Plastic

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic objects (e.g.: plastic bottles and much more) in the Earth’s environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans. Plastics that act as pollutants are categorized into micro-, meso-, or macro debris, based on size. Plastics are inexpensive and durable, and as a result levels of plastic production by humans are high. However, the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to many natural processes of degradation and as a result they are slow to degrade. Together, these two factors have led to a high prominence of plastic pollution in the environment.

Plastic pollution can afflict land, waterways and oceans. It is estimated that 1.1 to 8.8 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste enters the ocean from costal communities each year.

Living organisms, particularly marine animals, can be harmed either by mechanical effects, such as entanglement in plastic objects, problems related to ingestion of plastic waste, or through exposure to chemicals within plastics that interfere with their physiology. Effects on humans include disruption of various hormonal mechanisms.

As of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated. This large amount of plastic waste enters the environment, with studies suggesting that the bodies of 90% of seabirds contain plastic debris.  In some areas there have been significant efforts to reduce the prominence of plastic pollution, through reducing plastic consumption and promoting plastic recycling.

Some researchers suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.

Decomposition of plastics

Plastics themselves contribute to approximately 10% of discarded waste. Many kinds of plastics exist depending on their precursors and the method for their polymerization. Depending on their chemical composition, plastics and resins have varying properties related to contaminant absorption and adsorption. Polymer degradation takes much longer as a result of saline environments and the cooling effect of the sea. These factors contribute to the persistence of plastic debris in certain environments. Recent studies have shown that plastics in the ocean decompose faster than was once thought, due to exposure to sun, rain, and other environmental conditions, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A. However, due to the increased volume of plastics in the ocean, decomposition has slowed down. The Marine Conservancy has predicted the decomposition rates of several plastic products. It is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder will take 400 years, a disposable nappy will take 450 years, and fishing line will take 600 years to degrade.

Persistent organic pollutants

It was estimated that global production of plastics is approximately 250 mt/yr. Their abundance has been found to transport persistent organic pollutants, also known as POPs. These pollutants have been linked to an increased distribution of algae associated with red tides.

Effects on the environment

The distribution of plastic debris is highly variable as a result of certain factors such as wind and ocean currents, coastline geography, urban areas, and trade routes. Human population in certain areas also plays a large role in this. Plastics are more likely to be found in enclosed regions such as the Caribbean. It serves as a means of distribution of organisms to remote coasts that are not their native environments. This could potentially increase the variability and dispersal of organisms in specific areas that are less biologically diverse. Plastics can also be used as vectors for chemical contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.

 

Plastic pollution as a cause of climate change

In 2019 a new report “Plastic and Climate” was published. According to the report, in 2019, plastic will contribute greenhouse gases in the equivalent of 850 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. In current trend, annual emissions will grow to 1.34 billion tons by 2030. By 2050 plastic could emit 56 billion tons of Greenhouse gas emissions, as much as 14 percent of the earth’s remaining carbon budget. By 2100 it will emit 260 billion tons, more than half of the carbon budget. Those are emission from production, transportation, incineration, but there are also effects on Phytoplankton

Collection

The two common forms of waste collection include curbside collection and the use of drop-off recycling centers. About 87 percent of the population in the United States (273 million people) have access to curbside and drop-off recycling centers. In curbside collection, which is available to about 63 percent of the United States population (193 million people), people place designated plastics in a special bin to be picked up by a public or private hauling company.  Most curbside programs collect more than one type of plastic resin; usually both PETE and HDPE.[78] At drop-off recycling centers, which are available to 68 percent of the United States population (213 million people), people take their recyclables to a centrally located facility. Once collected, the plastics are delivered to a materials recovery facility (MRF) or handler for sorting into single-resin streams to increase product value. The sorted plastics are then baled to reduce shipping costs to reclaimers.

 

There are varying rates of recycling per type of plastic, and in 2011, the overall plastic recycling rate was approximately 8% in the United States. Approximately 2.7 million tons of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2011. Some plastics are recycled more than others; in 2011 “29 percent of HDPE bottles and 29 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled.”

 

In May 2019, a new model to collect packaging from consumers and reuse it will begin. It is called “Loop”. Consumers will drop the package in special shipping totes and then a pick up will take it. “Partners include Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola, Mondelēz, Danone and other firms.

 

In May 21, 2019, the “Loop” service begun to function. It has begun with several thousand households, but there are 60,000 on the waitlist. The target is not only stop single use plastic, but to stop single use generally.

Many, but not all, plastic products have a number – the resin identification code – molded, formed or imprinted in or on the container, often on the bottom. This system of coding was developed in 1988 by the U.S.-based Society of the Plastics Industry to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics. It is indeed, quite interesting to go through the fine lines.

 

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) – Used in soft drink, juice, water, beer, mouthwash, peanut butter, salad dressing, detergent, and cleaner containers. Leaches antimony trioxide and (2ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP).

 

DEHP is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the female hormone estrogen. It has been strongly linked to asthma and allergies in children. It may cause certain types of cancer and it has been linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation, and body weight. In Europe, DEHP has been banned since 1999 from use in plastic toys for children under the age of three.

 

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) – Used in opaque milk, water, and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, and cereal box liners. Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

 

Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC) – Used in toys, clear food and non-food packaging (e.g., cling wrap), some squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, shower curtains, medical tubing, and numerous construction products (e.g., pipes, siding). PVC has been described as one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. Leaches di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) or butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), depending on which is used as the plasticizer or softener (usually DEHP). DEHP and BBzP are endocrine disruptors mimicking the female hormone estrogen; have been strongly linked to asthma and allergic symptoms in children; may cause certain types of cancer; and linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation, and body weight. In Europe, DEHP, BBzP, and other dangerous phthalates have been banned from use in plastic toys for children under three since 1999. Not so elsewhere, including Canada and the United States.

Dioxins are unintentionally, but unavoidably, produced during the manufacture of materials containing chlorine, including PVC and other chlorinated plastic feedstocks. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals. A characterization by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of cancer causing potential evaluated dioxin as over 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), half a million times more than arsenic, and a million or more times greater than all others.

 

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – Used in grocery store, dry cleaning, bread and frozen food bags, most plastic wraps, and squeezable bottles (honey, mustard). Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

 

Polypropylene (PP) – Used in ketchup bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, medicine and syrup bottles, straws, and Rubbermaid and other opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles. Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

 

Polystyrene (PS) – Used in Styrofoam containers, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, take-out food containers, plastic cutlery, and compact disc cases. Leaches styrene, an endocrine disruptor mimicking the female hormone estrogen, and thus has the potential to cause reproductive and developmental problems. Long-term exposure by workers has shown brain and nervous system effects and adverse effects on red blood cells, liver, kidneys, and stomach in animal studies. Also present in secondhand cigarette smoke, off gassing of building materials, car exhaust, and possibly drinking water. Styrene migrates significantly from polystyrene containers into the container’s contents when oily foods are heated in such containers.

 

Other – This is a catchall category that includes anything that does not come within the other six categories. As such, one must be careful in interpreting this category because it includes polycarbonate – a dangerous plastic – but it also includes the new, safer, biodegradable bio-based plastics made from renewable resources such as corn and potato starch and sugar cane. Polycarbonate is used in many plastic baby bottles, clear plastic sippy cups, sports water bottles, three and five gallon large water storage containers, metal food can liners, some juice and ketchup containers, compact discs, cell phones, computers. Polycarbonate leaches Bisphenol A (some effects described above) and numerous studies have indicated a wide array of possible adverse effects from low-level exposure to Bisphenol A: chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production in males, early onset of puberty, various behavioral changes, altered immune function, and sex reversal in frogs.