though it opens a whole new discussion on the environmental effects of producing biodegradable and compostable plastics. The crops used for production need to be irrigated, fertilized, possibly treated with pesticides, transported, and processed. There also remains the reliance on petroleum to provide the energy to create bioplastics. Ideally, renewable energy could be used in most steps and agricultural by-products used instead of new crops specifically planted for this purpose.
But how well do these new plastics biodegrade? That depends on the polymer stability, temperature and available oxygen content. For a plastic to be labeled as biodegradable, it must meet the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) 17088, ASTM D 6400, EN 13432 & other international certifications definition of how quickly and to what extent a plastic must be degraded under commercial composting conditions. Most households can compost kitchen piles reducing the food waste to reach landfill. Industrial composting units are needed to provide the tightly controlled conditions under which biodegradable plastics will effectively degrade into fine humous.
In general, it is considered that the production of bioplastics is more sustainable than conventional petroleum-derived plastics, mainly because it relies less on fossil fuels as a carbon source and results in reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
Reducing disposable plastic consumption:-
Fortunately, the use of biodegradable plastic and recycling are on the rise.
Nonetheless, most plastic waste is still landfilled, downcycled, incinerated, or even exported to other countries. Recycling of plastic is costly and does not adequately stem the production of new plastic products. Shockingly, the demand for used bottles is now outstripping supply in some areas, and certain cynical suppliers are now buying new, unused bottles directly from bottle-producing companies to make polyester textile fibres that can be labelled as recycled.
The biggest impact consumers can easily make, in the end, is to reduce their overall consumption of disposable plastics. Next time you shop for groceries, bring your own linen or BIODEGRADABLE bags. When buying take-out food, bring your own container and cutlery. Can’t stay away from coffee? Bring your own mug to be refilled. Challenge yourself by opting for the “least plastic” alternative. Websites such as www.ECOLIFELLC.com offer a variety of products to help you succeed on your mission.