Plastics & Waste
Updated: May 19, 2021
Today I’ll be exploring the environmental impacts of plastic. Currently it is trendy for companies and individuals to reduce plastic waste. From campaigns to ban plastic straws (as mentioned in my piece on Coffee & Sustainability) to charging a tax for a plastic grocery bag, cutting plastics out of our lives has become mainstream. However, many still find it impossible to avoid plastics, as our packages and food continue to be wrapped in it, even when purchased from eco-conscious companies. Some go to great lengths to live a zero-waste lifestyle, while others are skeptical of the benefits of such efforts. This post will explore plastic and its effects, giving a brief overview of what the average consumer needs to know when choosing between products.
What is plastic?
First, what is plastic? Plastics do not have one single composition. The unifying factor is their ability to be moulded: their plasticity (Explain That Stuff). They are mostly synthetic materials made from polymers, which are long chains of carbon forming molecules, with other elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, or nitrogen.
Plastics can be divided into many groups, as there are many forms of plastics. There are natural polymers and synthetic plastics (though plastic is artificially made); there are groupings by the structures of their polymers (polyesters, polyethylenes, polyurethanes); there are biodegradable plastics and ones that do not degrade; there are plastics that can be processed together when recycling and those that cannot (this is what the 1-6 & null mean on the bottom of plastic containers for recycling); and there groupings based on how plastics react when heated.
Polymers have been around for thousands of years, in the form of natural rubbers and animal horns . However, plastic usage really took off in the mid-19th century, and since then, our society hasn't looked back.
Plastics are based on hydrocarbons, typically from petroleum (oil), natural gas, or coal. When crude oil is refined, various mixtures of hydrocarbons can be collected for use in making all types of plastics. From here, various additives are introduced and plastics can be made into all of the items we typically use, from the keyboard I’m typing this on to the plastic bag my takeout came in.
Plastics are in everything in our modern life. They are in cars, toys, replacement parts, medical adhesives for wound care, paints, single-use coffee cups, computers, water pipes, fiber-optics, phones, furniture, clothes, and countless other items. Plastics are used to extend food life and prevent food waste and are integral to our daily lives.
What are the environmental impacts of plastics?
Plastics are synthetic and made from hydrocarbons extracted from the earth’s surface. As they don’t appear commonly in the natural world, animals and other organisms cannot feed on them or break them down. Many plastic items are low-cost and meant to be disposable, so a lot of plastic waste has been produced. Annually, 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced worldwide, and only 9% is recycled (BBC, Fate of All Plastics Ever Made). Out of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced to date (as of 2015), only 12% had been incinerated and 9% recycled, with 79% accumulating in landfills or in nature. The 8.3 billion number is expected to double by 2050 as well (PBS). Plastic litter lurks in every corner of the planet, from outside on the sidewalk to remote areas in the Antarctic to in deep ocean trenches.
Marine Plastic Pollution
According to the Earth Day Network, approximately eight million metric tonnes of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year (BBC, Our World in Data). Floating plastic debris is the most common item in marine litter. Most of the plastic debris comes from fishing, nautical activities (aka boats), and aquaculture. Half the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean comes from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam (UN Environment- great interactive article).
Marine plastic pollution is commonly discussed when talking about reducing or banning single-use plastics, as many species can become entangled in debris and die (IUCN). Other animals will eat plastic as they think it is prey, eventually dying from starvation as their stomachs are filled with debris or from internal injuries.
Solar UV radiation, in conjunction with wind and currents, breaks down plastic into small particles, better known as microplastics (though nanoplastics are also common). Chemicals bind to microplastics, which can poison animals when ingested. Plankton are eating microplastics, which reduces their ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These plastics have also been found in tap water, beer, and salt, and are also found in all of the world’s oceans and the Arctic (IUCN).
The 1972 Convention of the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter (otherwise known simply as the London Convention), the 1996 London Protocol, and the 1978 Protocol to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) have attempted to provide international legal standards. However, as with all international treaties and conventions, compliance and enforcement is a constant challenge.
Other Forms of Plastic Pollution
Plastics emit greenhouse gases from the moment they are manufactured to their final resting place in a landfill (cradle to grave) (Yale Climate Connections).
Incinerating plastic waste releases CO2 into the atmosphere and increases carbon emissions. As previously stated, more plastic is incinerated than recycled (9% vs 12%), which releases 5.9 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Plus most incinerators are built disproportionately near communities of color and low-income populations, making this a serious environmental justice issue (Yale Climate Connections). In many developing countries, plastic is burned at low temperatures, which releases noxious chemicals and can greatly impact health.
Landfills have lower climate issues than incineration, but are often located near the same populations, creating further environmental justice issues. Once plastic finds its way into a landfill, it stays there for as much as 1,000 years. Some plastics are broken down into microplastics here as well (UN Environment). Experts estimate that 10% of overall waste is plastic (PBS).
Are plastics and climate change connected?
Plastics and climate change are inextricably linked (Yale Climate Connections). They originate from fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases at every stage of their existence (Center for International Environmental Law). The life of a typical piece of plastic begins with oil and gas development. Though the effects of extracting fossil fuels are traditionally focused on the final stage, burning the fuels for energy, there are greenhouse gases emitted in the production and transportation of hydrocarbons for plastics, as natural gas is emitted in many oil extraction methods. Some also point to land disturbance as a major greenhouse gas emitter. These effects are multiplied when looking at the refining process (Yale Climate Connections).
As previously mentioned, incinerating plastic waste emits a substantial amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition, certain types of plastics, such as the common low-density polyethylene, release greenhouse gases as they break down.
Recycling plastic: is it possible?
Recycling plastic can occur in two ways: mechanical recycling or chemical recycling. In the first method, plastic is ground into powder and melted. In the second, it is broken down into monomers. When different types of plastics are melted together, they “phase-separate” like oil and water, hardening into layers (Wikipedia). As a result, the codes on the bottom of plastics (known as “resin identification codes”) were developed to help sort items for recycling. For example, plastic code #7 means that there is no way to know if it is recyclable or not (and sometimes experts don’t even know). This category contains everything from bioplastics to non-recyclable materials (National Geographic).
Only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled (Fate of All Plastics Ever Made). Research shows that only 2% of plastics are recycled into the same function, with 8% “downcycled” to items of lower quality (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). It is difficult to recycle plastic and retain quality, and most plastics can only be used 2-3 times before quality degradation prevents reuse, unlike glass and metal which can be recycled infinitely (National Geographic). Often, virgin plastic material is added when recycled plastic is used in order to retain quality.
In addition, not all plastics are recyclable. Often, facilities receive items that they optimistically think should be recyclable but are not. Recycling facilities must sort the waste in order to properly complete the process, increasing the cost and difficulty. Plastic bags, straws, and coffee cups are not recyclable (National Geographic). Dirty plastics are not recyclable (meaning no food residue). Furthermore, it depends on what city you live in and what the local recycling center can process (How2Recycle).
Until 2018, many countries, such as the US and European countries, sent their plastic waste to China. The domestic recycling industry was never developed due to exporting the majority of this waste (Columbia). After China closed the door to recycling (“National Sword”), exporting waste moved to other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, and domestic capacity has not increased (Yale Climate Connections). These countries are also starting to reject plastic shipments, so recycling has become a serious challenge.
Benefits to Plastics
There are many benefits to using plastics that skeptics discount or forget when discussing the sustainability impacts. As a reminder, a common definition of sustainability involves the triple bottom line, which includes “people, profit, and planet.” Environmental sustainability is only one aspect of any analysis.
For example, wrapping a vegetable in plastic may seem wasteful but can increase a shelf life from 9 days to 15 days in a refrigerator (BBC). Using plastics to extend the shelf life of meat has even greater benefits, as meat packaged on foam trays with plastic film will last between 3-7 days. Vacuum sealed and covered in multiple layers of plastic, it can last up to 45 days. According to the environmental accounting firm Trucost, vacuum-packaging can help cut food waste in half. According to anti-waste charities, extending the shelf life of produce by one day, just one day, could save shoppers $661 million in food waste. Food waste annually costs $1 trillion per year, borne by manufacturers and retailers. This leads into a rebuttal of the argument that single-use plastic packaging has increased disposability: without plastics to increase the shelf lives of these food items, food waste would dramatically increase.
Furthermore, plastics have made food cheaper, allowing a wider variety of produce and protein to be available to those who could otherwise not afford it. Fresh, local produce is currently expensive. Supporting local farms can be pricey. Finding solutions to these issues will require creative solutions. Many are concerned that switching from inexpensive plastic packaging to other forms will increase costs, which will ultimately be passed on to consumers.
One strange benefit I ran across was the story of Air Canada switching from glass in-flight booze bottles to plastic. The plastic couldn’t be recycled, but the company greatly reduced jet fuel consumption as the plastic containers weight less (every ounce counts on a plane) (PBS).
How to Reduce Plastics, Intelligently
First, plastic usage can be reduced by education and government regulations. Regulations such as bag taxes, even for a nominal $0.10 a bag, have been shown to reduce bag usage as it makes consumers stop and consider if they actually need that bag. Outright bans also prevent usage as they force businesses and consumers to find other solutions.
Reuse and Recycle
Second, reuse and recycling processes can be improved. Reducing poorly managed landfills and open-air incineration is beneficial to the environment to prevent CO2 emissions and plastics washing away into the environment. Recycling can be limited due to low economic viability (meaning it is expensive and doesn’t make much money). However, the US still needs to increase the domestic recycling capacity. There is no federal recycling program, for example, and it is conducted at the community level (Columbia). Consumer education for what can be recycled is also critical.
Innovation in technology to sort and recover material will help solve some of these challenges, and then finding a use for these materials afterwards to create a market, which will help investment and the economics of recycling. In Los Angeles, apparently 80% of waste is recycled, with a 90% goal by 2025. Furthermore, restaurants are required to compost food waste and tax breaks are based on how much is recycled. Rethink LA is an initiative to help educate residents (Rethink LA). This is an example of a winning strategy: education, incentives and penalties, legislation, bans on single-use plastic bags, extended producer responsibility, container deposit laws, and innovation.
Many innovative companies are creating products out of recycled materials, such as shoes from plastic water bottles. Some countries, like Germany, allow plastic bottles to be returned for a cash deposit and be refilled. The World Economic Forum found that innovative schemes to reuse and refill could have massive savings for packaging costs.
Finally, innovation on bioplastics and biodegradable materials can help turn companies away from using other forms of plastic. An increasing number of companies are innovating with plastics to create items that will disintegrate entirely over time. Some of these are made with plants such as sugarcane to form polyethylene. Currently, the plastic in that example is not biodegradable or compostable and can contaminate traditional recycling processes. However, innovation continues in this space with the ultimate goal of completely biodegradable materials.
How can individuals do their part?
Plastics have some serious benefits but even more drawbacks. So what can we as individuals do to help prevent even more plastic from being used?
If you can afford to, avoid buying plastic wrapped foods (taking into account shorter shelf lives)
Learn what recycling symbols mean
Learn what your community does and does not recycle
Keep your own recycling bin
Rinse out items with food waste before recycling
Buy recycled products
Store products in jars or other glass containers, not plastic
Buy in bulk and split into smaller items at home
Shop local- farmers’ markets and bulk food stores/aisles
Use reusable bags and reusable produce bags
Avoid single-use items
Request no utensils for takeout, and bring a fork/knife/spoon from home
Vote- and advocate for waste-reduction legislation from your local representatives
Ultimately, taking baby steps is better than none at all. Reducing plastic waste will require rethinking many aspects of life, but we are on our way there!
Whew, that was a lot! As always, thanks for reading.
Katie @ Sustainably Yours, LA