Why Fossil Fuels Are Still Important (What We Use Fossil Fuels For, & Other Benefits)

Why Fossil Fuels Are Still Important (What We Use Fossil Fuels For, & Other Benefits)

Fossil fuels have a bad reputation amongst some sections of society.

However, what some people don’t know is that fossil fuels still play a very important role in our day to day lives.

In this guide, we explain why fossil fuels are still so important by outlining what we use them for (and listing some of the additional benefits we get from these uses)

 

Summary – Why Fossil Fuels Are Still Important

  • The obvious answer to this question is that fossil fuels are still used heavily as an energy source for electricity and as a fuel for transport in many countries. They are also used for heating
  • But, petroleum and natural gas have an important role as a feedstock for plastic (which we use in a lot of products and packaging)
  • Coking coal is used for steel 
  • Beyond these key uses that are integral for a functioning society (at least in the way it’s currently set up), there are economic and social benefits that cascade on from these uses
  • An interesting stat from iagc.org: “Fossil fuels are found in 96% of the items we use each day”

 

Using Fossil Fuels For Electricity

We use electricity for almost everything in modern society.

Many key countries in the world still use fossil fuels heavily in their electricity mix.

Even countries that are transitioning over to renewable energy still usually use fossil fuels as a backup or complementary energy source in their electricity mix for various reasons.

 

Using Petroleum & Diesel For Transport

Transport is not only how we get around in our personal lives, but we need transport to move good and services around States, countries and the world.

Although electric cars are on the rise in some countries, globally, many cars still run on petrol and diesel fuel. Even hybrid cars primarily use fossil fuels in many instances.

Some cars also run on gas.

 

Using Natural Gas & Oil For Heating

We still primarily use oil and natural gas boilers in buildings for heating (and even electric heating might primarily use a fossil fuel source).

 

Using Petroleum, & Natural Gas For Plastic

Despite the bad reputation plastic can have, it still has many benefits, such as preventing food waste, making certain things more safe and hygienic, and more.

Plastic and petroleum use:

  • Currently, 4% of the world’s annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process (wwf.org.au)
  • [plastic production] is expected to triple by 2050, when it would account for 20% of global annual oil consumption (weforum.org)

In the US, plastic also uses natural gas as a feedstock in production.

From thegef.org:

  • Conventional plastic production is highly dependent on virgin fossil feedstocks (mainly natural gas and oil)
  • Plastics production consumes up to 6% of global oil production and is projected to increase to 20% by 2050 if current consumption patterns persist

 

Using Coking Coal For Steel, & Coal For Cement Manufacturing

Steel is used in buildings, infrastructure, products and many of the things we see around us.

  • Global steel production is dependent on coal. Over 71% of the steel produced today uses coal. Metallurgical coal – or coking coal – is a vital ingredient in the steel making process (worldcoal.org)

Coal is also used in cement manufacturing and as a liquid fuel (worldcoal.org)

 

Other Uses Of Fossil Fuels

A partial list of 6000 items that use petroleum can be found here:

  • https://whgbetc.com/petro-products.pdf

We use fossil fuels in items in hygiene and accessories, the automotive industry, and at home:

  • https://www.iagc.org/importance-of-fossil-fuels.html

 

Other Benefits Of Using Fossil Fuels

Aside from the uses mentioned above, fossil fuels have cascading benefits on the economy and socially in almost every country via the various industries they are directly or indirectly used in.

Even developing countries are able to benefit from fossil fuels via the employment and economic stimulus they provide (like for example with small scale mining, the cheap and affordable energy they can produce).

For a more accurate picture of the pros and cons of fossil fuels, you can read this guide specifically on the use of fossil fuels for energy:

There’s certainly many downsides to the use of fossil fuels in addition to the benefits. 

Coming up with alternate energy sources (like renewable energy and alternative energy vehicles), and alternate materials and products (like bio or alternate plastics), are just two examples of how societies can move away from the use of fossil fuels where it makes sense to do so.

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/pros-cons-of-fossil-fuel-energy-now-into-the-future/

2. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/energy-sources-energy-mix-by-country-where-major-countries-in-the-world-get-their-energy-from/

3. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/can-renewable-energy-replace-fossil-fuels-meet-demand-power-the-world-moving-towards-100-renewable-energy/

4. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-waste-and-climate-change-whats-the-connection#gs.3b2972

5. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

6. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

7. https://www.worldcoal.org/coal/uses-coal/how-steel-produced

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/the-pros-cons-of-plastic/

9. https://whgbetc.com/petro-products.pdf

10. https://www.iagc.org/importance-of-fossil-fuels.html

11. https://www.thegef.org/sites/default/files/council-meeting-documents/EN_GEF.STAP_.C.54.Inf_.05_Plastics.pdf

12. https://www.worldcoal.org/coal/uses-coal

Pros & Cons Of Recycling Plastic

Pros & Cons Of Recycling Plastic

Perhaps contrary to what you’ve been told, the reality of recycling plastic it that it has many of it’s own problems to consider.

In this guide, we’ve listed some of the main pros and cons of recycling plastic to shed some light on this disposal option.

 

Summary – Pros & Cons Of Recycling Plastic

  • Recycling plastic is one of only a number of potential solutions for addressing plastic related problems and addressing waste management issues into the future.
  • It’s certainly not the only solution or the key solution for all the different types of plastic and plastic products that become waste
  • The reality is that most of the plastic we produce and use does not get recycled at this point in time. There’s many reasons for this.
  • Based on current systems and the economics of recycling, only a select few types of plastic and plastic products are feasible to recycle. Even these plastic types and plastic products have low recycling rates
  • A bigger and more multi layered approach is needed than just recycling if we want to address plastic waste issues seriously
  • One of the key things we can do in the future to address plastic related issues is to reduce the amount of short or single use plastic packaging that we use that is non recyclable. 
  • Reducing certain types of problem plastic, redesigning plastic and plastic products for better rates of recycling and re-use, and finding ways to reduce overall waste might be part of the bigger picture strategy

 

Pros Of Recycling Plastic

  • Plastic has a number of ways to be repurposed via recyclingdifferent plastics can be repurposed for different applications, such as textiles, insulation, chairs and benches, and so on
  • Recycling plastic is more eco friendly in some ways than other waste management options – [although it can depend on local context, recycling plastic, according to a range of studies, has] the lowest global warming potential and energy use compared to landfill and incineration (ourworldindata.org)
  • There’s still more potential to better recycle plastic by changing the design of plastic products and their packaging – some plastic products either can’t be recycled or face big challenges in being recycled because of their design or the design of their plastic packaging. Plastic packaging and plastic design guidelines, like those from plasticsrecycling.org, offer manufacturers and businesses ways to make their products more recyclable via better design
  • There’s still more potential to better recycle plastic with new breakthroughs in the types of plastic being produced – regular plastics usually either can’t be recycled, or can only be recycled a certain number of times. Newer plastics that can be recycled many times over are in development. One example of this type of plastic is PDK plastic (qualitylogoproducts.com) 
  • There’s still more potential to better recycle plastic with continual advances and improvements in recycling facilities and their technology – the technology used in recycling facilities, and the capabilities of these recycling facilities, differs from city to city globally. Recycling technology and facilities can continually be improved and upgraded to make recycling a better option in the future.
  • Some simple and common types of plastic products can be profitable and economic to recycledcompared to other plastic types and plastic products, PET bottles can be simple and profitable to recycle in some markets
  • Recycling tends to create more jobs than landfill and other options in some economiesin some cities, recycling can create up to 20 more jobs than landfill (but this is for all waste – the figures for plastic alone are not known at this stage) 
  • There’s good demand for certain types of plastic and plastic product in the US – as evidenced by recyclers in South Carolina and Alabama (plasticsmakeitpossible.com)
  • There’s growing markets for certain plastics and plastic products or items in some countries – like for example caps and lids in the US (plasticsmakeitpossible.com). Additionally, innovators may come up with ideas for new opportunities in the market in the future to recycle more plastic.
  • Some sources indicate recycling plastic saves resources – When we use recycled plastics to make new plastic products, we conserve more than materials. We can reduce energy usage by 66%. Plus, for every one ton of plastic we recycle, we save the equivalent of 1,000–2,000 gallons of gasoline (thisisplastics.com)
  • Some sources indicate curbside recycling programs can be cheaper than general waste programs – properly managed curbside recycling programs can cost anywhere from $50 to $150+ per ton. Trash collection and disposal programs can cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton (thisisplastics.com)

 

Cons Of Recycling Plastic

 

Other Resources On Recycling & Other Waste Management Options

These general guides on waste management may be of some further interest for you to read:

 

Sources

1. https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/plastics-by-the-numbers/

2. https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics#recycling-landfill-or-incineration-which-should-we-choose

3. https://ecologycenter.org/plastics/

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/reasons-why-some-plastic-cant-be-recycled/

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/what-plastics-can-cannot-be-recycled-how-to-find-out/

6. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/what-can-plastic-be-recycled-into-reused-repurposed-for/

7. http://www.plasticsrecycling.org/images/pdf/design-guide/PET_APR_Design_Guide.pdf

8. https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/promo-university/different-types-of-plastic.htm

9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling

10. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

11. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-many-times-can-you-recycle-different-materials-plastic-paper-metal-glass-etc/

12. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-recycling-economical-and-profitable/

13. https://www.ecowatch.com/recycling-plastic-reality-2615116844.html

14. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/more-recycling-wont-solve-plastic-pollution/

15. https://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/plastics-recycling/what-happens-to-recycled-plastics/plastic-recycling-myths-dispelled/

16. https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottsnowden/2019/05/14/scientists-create-a-plastic-that-can-be-recycled-indefinitely/#61ee2ed6619c

17. https://www.thisisplastics.com/environment/the-potential-of-recycled-plastics/

18. https://www.recyclenow.com/recycling-knowledge/how-is-it-recycled/plastics

19. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/

The Key Stats & Numbers That Explain What Happens To Plastic (At Each Stage Of The Plastic Life Cycle In Society)

Key Stats & Numbers That Outline What Happens To Plastic In Society (Plastic Life Cycle Through Production, Waste Management, & Pollution)

This guide lists some key statistics and numbers that explain what happens to all the plastic we produce, use, send to waste management, and deal with as pollution in society.

The aim of the guide is to shed more light on each stage of the plastic lifecycle, how one stage feeds into the next, and where plastic eventually ends up.

 

Summary – What Happens To Plastic Over It’s Life Cycle In Society

  • From the stats and numbers below, we can see that … 
  • Most of the plastic we produce ends up either in landfill, or as micro and nanoplastics that can end up essentially anywhere on Earth (in the ocean, in soil and sediments, in tap water, in fresh water sources, in animals, in humans, and more). Plastic, no matter where it ends up, mostly takes hundreds and thousands of years to break down and decompose, which means it has a much longer lifecycle than many other materials
  • Three of the biggest goals we might strive for as a society in the future (based off the numbers and stats of the lifecycle of plastic) to address the plastic problem might be to 1) reduce the use of problem plastics and plastic products that have the highest plastic pollution, waste and littering rates, 2) improve waste management and containment of plastic, and 3) improve the design and make up of plastic as a material, and plastic products to make them more recyclable or reusable. But overall, addressing the use and management of plastic in society has many potential solutions that need to be implemented across various levels

 

The General Life Cycle Of Plastic In Society

A very general life cycle of plastic in society might be (in order or each step):

  • Plastic Production – different types of plastic, and different plastic products are manufactured (usually from oil and fossil fuels as a feedstock)
  • Use Of Plastic – different types of plastic and plastic products are used for different applications and over different timescales. For example, plastic packaging might have a much shorter lifespan of say a few minutes, compared to a construction plastic used in piping that lasts decades
  • Plastic Becomes Waste – at some point, plastic becomes waste when it no longer used, or can no longer be used in it’s current form
  • Plastic Waste Management – plastic waste is managed by being sent to either Landfill, Recycling/Re-Use, Or Incineration. It should be noted that plastic might be rejected from a recycling plant and re-directed to landfill. Furthermore, in some countries with unsecure or open landfills, plastic might leak from the dumping site. So, the waste management option chosen for the plastic waste isn’t always the final destination
  • Mismanaged Plastic (Inadequately Disposed Of, Or Littered Plastic) – plastic waste can be littered, or inadequately disposed of to an open or unsecure landfill site where it escapes to the environment. Both contribute to plastic pollution.
  • Plastic Pollution – the pollution by plastic in the air, land or in the ocean. Plastic pollution encompasses a range of different issues.
  • Break Down & Decomposition Of Plastic – plastic can take decades, and often hundreds and thousands of years to break down in landfills, on land and in the ocean. Most of the plastic ever produced is present somewhere on Earth because of how long plastic takes to fully breakdown.
  • *Micro and Nano Plastics – very very small particles of plastic like micro and nano plastics can break off from larger pieces of plastic at any stage of the plastic lifecycle. These tiny particles can end up anywhere – inside humans, inside animals, in the ocean, in soil, in freshwater sources, and more. Read more about microplastics and the other potentially harmful effects of plastic in this guide

 

Key Stats & Numbers That Outline What Happens To Plastic

Generation/Production Of Plastic

  • Total Plastic Produced Throughout History – 8.3 billion metric tons of [plastic has been manufactured up to the year 2015] (sciencemag.org)
  • Graph of annual plastic production from 1917 to 2017 available at https://www.darrinqualman.com/global-plastics-production/
  • Increase In Plastic Production Since 1950 – In 1950 the world produced only 2 million tonnes per year. Since then, annual production has increased nearly 200-fold, reaching 381 million tonnes in 2015  (ourworldindata.org)
  • How Much Plastic Is Produced Globally Per Day – more than a billion kilograms per day (darrinqualman.com)
  • How Much Plastic Gets Produced Globally Each Year – Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year  (sciencedaily.com)
  • Plastic Packaging The Most Produced Primary Plastic – plastic packaging by far was the most produced primary plastic in 2015 at 146 million tonnes, with building and construction in second place at 65 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
  • Plastic Packaging As A % of Total Plastic Production – Plastic packaging … is plastics’ largest application, representing 26% of the total volume (weforum.org)
  • Oil Used In Plastic Production – 4% of the world’s annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process (wwf.org.au)
  • Plastic Production Forecast For The Future – Worldwide plastic production is expected to double within the next 20 years [from 2016 to 2036]—having already multiplied by 20 since 1964 (qz.com)
  • Plastics production is expected to double again in 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050 (weforum.org)
  • [There is a] projected four-fold increase in [plastic] production tonnage by 2050 (darrinqualman.com)
  • Cumulative Production of Polymers, Synthetic Fibers and Additives In Plastic From 1950 to 2015 – 8300 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)

 

Plastic Waste

  • Total Plastic Waste Generated Throughout History – [there has been] 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste [throughout history up to the year 2015] – (sciencemag.org)
  • Industry That Produces The Most Plastic Waste – the plastic packaging industry by far produces the most plastic waste at 141 million tonnes, with ‘other sectors’ in second at 42 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
  • Plastic Waste In The Future – In the next 30 years [until 2050], we may produce four times more plastic waste than we ever did – (sciencemag.org)
  • If [current] trends continue, by 2050 we’ll have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste (sciencemag.org)

 

Waste Management (Landfill, Recycling, Incineration etc.)

  • How Plastic Waste Is Managed Globally in 2015 – 19.5% is recycled, 25.5% is incinerated, and 55% is discarded (ourworldindata.org) 
  • What Has Happened To All Plastic Waste Up To 2015? – 9% was recycled and 12% incinerated. The vast majority, 79%, was tossed (sciencemag.org)
  • From 1950 to 2015, of all the plastic that has been produced, 30 percent was still in use, 55 percent went straight to landfill or was discarded, 8 percent was incinerated, and 6 percent was recycled (100 million tonnes of recycled plastic was still in use; 100 million tonnes was later incinerated; and 300 million tonnes was later discarded or sent to landfill) (ourworldindata.org)
  • What Might Happen To Plastic Waste In The Future? – If [current] trends continue, by 2050 we’ll have … dumped in landfills and the environment (sciencemag.org)
  • Recycling Rate Of Plastic – Only 18 percent of plastic is recycled.  This is the rate for plastics overall, including plastics in cars and buildings (darrinqualman.com)
  • … many plastics simply cannot be effectively recycled. Even the most recyclable plastic, PET – or polyethylene terephthalate – is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills (forbes.com)
  • Plastic Packaging Waste Management Stats – 95% of plastic packaging material value or $80–120 billion annually is lost to the economy after a short first use. More than 40 years after the launch of the well known recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling … In addition to the 14% of plastic packaging collected for recycling, another 14% is sent to an incineration and/or energy recovery process, mostly through incineration in mixed solid waste incinerators, but also through the combustion of refuse-derived fuel in industrial processes such as cement kilns, and (at a limited scale) pyrolysis or gasification … Furthermore, an overwhelming 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all: 40% is landfilled, and 32% leaks out of the collection system – that is, either it is not collected at all, or it is collected but then illegally dumped or mismanaged (weforum.org)
  • Recycling Rate Of Plastic Packaging Specifically – For plastic packaging (water bottles, chip bags, supermarket packaging, etc.) the recycling rate is just 14 percent.  But much of that plastic inflow is excluded during the sorting and recycling process, such that only 5 percent of plastic packaging material is  actually returned to use through recycling (darrinqualman.com)

 

Mismanaged Plastic Waste, Inadequately Disposed Of Plastic Waste, Plastic Litter, & Plastic Pollution

  • Most Common Plastic Litter Itemsplastic food wrappers, plastic bottles, and straws are some of the most picked up littered items on beaches and coasts during organised litter pick ups 
  • Littering Rate Of Plastic – some sources ‘assume a rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries’ (ourworldindata.org)
  • Inadequately Disposed Of Plastic Waste % – across many low to middle income countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, 80-90 percent of plastic waste is inadequately disposed of, and therefore at risk of polluting rivers and oceans. High income countries see far lower rates. (ourworldindata.org)
  • Inadequately Disposed Of Rate Of Plastic Packaging – one third of plastic packaging escapes garbage collection systems entirely and is lost directly into the environment: onto roadsides or into streams, lakes, and oceans (darrinqualman.com)
  • Global Share Of Mismanaged Plastic Waste – a high share of the world’s ocean plastics pollution has its origin in Asia. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total, followed by 10 percent in Indonesia, 6 percent for both the Philippines and Vietnam (ourworldindata.org)
  • Plastic Additives In The Ocean – The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which will eventually be released into those ocean ecosystems (darrinqualman.com)
  • Greenhouse Gases From Plastic – Globally, in this year alone, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic will pump more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes (wwf.org.au)

 

Breakdown & Decomposition

 

Plastic On Land

  • Where Does Plastic On Land End Up? – It is estimated that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwaters. Most of [the plastic produced each year] disintegrates into particles smaller than five millimetres, referred to as microplastics, and breaks down further into nanoparticles, which are less than 0.1 micrometre in size (sciencedaily.com)
  • Is Land Plastic Pollution Worse Than Ocean Plastic Pollution? – In fact, terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution — an estimate of four to 23 times more, depending on the environment (sciencedaily.com)
  • Plastic On Beaches – Plastics make up 85% of beach litter worldwide, 61% of which are single-use plastics and mostly linked to the food industry such as crisp packets, sweet wrappers, food containers and cutlery (lr.org)
  • Read more about stats and numbers on plastic pollution on land in this guide

 

Plastic In The Ocean

 

Importing & Exporting Of Plastic 

  • Top Plastic Exporters – In 2018, China, the US and Germany were responsible for the highest plastic item exports (worldstopexports.com)
  • Hong Kong, the United States, and Japan grabbed top 3 spots [for the biggest plastic exporters] in the period 1988-2016 (ceoworld.biz)
  • Top Plastic Importers – between 1988 to 2016, China, Hong Kong and the US imported the most plastic (ceoworld.biz)

 

Sources

1. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/next-30-years-we-ll-make-four-times-more-plastic-waste-we-ever-have

2. https://qz.com/599759/by-2050-there-will-be-more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea/

3. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

4. https://qz.com/599759/by-2050-there-will-be-more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea/

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-in-the-ocean-faq-guide/

6. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

7. https://www.darrinqualman.com/global-plastics-production/

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

9. https://www.lr.org/en-au/insights/articles/is-it-realistic-to-go-plastic-free-by-2050/

10. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-waste-and-climate-change-whats-the-connection#gs.3b2972

11. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-common-plastic-waste-generated-found-on-beaches-in-oceans-on-land/

12. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/solutions-to-ocean-plastic-pollution-how-to-stop-reduce-it-how-to-clean-it-up/

13. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-pollution-on-land-faq-guide/

14. http://plastic-pollution.org/

15. http://www.worldstopexports.com/plastic-item-exports-country/

16. https://ceoworld.biz/2018/06/27/study-the-top-importers-and-exporters-of-the-worlds-plastic-waste-and-china-wont-accept-plastic-trash-anymore/

What Can Plastic Be Recycled Into (& Reused/Repurposed For)?

What Can Plastic Be Recycled Into (& Reused/Repurposed For)?

This is a short guide outlining the potential re-use and repurposing applications of recycled plastic.

You links in the sources list provide more information on the recycling of different types of plastic and plastic products.

 

Summary – What Can Plastic Be Recycled Into, Or Reused/Repurposed For?

 

What The Different Plastic Types & Plastic Products Can Be Recycled Into (& Reused/Repurposed For)

  • PETE/PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) – can be repurposed to make textiles, carpets, pillow stuffing, life jackets, storage containers, clothing, boat sails, auto parts, sleeping bags, shoes, luggage, winter coats
  • HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) – can be repurposed to make plastic crates, lumber, fencing
  • PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) – can be repurposed to make flooring, mobile home skirting
  • LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) – can be repurposed to make garbage cans, lumber
  • PP (Polypropylene) – can be repurposed to make ice scrapers, rakes, battery cables
  • PS (Polystyrene or Styrofoam) – can be repurposed to make insulation, license plate frames, rulers
  • Miscellaneous Plastics (polycarbonate, polyctide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon) – can be repurposed to make plastic lumber (which is often used in outdoor decks, molding, and park benches

– qualitylogoproducts.com

 

  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – can be turned into food-contact-approved recycled PET (RPET). RPET can be used for polyester fibres, and to create fabrics for clothing. RPET can be used for new containers, or bottles, jars, and trays. Other applications include strapping tape, injection-moulded engineering components and building materials
  • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – can be recycled into new HDPE pipe, but can also be downcycled into plastic timber, tables, roadside curbs, benches, truck cargo liners, trash receptacles, stationery (e.g. rulers) and other durable plastic products 
  • PS (polystyrene) – most PS products are not recycled due to the lack of incentive to invest in the compactors and logistical systems required. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) scrap can easily be added to products such as EPS insulation sheets and other EPS materials for construction applications. When it is not used to make more EPS, foam scrap can be turned into clothes hangers, park benches, flower pots, toys, rulers, stapler bodies, seedling containers, picture frames, and architectural molding from recycled PS. Recycled EPS is also used in many metal casting operations
  • Other Plastics – white plastic polystyrene foam peanuts used as packing material are often accepted by shipping stores for reuse. Agricultural plastics have been successfully recycled into much larger products for industrial applications such as plastic composite railroad ties. Road surfaces are also now being made from recycled plastics.

– wikipedia.org

 

  • PET (#1 Plastic) – can become fiberfill for winter coats, sleeping bags, and life jackets. It can also be used to make beanbags, rope, car bumpers, tennis ball felt, combs, sails for boats, furniture and, of course, other plastic bottles
  • HDPE (#2 Plastic) – can become toys, piping, truck bed liners, and rope.
  • PVC (#3 Plastic) – can be ground up and reused to make vinyl flooring, window frames, or piping
  • LDPE (#4 Plastic) – can become thin, flexible plastics like wrapping films, grocery bags, sandwich bags, and a variety of soft packaging materials
  • PS (#6 Plastic) – the non foam PS can be reprocessed into many items, including rigid insulation
  • #7 Plastic – can be difficult to recycle

– thoughtco.com

 

  • Polystyrene (e.g. meat packing) – recycled into CD cases, office accessories
  • Low-Density Polyethylene (e.g. plastic shopping bags) – recycled into plastic lumber and compost bins
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) (e.g. plastic bottles) – recycled into stuffing for pillows, carpet backing, and even certain types of sweatshirts
  • High-Density Polyethylene (e.g. shampoo bottles) – recycled into other bottles, plastic lumber
  • Polypropylene (e.g. most bottle tops) – recycled into ice scrapers, industrial packing cases
  • Polyvinyl Chloride – recycled into insulation for cables and drain pipes

– alive.com

 

  • Milk Jugs & Other Plastic Containers … can become new bottles and containers, plastic lumber, picnic tables, lawn furniture, playground equipment, recycling bins and more.
  • Plastic Bags & Wraps … can become plastic lumber that is used to make park benches, backyard decks and fences – even playground equipment. They also can be recycled into new plastic bags – and then recycled again
  • Plastic Bottles … can become t-shirts, sweaters, fleece jackets, insulation for jackets and sleeping bags, carpeting and more bottles.
  • Bottle Caps … can become batteries for your car, garden rakes, storage containers, reusable shopping bags, yarn, ropes, brooms … and more bottle caps
  • Foam Packaging … can become plastic products such as insulation, picture frames, building products for your home … and more foam packaging

– recycleandrecoverplastics.org

 

  • The most commonly recycled plastics are #1 (soda bottles) and # 2 (milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles)
  • #1 Plastics (plastic bottles) can become carpet, backpacks, polar fleece, sleeping bags and ski jacket insulation
  • #2 Plastics (plastic milk and juice bottles, and plastic detergent bottles) can become plastic lumber (like decking, docks, etc.), play sets, new bottles, buckets, containers, frisbees, and stadium seats

– maine.gov

 

Products that are commonly made from recycled plastic include:

  • refuse sacks and carrier bags
  • underground drainage systems for homes and national infrastructure
  • flower pots, seed trays, watering cans and water butts
  • wheel arch liners and bumpers on cars
  • damp proof membranes, guttering and window profiles used in construction
  • reusable crates and pallets
  • wheel bins and food caddies
  • composters and wormeries
  • drinks bottles and food trays
  • polyester fabric for clothing.

– recyclenow.com

 

Recycled plastic bottles:

  • a small number actually become plastic bottles again.
  • More often, they’re used to make car parts, clothing, shows, pens and more.

– thisisplastics.com

 

There are a number of articles explaining what plastics (such as recovered ocean plastics) can become after recycling at https://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/plastics-recycling/what-happens-to-recycled-plastics/

 

… But, Consider The Recycling Rate Of Plastic

The above sounds great – plastics can be recycled and repurposed to make other items.

But, the reality is that the recycling rate of plastic isn’t very high (at least with current plastics and current recycling technology). 

Forbes.com: “[the reality is] many plastics simply cannot be effectively recycled. Even the most recyclable plastic, PET – or polyethylene terephthalate – is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills”.

Ecologycenter.org: “The plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in the vast majority of their products, unlike the glass and metal industries”

Learn.eartheasy.com has some figures on the recycling rates of different plastics in the US:

  • Plastic #1 (PET) – about 25% of PET bottles in the US today are recycled
  • Plastic #2 (HDPE) – only about 30-35% of HDPE plastic used in America gets recycled each year
  • Plastic #3 (PVC) – less than 1% of PVC material is recycled.
  • Plastic #4 (LDPE) – Products made using LDPE plastic are reusable, but not always recyclable
  • Plastic #5 (PP) – Polypropylene is recyclable through some curbside recycling programs, but only about 3% of PP products are currently being recycled in the US
  • Plastic #6 (PS) – Recycling is not widely available for polystyrene products. Most curbside collection services will not accept polystyrene, which is why this material accounts for about 35% of US landfill material
  • Plastic #7 (Other – BPA, Polycarbonate, LEXAN) – #7 plastics are not for reuse, unless they have the PLA compostable coding

 

Sources

1. https://www.recycleandrecoverplastics.org/consumers/kids-recycling/plastics-can-become/

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling

3. https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/promo-university/different-types-of-plastic.htm

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/the-different-types-of-plastic-how-many-there-are-what-they-are-most-commonly-produced-what-they-are-used-for-which-types-can-be-recycled-more/

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/what-plastics-can-cannot-be-recycled-how-to-find-out/

6. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/the-pros-cons-of-plastic/

7. https://www.recyclenow.com/recycling-knowledge/how-is-it-recycled/plastics

8. https://www.thisisplastics.com/environment/the-potential-of-recycled-plastics/

9. https://www.maine.gov/dep/waste/recycle/whatrecyclablesbecome.html

10. https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottsnowden/2019/05/14/scientists-create-a-plastic-that-can-be-recycled-indefinitely/#3d3c9781619c

11. https://www.thoughtco.com/recycling-different-types-of-plastic-1203667

12. https://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/plastics-recycling/what-happens-to-recycled-plastics/

13. https://ecologycenter.org/plastics/

14. https://www.alive.com/lifestyle/plastic-pros-and-cons/

15. https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/plastics-by-the-numbers/

Plastic Pollution On Land: FAQ Guide

Plastic Pollution On Land: FAQ Guide

We often hear about plastic in the ocean

But, there seems to be far less awareness around plastic pollution on dry land.

We’ve put together an FAQ type guide that discusses some of the potential issues, causes/sources, impacts/effects and solutions to dry land plastic pollution. 

 

Summary – Plastic Pollution On Land

  • Is appears there is far less research that has been done, and far less certainty about the full effects of plastic pollution on dry land (also called terrestrial plastic pollution) compared to plastic pollution in the ocean
  • But, there is a possibility that the full impact of plastic pollution on dry land could be as bad, or even worse than the impact in oceans
  • One of the key issues suspected to be a risk to ecosystems and living things (humans, wildlife etc.) in the future is microplastic (and nanoplastic) in soil, sediments and fresh water sources globally, as well as in the air
  • Degradation of plastic and it’s effects is another 
  • Increasing research is being done into the amount of micro and nano plastics entering tap and drinking (bottled) water for humans. The impact of microplastics and nano plastics in the human body right now has limited information available, but, it’s believed the health risk to humans is low or no risk at current levels, according to most sources (euronews.com). Some sources do note though that there is observable and circumstantial evidence for plastic related chemicals (like BPA and phthalates) and certain health issues in humans, and that direct health issues have been proven in lab animals (earthday.org)
  • There are several causes and sources for micro and nano plastics getting into soil, sediment, freshwater lakes and rivers, tap water and bottled water
  • Going forward, the degradation behaviour of plastic, and the effects of microplastics, require better and more standardized assessment methods if we want a more accurate picture of plastic pollution on dry land, and potential short and long term impacts for humans, wildlife and the environment. The are a range of challenges in studying and researching dry land plastic pollution though, one of which is that is can be very time consuming (which is perhaps one of the reasons we don’t currently have more data and research available on it)
  • It’s worth noting, right now, microbially-contaminated drinking-water and faecally-contaminated water [with] microbial pathogens still represent [are] “the most significant public health threat in drinking-water”. [So, we may look at addressing this problem before the microplastics in drinking water problem]. [And, some sources indicate that] filtering water for infectious diseases and other microbes would also solve the problem of microplastics (euronews.com)

 

What Is Dry Land Plastic Pollution?

Dry land plastic pollution refers to the impact of plastic pollution on the land, as opposed to in the ocean. 

It mainly occurs in soil, sediments and freshwater sources.

It is sometimes referred to as terrestrial plastic pollution.

Far less is known about it, and the impact it might have, compared ocean plastic pollution. 

 

Land Plastic Pollution vs Ocean Plastic Pollution

  • [it is proposed that microplastic and nanoplastic pollution on dry land] may have damaging [long term] effects similar or even more problematic than in our oceans.
  • … terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution — an estimate of four to 23 times more, depending on the environment

– sciencedaily.com

 

What Is The Scale Of Land Plastic Pollution?

  • Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. It is estimated that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwaters.
  • Most of this plastic breaks down into microplastic smaller than five millimetres, and nanoplastic less than 0.1 micrometre in size

– sciencedaily.com

 

  • Research suggests that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since it was invented, and a shocking 6.3 billion metric tons is now plastic waste. Of this waste, 79 per cent has been buried in landfills or ended up in nature
  • … If we continue at the current rate of production without better recycling infrastructure in place, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills by 2050

– mytomra.com.au

 

How Does Plastic Pollution On Land Happen, & Where Does It Comes From? (Causes & Sources)

A range of sources:

  • Micro plastics are found in and come from sewage and waste water, synthetic fibres from textiles and clothing that are washed and discharged to waste water, cosmetic and personal care products, flushing plastic items down the toilet, run off from roads (plastic pellets and additives in asphalt, tyres, road marking), shoe soles, and so on
  • Littered plastic items
  • Inadequately disposed of plastic items in low to middle income countries may leak from uncontained or open dumping sites, and get out into the environment
  • It’s also possible that landfills with inadequate liners or leachate management systems in high income and developed countries may contribute to plastic pollution, as these plastics may breakdown and contaminate the soil beneath them
  • A lack of plastic being recycled, and China’s recent ban on accepting plastic from other countries, may lead to more plastic ending up in landfills, or becoming mismanaged plastic (littered or inadequately disposed of)

 

  • [Sewage helps distribute microplastic on land … as 80 to 90 per cent of the particles contained in sewage persist in the sludge … is then often applied to fields as fertilizer, meaning that several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year. Plastic garment fibres can be found in sewage sludge]

– sciencedaily.com

 

  • … several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year [as a result of sewage sludge and fertilizer]
  • [Chlorinated plastic is another source of harmful chemicals that can leach into the environment]
  • … clothing [helps plastic get into tap water]. Minuscule fibres of acrylic, nylon, spandex, and polyester are shed each time we wash our clothes and are carried off to wastewater treatment plants or discharged to the open environment … [and one study estimates] more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres could be released into the environment during each cycle of a washing machine. [Another study] found that washing a single synthetic jacket just once released an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres.
  • [It’s also been found that microbeads of plastic come from] cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads

– unenvironment.org

 

  • [other studies on microfibers released during textile washing revealed that] 250 thousand fibers can be released within a single wash.

– earthday.org

 

  • [EDCs – endocrine disrupting chemicals – are] thought to be leaked into the environment through the breakdown of plastics in landfills

– mytomra.com.au

 

  • … plastic particles are being flushed into our waterways every day – microbeads from toothpaste, fibres from clothes, specks from shoes and cars tyres, even plastic from wastewater treatment plants
  • [Microplastics also come from road surface run off, fibres released from textiles, shoe soles and artificial turf, agricultural plastics used for mulching, cosmetics, consumer products flushed down toilets and sinks, nurdles, degraded fishing nets and other fishing equipment, water treatment plant components and pipes, the bottles and caps of bottled water]

– abc.net.au

 

  • Microplastics enter drinking-water sources from surface run-off after rainfall, wastewater effluent, industrial effluent, litter and wind. “Plastic bottles and caps that are used in bottled water may also be sources of microplastics in drinking water

– euronews.com

 

  • Sources of micro plastics and types of microplastics may include …
  • plastic fibres that detach from synthetic clothing during washing, and plastic flakes that are created when larger items of plastic packaging waste break down
  • Plastic-based items being flushed down the toilet – such as wet wipes and plastic-stemmed cotton buds and sanitary products – can contribute to the problem, as can industrial discharges to sewers, and even tyre fragments and road paint from roads when there is surface water run-off to combined sewers
  • [some studies of micro plastic concentrations in rivers] upstream and downstream of wastewater treatment plants… categorised the types of microplastics found into pellets/beads, fibres and fragments/flakes. Fragments and fibres made up nearly 90 per cent of the microplastic found in the river samples. 
  • the amount of plastic microfibres from clothing and textiles polluting our rivers … may be a major concern

– wwtonline.co.uk

 

In regards to micro plastic pollution from sewage and waste water streams specifically:

  • … UK wastewater treatment plants use tiny plastic pellets, known as Bio-Beads, to filter chemical and organic contaminants from sewage … [and some sources indicate these pellets] have been spilled and ended up in the environment (theguardian.com)
  • [there can be issues at waste water plants properly filtering micro plastic fibres. And, even if they can be filtered, the plastic particles end up in the environment via sewage sludge – unless the sludge is incinerated] (guppyfriend.com)
  • [sewer overflows also contribute to plastic pollution … [they] relieve the sewage system in rainy conditions. In order to prevent backwater in households in case of heavy rain, the wastewater flows through the sewers untreated … [so] wastewater from the gullies does not take the detour via a wastewater treatment plant, but gets into our water widely unfiltered] (guppyfriend.com)
  • … plastic objects [can] make it into the main sewer system … by being flushed down the toilet, or carried by the rain into a street drain (whoi.edu)
  • wastewater treatment plants [are one way the micro plastics enter water supplies and sources, but they also enter water supplies and sources upstream of wastewater plants via the sources mentioned above in the wwtonline.co.uk dot points – washing textiles, flushing plastic fibre items, discharge to sewers, road surface water run off and so on] (wwtonline.co.uk)

 

Impact/Effects Of Plastic Pollution On Land On The Environment/EcoSystem, Wildlife & Humans

We’ve already listed some of the potentially harmful effects of plastic pollution in general in this guide. Some of these effects apply to plastic pollution on land.

But, there are also some potential impacts of land based plastic pollution specifically listed below:

 

Ecosystems/The Environment

  • … the surfaces of tiny fragments of plastic may carry disease-causing organisms and act as a vector that transmits diseases in the environment
  • The intake and uptake of small microplastics could turn out to be the new long-term stress factor for the environment
  • … [but right now] there is a lack of standardized methods for determining microplastics in terrestrial ecosystems in order to produce an accurate assessment of the situation

– sciencedaily.com

 

  • Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources, and also the ecosystem

– unenvironment.org

 

  • As mentioned above, plastics that break down in landfills without adequate liners and leachate management, may contaminate soil with their leachate. Contaminated soil can lead to contaminated sediment, and contaminated fresh water sources too

– abc.net.au

 

  • … every year … about 4 million tonnes plastic passes along rivers. In some cases, there can be over half a million plastic fragments per square metre of river bed.

– wwtonline.co.uk

 

Humans

  • Humans also ingest microplastics via food: they have already been detected not only in fish and seafood, but also in salt, sugar and beer
  • … tiny fragments of plastic can be accumulated in yeasts and filamentous fungi 

– sciencedaily.com

 

  • Microplastics can even be found in tap water

– unenvironment.org

 

  • It’s estimated the average person already ingests around 2,000 microplastic particles a week – around five grams, or the weight of a credit card.
  • [Water can be measured for plastic pollution by measuring plastic particles per litre]
  • [Microplastic concentrations vary between rivers and lakes worldwide]
  • [Recorded concentrations in bottled water can be far higher than lakes and rivers]
  • Although wastewater treatment removes most particles from polluted water, millions still make it through the filters and back into the water supply
  • The concentration in drinking water can go up after storm events and heavy rainfall, which wash microplastics into reservoirs, temporarily bypassing wastewater treatment
  • Rates also tend to be higher downstream of effluent discharge, and in areas near densely populated urban centres
  • [humans ingest microplastics from food and water, and from plastic utensils, and from breathing]
  • [potential risks from microplastics in the human body are toxicity of the particles, plastic additives, pollutants that accumulate on the plastic, biofilms, and the spread of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance]
  • [right now, it is considered there is insufficient information to make firm conclusions on what plastics do to the human body … but, right now, it’s thought plastics are inert when ingested and pass through our bodies without uptake]
  • [there appears to be] no reliable information at this time that would suggest any overt health concerns associated with microplastic particles … and there low concern for human health

– abc.net.au

 

  • … microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed in the human body and the uptake of smaller particles “is expected to be limited.”
  • … levels of particles found in drinking water varied so widely between the different studies that no conclusions could be drawn
  • … microbial pathogens still represent “the most significant public health threat in drinking-water” [in the world]

– euronews.com

 

  • Recent studies into water contamination have found microplastics in 83% of tap water samples from major cities around the world and in 93% of samples from the world’s top 11 bottled water brands.
  • … there is an observable correlation between the presence of plastic substances in the blood (specifically BPA and phthalates) and higher rates of certain health issues. Some of these health issues include chromosomal and reproductive abnormalities, early puberty, childhood obesity, and increased blood pressure. The result of this lack of hard causal evidence is part of the reason there remains no FDA regulation setting a limit of microplastic contamination in bottled water.
  • … We have shown that our drinking water supply is heavily contaminated with microplastics. We have shown that those who have been exposed to certain forms of plastic contamination have a higher likelihood of developing certain serious health issues. We have even shown that these plastic chemicals directly cause these health impacts in lab animals. Given all this circumstantial evidence, the lack of proof for direct causation seems to be a pretty week argument for delaying regulation. 

– earthday.org

 

Wildlife & Living Organisms

  • … earlier studies have demonstrated that microplastics might be harmful to ecosystems when ingested by aquatic key organisms … [and it is thought that there could be a similar impact on land based organisms]
  • Microplastics can also interact with soil fauna, affecting their health and soil functions … Earthworms, for example, make their burrows differently when microplastics are present in the soil, affecting the earthworm’s fitness and the soil condition.
  • Generally speaking, when plastic particles break down, they gain new physical and chemical properties, increasing the risk that they will have a toxic effect on organisms. And the more likely it is that toxic effects will occur, the larger the number of potentially affected species and ecological functions. Chemical effects are especially problematic at the decomposition stage … [where] additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A leach out of plastic particles. These additives are known for their hormonal effects and can potentially disrupt the hormone system not only of vertebrates, but also of several invertebrates
  • … nano-sized [plastic] particles may cause inflammation; they may traverse or change cellular barriers, and even cross highly selective membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta. Within the cell, they can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions, among other things. The long-term effects of these changes have not yet been sufficiently explored. However, it has already been shown that when passing the blood-brain barrier nanoplastics have a behaviour-changing effect in fish.

– sciencedaily.com, unenvironment.org

 

  • Recent studies suggest that plastic waste is impacting the growth and reproductive success rates of the animals in our natural world, this is due to chemicals released from decomposing plastic creating a disruption in hormones … it’s believed that wildlife that that has been subjected to a mix of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are failing to reproduce, yet the impact of this hasn’t been fully discovered.
  • EDC’s … can also be passed from mother to newborn through their milk supply, as it accumulates within the fat glands where the milk is produced.
  • Plastic waste is also causing issues for birds, who are using strands of plastic mistaken for leaves and branches to build their nests, as an alternative to natural materials
  • More concerningly, birds are mistaking plastic waste for food and feeding it to their chicks, to detrimental effect. Inside the stomachs of many deceased seabirds in the UK, scientists found scraps, plastic bottles, bags and packaging … 

– mytomra.com.au

 

  • [Wildlife species’ that drink from freshwater sources contaminated by chlorinated plastic for example may experience harmful effects]

– unenvironment.org

 

  • [some research indicates that] 50 per cent of freshwater insects tested in South Wales has microplastic inside of them

– wwtonline.co.uk

 

What Might Be Some Of The Solutions To Dry Land Plastic Pollution?

We’ve already written about potential solutions to ocean plastic pollution.

Some of those solutions would apply to dry land plastic pollution.

For example, the main ways to solve dry land plastic pollution would be to prevent/stop it in the first place by reducing the amount of ‘problem’ type plastics that we generate and that have the potential to become waste. This would be achieved on the individual/consumer, producer/business, and government/policy maker levels. But also, we can better manage plastic pollution by managing plastic waste better via recycling, landfill, waste incineration, and other options.

Other specific solutions might involve:

  • Upgrading and improving waste management systems worldwide to better deal with, and contain plastic waste (e.g. making landfills more secure and contained instead of open and uncontained)
  • Targeting plastic types with the highest waste % like plastic packaging (which is usually disposable, single use, and one of the most littered types of plastic)
  • Focus on reducing the types of plastic that are littered the most
  • Continue land and beach/coast cleanups picking up littered plastic
  • Focus on preventing the spill or dumping of plastic into the most plastic polluted fresh water rivers in the world
  • Focus on problem plastics like PVC that have their own leaching issues (PVC that is highly chlorinated especially)
  • Focus on re-designing products that are releasing the most micro plastics and nano plastics, or micro beads
  • Measure the plastic pollution in rivers, lakes and bottled drinking water worldwide – and, consider ways to decrease plastic concentration for the most polluted water
  • Using natural fibres for textiles instead of synthetic plastic based fibres
  • Using alternate materials other than plastic where possible for a range of products
  • Redesigning plastic materials – for example, bioplastics and similar plastics might help

 

  • There is no one solution to the problem [of plastic pollution on land], but for a better future for our planet, we need to innovate and implement new solutions to help us manage our plastic waste more efficiently.
  • TOMRA Collection Solutions [has implemented solutions like] reverse vending machines, deposit return schemes, and Clean Loop Recycling
  • By investing in better recycling technology rather than outsourcing waste, the recycling industry will see higher purity levels, meaning less material in landfills and less environmental pollution. The more material kept in a closed loop the less that ends up where it doesn’t belong, in our oceans, streets and landfills.
  • Deposit return schemes and Clean Loop Recycling provide one part of the solution to changing attitudes around empty drink containers and improving recycling rates

– mytomra.com.au

 

  • [to remove plastic from the environment, we might try …]
  • One solution is to install and optimise wastewater treatment and other processes that remove microplastics from water sources
  • Another is to use less plastic [where taxes and banning of certain types of plastic like single use plastic are options]
  • Another is to recycle more

– abc.net.au

 

  • Filtering water for infectious diseases and other microbes would also solve the problem of microplastics
  • Although wastewater effluent is recognized as a key source of microplastic pollution in freshwater, pathogens and other chemicals associated with the lack of effective sewage treatment are of greater concern
  • By addressing the bigger problem of exposure to faecally-contaminated water, communities can simultaneously address the smaller concern related to microplastics

– euronews.com

 

  • From the perspective of improving the quality of our drinking water, we need to focus on three things: prevention – limiting the amount of plastic that reaches any body of water;  innovation – finding new ways to remove plastic that is already in our waterways and water supply; and activism – making citizens part of the solution by building a culture in which people actively think about and participate in reducing plastic consumption and contamination.
  • [Individuals can also decrease plastic pollution by] properly disposing of plastic and not littering, pick up litter and participate in clean ups, avoiding products with microbeads and buying all natural products, change the way you wash your clothes, buy more natural fibre clothes and less synthetic fibre clothes, avoid purchasing bottled water, and look for water filters you can use at home for tap water and for your washing to eliminate or catch microfibres and micro plastics

– earthday.org

 

Sources

1. Forschungsverbund Berlin. “An underestimated threat: Land-based pollution with microplastics.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 February 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180205125728.htm>

2. https://www.mytomra.com.au/world-environment-day-2019/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_pollution#Effects_of_plastic_on_land

4. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/solutions-to-ocean-plastic-pollution-how-to-stop-reduce-it-how-to-clean-it-up/

6. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

7. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-common-plastic-waste-generated-found-on-beaches-in-oceans-on-land/

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/solutions-to-ocean-plastic-pollution-how-to-stop-reduce-it-how-to-clean-it-up/

9. https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/world-health-organisation-report-says-water-full-microplastics/11436168

10. https://www.euronews.com/2019/08/22/microplastics-are-in-our-drinking-water-warns-who

11. https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/23/the-invisible-plastic-particles-in-our-drinking-water/

12. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/11/sewage-plants-are-leaking-millions-of-tiny-plastic-beads-into-britains-seas

13. http://guppyfriend.com/en/ufaqs/warum-koennen-klaeranlagen-das-mikroplastik-nicht-filtern

14. https://www.whoi.edu/science/B/people/kamaral/plasticsarticle.html

15. https://wwtonline.co.uk/features/microplastics-plastics-plastics-everywhere

Solutions To Ocean Plastic Pollution (How To Stop/Reduce It, & How To Clean It Up)

Solutions To Ocean Plastic Pollution (How To Stop/Reduce It, & How To Clean It Up)

Ocean plastic pollution is seen by many as a key issue to address.

In this guide, we outline potential solutions to ocean plastic pollution, such as how plastic waste might be reduced and stopped from entering the ocean, and also, how it might be cleaned up.

 

Summary – Solutions To Ocean Plastic Pollution

  • There’s really two main solutions to ocean plastic pollution – 1. Stop or reduce plastic getting into the ocean in the first place, and 2. Clean up the plastic already in the ocean
  • Firstly, in order to stop or reduce plastic getting in the ocean – it makes sense to know, based on the numbers, where the most plastic waste is being generated, and where and how the most plastic waste is entering the ocean. It also makes sense to know how to either reduce plastic waste generation, or contain/dispose/manage plastic waste (once it’s been created) properly to stop it leaking out into the ocean. Upgrading and making landfill sites secure and closed off in low to middle income countries may have the potential to provide the most significant reductions in plastic pollution, as well as upgrading their overall waste management systems. Beach and coastal cleanups can provide further help in preventing plastic from entering the ocean in most countries.
  • Secondly, cleaning up plastic already in the ocean can be a tricky and costly exercise. There are projects like The Ocean Cleanup removing plastic from surface water in some major ocean basins, but, it’s essentially impossible at this stage to effectively remove microplastics that have sunk below the sea’s surface to the deep sea, or that end up in the digestive systems of marine animals (and, most plastic in the ocean lies beneath the surface). So, although beneficial, the challenges of ocean clean ups should be taken into account. 
  • Overall, of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean (plastic-pollution.org). This estimate is worth considering in ocean and coast plastic waste prevention and clean up efforts.

 

First, Understand The General Plastic Product, To Waste, To Pollution Cycle 

In general, the cycle of plastic waste getting into the ocean is:

  • Plastic is produced/generated
  • Plastic is used
  • Plastic is disposed of, and becomes waste
  • Some plastic is littered, while the rest goes to waste management
  • In terms of waste management options – some plastic is recycled, but the vast majority ends up in landfill, with some also being incinerated. 
  • Some landfills are well managed and most of the plastic stays in the landfill. But, some landfills are open or uncontained, and the plastic is lost or leaks from the land fill (known as inadequately disposed of plastic)
  • Mismanaged plastic (made up of inadequately disposed plastic, and littered plastic) gets into the ocean via several routes, such as wind or tidal transport, but rivers also play a big part, as well as waste water and stormwater runoff
  • Marine based plastic can be dumped or discarded straight off of fishing vessels as well (about 20-30% of ocean plastic comes from marine sources like fishing vessels, and the remaining 70-80% is from land based sources)

So, we can see that littered and inadequately disposed of plastic from land based sources, and then separately marine based plastic, are the two main sources of plastic waste that end up in the ocean.

 

Second, Understand Where The Plastic & Plastic Waste Is Coming From, & How It Gets Into The Ocean

Plastic comes mainly from (we may want to focus specifically on these sources of plastic and plastic waste i.e. these industries, countries, regions etc.):

Plastic Sources

  • Plastic waste by industry – the plastic packaging industry (ourworldindata.org) [i.e. a lot of the plastic is plastic packaging type waste, as opposed to say, construction plastic type waste]
  • Plastic waste by country – China produced the largest quantity of plastic, at nearly 60 million tonnes. This was followed by the United States at 38 million, Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
  • Per capita plastic waste by country – Kuwait, Guyana, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, the United States (ourworldindata.org)
  • Inadequately disposed of plastic (one part of mismanaged plastic, which is material which is at high risk of entering the ocean) – high income countries have far lower rates of inadequately disposed plastic than middle and low income countries because of far more effective waste management [such as landfill sites that better contained and not open].  (ourworldindata.org)
  • Littered plastic (the other part of mismanaged plastic) – [there is] a rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries [and this plastic is at risk of ending up in the ocean] (ourworldindata.org)
  • Total mismanaged plastic waste – a high share of the world’s ocean plastics pollution has its origin in Asia. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total, followed by 10 percent in Indonesia, 6 percent for both the Philippines and Vietnam. See other countries at https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
  • Mismanaged plastic waste by region – East Asia and the Pacific lead all regions at 60%

 

Plastic mainly gets into the ocean in the following ways (we may focus on these ways and entry points specifically):

How & Where Plastic Gets Into The Ocean

  • Where Plastic Is Most At Risk Of Entering The Ocean Specifically – [Coastal populations within 50km from the coast line are where most of the plastic is at risk of entering the ocean] (ourworldindata.org)
  • Generally How Plastic Gets Into The Ocean – coastlines, rivers (carry plastic from inland to coastal areas), tides, and marine sources (fishing gear dumped directly from fishing vessels etc) are the entry points for plastic into the ocean. Aside from wind or tidal transport, waste water, and storm water, rivers play a key role in carrying plastic to coastal areas from inland areas. 
  • Two of the most important factors in plastic waste ending up in the ocean are – proximity of [a] given population centres to the coast, and national waste management strategies (ourworldindata.org)
  • Most Plastic Polluting Rivers & Where They Are Found – The top 20 polluting rivers accounted for more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the global annual river input. Geographically we see that the majority of the top 20 rivers are located in Asia. The River Yangtze, the top polluting river, had an input of approximately 333,000 tonnes in 2015 —just over 4 percent of annual ocean plastic pollution. [the Ganges River in India and Bangladesh comes in second at 115,000 tonnes, and the Xi River in China third at 73,900 tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
  • Region That Leads Plastic Input Into The Ocean – [Asia by far leads plastic inputs to the ocean by region at 86%]
  • Marine Sources Responsible For Plastic Waste – Fishing vessels play a key role in discarding or dumping plastic into the ocean from marine based sources

 

Some of the information in this section comes from our ‘Plastic In The Ocean: FAQ Guide‘. It’s worth reading as a complimentary guide to this one overall.

 

Third, Focus On These Key Plastic Generation, & Plastic Waste Areas

We want to focus on:

Land vs Marine Plastic Waste

  • Land based plastic waste – 70 to 80% share of ocean based plastic. Mostly single use, short use, and highly disposable types of plastic. Mostly plastic packaging waste (from the plastic packaging industry, and used in other industries like food etc.)
  • Marine based plastic waste – 20 to 30% share of ocean based plastic. Mostly fishing gear and fishing equipment

Littered, Inadequately Disposed Of, & Dumped/Discarded Waste Waste

  • Littered plastic waste – 2%, on average, of a country’s plastic production
  • Inadequately disposed of plastic water – low to middle income countries, and less so high income countries
  • Dumped and discarded marine plastic waste – most intensively fished parts of the ocean

Entry Points Of Plastic Into Ocean

  • Entry points into the ocean – beaches and coasts (coastal populations usually within 50kms to the ocean), rivers, storm water and waste water run off

Countries, Regions, Industries & Parts Of The Ocean Where Plastic Products, & Plastic Waste Are Notable

  • Countries that produce the most plastic in total – China, and the US are leaders
  • Countries that produce the most plastic per capita – see above section
  • Industries that use the most plastic – plastic packaging is used across many industries as a single use, disposable plastic. And then, obviously, the fishing industry
  • Countries and regions responsible for the most mismanaged plastic waste – Asia (and East Asia and the Pacific). But, China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam as countries
  • Countries and regions responsible for the most inadequately disposed of plastic waste – low to middle income countries
  • Countries and regions responsible for the most littered waste – there is an average of 2% across all countries
  • Countries that export the most plastic – not as prevalent as it used to be because China has stopped taking plastic. But, it’s worth looking at top countries exporting their plastic waste as they are essentially putting the responsibility for their plastic waste footprint on other countries
  • Regions leading in plastic inputs into the ocean – Asia
  • Region home to the top polluting rivers – Asia
  • Global Plastic and other items that are found on beaches and coasts the most during cleanups (in order or most to least) – Cigarette Butts, Food Wrappers (from candy, chips etc.), Straws, Stirrers, Forks, knives, spoons, Plastic beverage bottles, Plastic bottle caps, Plastic grocery bags, Other plastic bags, Plastic lids, Plastic cups, plates. (oceanconservancy.org). 

 

Fourth, Understand How We Can Stop/Prevent Plastic Getting Into The Ocean Based On Our Focus Areas

Management Of Plastic Waste

We wrote about what might be the most effective way to stop ocean plastic pollution in this guide:

In summary – it’s estimated that up to 80% of mismanaged plastic that is at risk of entering the ocean could be prevented in the future if waste management systems across the world ( in low to middle income countries specifically) are upgraded and improved to function at an effective level. Securing landfills and making them closed off instead of open (to prevent plastic leaking/loss) is one example. But, better waste collection, recycling, waste incineration, and less littering would also be areas of focus. Beach and coastal clean ups also help with reducing littered plastic.

 

Reduce Usage Of Plastic, Or Reduce Plastic Waste

It’s arguable that we should be reducing the amount of plastic we use in the first place as well. There are many solutions for doing this, on the individual, industry/business/producer and innovator, and governmental and policy maker levels. 

Read more on these solutions at https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

 

Something else that needs to be discussed is what we do with plastic waste, and discarded or recovered plastic. There’s several waste management options, but each has a different economic cost and level of economic feasibility. For example, it’s easy to say to recycle plastic, but many plastics can only be recycled a certain amount of times, and recycling revenue is variable. TheConversation.com has a good breakdown on the market for recovered plastics at https://theconversation.com/ocean-cleanup-wont-turn-a-profit-but-we-should-still-do-it-104097 

 

Other Reduction Methods

Some sources indicate plastics are getting into the ocean via rivers which have plastic fibres from textiles and clothes that we wash in them.

To combat this, some sources suggest this partial reduction strategy:

  • [people can change their] washing practices – fewer microfibres are shed when clothes are washed at low temperatures, in a full washing machine and with no tumble drying – is one approach that could help, while it has also been proposed that improving filter technology in washing machines is a solution that should be explored. (wwtonline.co.uk)

… it is not realistic to ban synthetic clothing, which accounts for around 60 per cent of clothes produced globally, and measures that manufacturers could take to reduce the shedding of microfibres, such as making clothes with less blended material and tighter yarns, are also seen by many as prohibitively expensive. (wwtonline.co.uk)

 

Fifth, Understand How We Can Clean Up Plastic Already In The Ocean & On Beaches/Coasts

In The Ocean

We can focus on cleaning parts of the ocean, usually gyres and ocean basins, where the most plastic congregates and collects:

  • Parts of the ocean where the most plastic congregates and gathers on the surface – basins in the Northern Hemisphere had the highest quantity of plastics. The North Pacific, Indian Ocean, North Atlantic ocean basins have the highest amount of surface plastic mass (https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution – under the section ‘where does plastic collect in the ocean’)

It’s important to note though that removing plastic from the ocean is not a cheap nor usually and economically feasible exercise (a kilo of recovered plastic might only be worth about 30 cents), so, prevention of plastics entering the ocean might be where we focus more attention on first as opposed to clean up.

 

On Beaches & Coasts

We can continue to clean beaches and coasts, and even scale up clean ups. But we can also focus on minimising the waste of some of the most common plastic items that are found during cleanups at the producer and consumer levels:

  • Global Plastic and other items that are found on beaches and coasts the most during cleanups (in order or most to least) are – Cigarette Butts, Food Wrappers (from candy, chips etc.), Straws, Stirrers, Forks, knives, spoons, Plastic beverage bottles, Plastic bottle caps, Plastic grocery bags, Other plastic bags, Plastic lids, Plastic cups, plates. (oceanconservancy.org). 

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-in-the-ocean-faq-guide/

2. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-this-the-most-effective-way-to-solve-stop-reduce-ocean-plastic-pollution/

3. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

4. https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Final-2019-ICC-Report.pdf

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-common-plastic-waste-generated-found-on-beaches-in-oceans-on-land/

6. http://plastic-pollution.org/

7. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-plastic-affects-faq-guide/

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

9. https://theconversation.com/ocean-cleanup-wont-turn-a-profit-but-we-should-still-do-it-104097

10. https://wwtonline.co.uk/features/microplastics-plastics-plastics-everywhere

‘How Plastic Affects …’ (FAQ Guide)

'How Plastic Affects ...' (FAQ Guide)

This is a short guide that outlines answers to some commonly asked ‘How Plastic Affects …’ questions.

We are mainly referring to plastic waste and pollution that is either littered or inadequately disposed of, but also how plastic use directly impacts humans for example.

 

How Plastic Affects The Environment

The impact of plastic on the environment includes the water, air, soil and eco-systems and habitats that make up the environment:

  • Fresh water – plastic gets in rivers, lakes and other fresh water sources. Rivers can carry plastic from inland to coastal areas, and into the ocean from coastal populations. Plastic can leach chemicals into water (BPA, and phthalates amongst them), and carry organic pollutants and toxins from one location to another.
  • Salt water – we are referring to the ocean here. Leaching, carrying of organic toxin and pollutants, and microplastics in particular are issues in the ocean with plastic.
  • Air – plastic is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than first thought. Plastic that is burnt for energy also emits air pollutants that may or may not be processed by incineration technology.
  • Soil – leachate from landfills can leach out and contaminate soil where there is not a proper landfill liner or leachate management system in place.
  • Eco-systems and habitats – plastic has the ability to interact with and damage eco systems and habitats, with one example being dumped fishing gear on coral and seabeds.

Read more on the above issues in these guides:

 

How Plastic Affects Animals

Plastic can impact land, air, and aquatic (fresh and salt water) life.

The three main ways plastic impacts animals is via:

  • Ingestion- inhaling or swallowing of large plastic items (like straws), or small plastics like microplastics.
  • Entanglement – plastic based items restricting movement of, or tangling up animals. Fishing nets and fishing lines are a common example of this for seals, whales, dolphins, turtles and so on.
  • &, Interaction Or Abrasion – collision with or interaction with plastic that leads to harm.

Read more in this guide:

 

How Plastic Affects Marine Life (Turtles, Seals, Whales, Fish, Birds Etc.)

Plastic affects marine life in the ways we described above.

Specifically, marine life is affected by land based plastic waste like fishing gear and fishing equipment such as fishing lines, fishing nets, hooks, and other discarded and dumped gear.

 

Marine Animals In General

  • Entanglement – The entrapping, encircling or constricting of marine animals by plastic debris. Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date, including all marine turtle species, more than two-thirds of seal species, one-third of whale species, and one-quarter of seabirds. Entanglement by 89 species of fish and 92 species of invertebrates has also been recorded
  • Ingestion – Ingestion of plastic can occur unintentionally, intentionally, or indirectly through the ingestion of prey species containing plastic and it has now been documented for at least 233 marine species, including all marine turtle species, more than one-third of seal species, 59% of whale species, and 59% of seabirds. Ingestion by 92 species of fish and 6 species of invertebrates has also been recorded

– ourworldindata.org

 

  • 100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement and these are the ones found.
  • Approximately 1 million sea birds also die from plastic.
  • At least two thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion.

– oceancrusaders.org

 

  • Globally, 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution. This includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions.
  • There are two principle ways that encountering marine debris can be fatal for these creatures: ingestion (eating) or entanglement in plastic-based fishing gear.

– wwf.org.au

 

  • … plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species, while some estimates suggest that at least 100 million marine mammals are killed each year from plastic pollution
  • [turtles, seals and sea lions, seabirds, fish, and whales and dolphins are some of the marine animals most affected]

– onegreenplanet.org

 

  • According to the United Nations, at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic.

– pewtrusts.org

 

Turtles

  • Once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut, there was a 50% likelihood that it would die.
  • Globally it’s estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic.

– wwf.org.au

 

How Plastic Affects The Ocean

We’ve listed the different ways above – large plastics and micro plastics affect the ocean, marine life, and marine eco systems.

Read more in these guides:

 

How Plastic Affects Humans & Human Health

There’s several key ways that plastics may have the potential to cause harm to human health (different sources and studies indicate differing levels of risk):

  • Via BPA leaching
  • Via Phthalates leaching
  • Via leaching of other chemicals 
  • Via the ingestion of micro plastics

Other issues may include the economic impact of plastic waste, and the issues to do with the disposal and waste management of plastic

Read more in this guide:

 

How Plastic Affects The Economy

Positive Impact

There’s a few different ways plastic positively affects the economy:

  • The value added by the plastic industry itself (production of plastic, employees at plastic production companies etc.)
  • Value added by plastic to other industries with the important tasks it allows us to perform. For example, packaging for the food and agricultural industries

Triplepundit.com outlines the value of the plastic packaging industry in the hundreds of billions in America, whilst Ptonline.com cidentifies that the estimated value of total plastic shipments in the US is over $500 billion, and plastics employ millions of people in America. 

 

Negative Impact

The main ways plastic negatively affects the economy are:

  • The cost to physically clean up plastic waste and pollution in the environment (such as in the ocean and in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch)
  • The cost of plastic to in terms of lost income to other industries (such as the tourism industry), and the cost of plastic in terms of lost economic value overall to various parts of society

The cost to clean up the ocean is roughly about $5 to gather a kilo of plastic (and it’s usually not profitable to re-use or dispose of this plastic afterwards), and some estimates put the cost of plastic pollution in just the ocean alone at around 2.5 trillion a year.

This is an interesting estimate given that ‘Of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean, according to a Greenpeace report … Seventy percent of the mass eventually sinks, damaging life on the seabed’ (plastic-pollution.org). So, we’d have to ask what the cost of plastic might be that ends up on land and both in and out of landfills, recycling or incineration/waste to energy facilities.

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/potentially-harmful-effects-of-plastic-on-the-environment-wildlife-humans-health-the-economy/

2. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-in-the-ocean-faq-guide/

3. https://www.ptonline.com/articles/lets-talk-about-the-economy

4. https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2016/new-plastics-economy-thriving-plastic-world/56486

5. http://plastic-pollution.org/

6. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

7. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/09/24/plastic-pollution-affects-sea-life-throughout-the-ocean

8. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-pollution-is-killing-sea-turtles-heres-how#gs.1cb4lv

9. http://oceancrusaders.org/plastic-crusades/plastic-statistics/

10. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-in-our-oceans-is-killing-marine-mammals#gs.1cbbig

11. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/marine-animals-are-dying-because-of-our-plastic-trash/

How Long Plastic Takes To Break Down & Degrade (In Landfills, In The Ocean & The Environment)

How Long Plastic Takes To Break Down & Degrade (In Landfills, In The Ocean & The Environment)

Different types of plastic, and different plastic items and products can take different lengths of time to break down and degrade.

The conditions in which plastic are subject to can also have some bearing on this amount of time.

In this guide, we outline the different plastic types and products, and how long they might take to break down in different conditions.

 

Summary – Plastic, Breaking Down, & Degradation

  • Only some plastics are designed to break down as waste
  • Many plastics are non-degradable – which explains why some plastics made decades ago still exist as plastic waste today
  • If plastics don’t degrade, they simply break down into smaller and smaller plastic particles like micro and nano plastics (which can be ingested by wildlife amongst other things). That, or bigger bits of plastic are ingested by wildlife, or entangle them
  • Plastics usually break down in either landfills, or the ocean (or other land or water based sources)
  • The conditions of the area that plastic waste resides in determines how, and how quickly it might break down
  • The ocean’s unique conditions though mean that plastics usually break down quicker here than when in landfill (where there may be a lack of light and physical weathering for example) – although some sources contradict this
  • UV (from the Sun) and physical weathering (from water, physical objects, and so on) are key factors that break plastic down 
  • There are more recent and developing plastics such as bio plastics that can break down quicker than petroleum based plastics under the right conditions

* The numbers in the guide below are estimates.

 

How Different Plastics Break Down

We can see that different plastics and different conditions impact how plastics break down:

  • [most fossil fuel based plastic does not biodegrade like organic matter i.e. it does not break down via bacteria]
  • [most fossil fuel based plastics break down via photodegradation]
  • [however, there are two more common types of biodegradable plastic out at the moment -] plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastic and petroleum-based oxo-biodegradable plastic
  • polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic made from corn … decomposes into water and carbon dioxide in 47 to 90 days — four times faster than a PET-based bag floating in the ocean. But conditions have to be just right to achieve these kinds of results. PLA breaks down most efficiently in commercial composting facilities at high temperatures. When buried in a landfill, a plastic bag made from corn may remain intact just as long as a plastic bag made from oil or natural gas.

– science.howstuffworks.com

Note the difference between the phrase ‘degrade’ which means to simply break down, and ‘biodegrade’, which more commonly refers to the break down of material organically or naturally.

 

Reasons For The Break Down Or Degradation Of Plastic

  • The type of plastic or plastic product impact the rate of degradation
  • Consistent mechanical abrasion
  • Materials can slowly break down through photodegradation [through exposure to UV radiation] (ourworldindata.org). This breaks the bonds in the plastic material (science.howstuffworks.com)
  • Saline environments
  • Cool or warm environments [warm ocean water can speed up the break down of plastic – science.howstuffworks.com]
  • Rain and other environmental conditions

 

Ocean vs Landfill Break Down Rates

Ourworldindata.org suggests that the marine environment has factors which lead to quicker breakdown of plastic:

  • It’s important to note that within the marine environment, plastics can more readily break down into smaller particles: exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and consistent mechanical abrasion from wave action can cause larger particles to break down.

 

Wikipedia.org has some conflicting information on ocean break down rates:

  • 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

 

How Long Plastic Takes To Break Down & Degrade In Landfills

The rate of decomposition can be dependent on landfill conditions – each landfill can have different conditions. 

  • Normally, plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills.
  • … plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10-1000 years to decompose
  • … plastic bottles can take 450 years or more
  • … disposable diapers take approximately 250-500 years to decompose in landfills
  • Foamed Plastic Cups [can take up to] 50 years

– thebalancesmb.com

 

How Long Plastic Takes To Break Down In The Ocean, Or The Environment

The average estimated decomposition times of typical [plastic] marine debris items [are]:

  • Fishing line – 600 years
  • Disposable diaper – 450 years
  • Plastic bottle – 450 years
  • Plastic beverage holder (6 rings) – 400 years
  • Foamed buoy – 50 years
  • Styrofoam cup – 50 years
  • Plastic bag – 20 years

– ourworldindata.org

 

The lifecycle of plastics in the ocean are:

  • Plastic toothbrush – 500 years
  • Disposable diaper (need to be exposed to oxygen and sunlight in order to decompose, and they don’t decompose well in landfill) – 500 years
  • Coffee pod – 500 years 
  • Plastic cup – 450 years
  • Plastic water bottle – 450 years
  • 6 pack plastic rings – 400 years
  • Plastic straw – 200 years
  • Coffee cup (plastic liner on the inside) – 30 years
  • Plastic bag – 20 years

– wwf.org.au

 

Estimated time taken to biodegrade (in years):

  • Fishing line – 600 years
  • 6 pack beer holder – 450 years 
  • Plastic bottles – 450 years
  • Nappy – 450 years
  • Straw – 200 years
  • Foamed plastic cup – 50 years

– telegraph.co.uk (citing NOAA/Woods Hole Sea Grant)

 

How Long Plastic Bags Take To Break Down

From the above estimates, anywhere from 20 years in the ocean, up to 1000 years in landfill.

 

How Long Plastic Bottles Take To Break Down

From the above estimates, 450 years.

 

How Long Plastic Straws Take To Break Down

From the above estimates, 200 years.

 

Sources

1. https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics#how-long-does-it-take-plastics-to-break-down

2. https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033

3. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics#gs.1mtftu

4. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/10/stark-truth-long-plastic-footprint-will-last-planet/

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic#Decomposition_of_plastics

6. https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm

7. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic (On The Environment, Wildlife/Animals, Humans & Health, & The Economy)

Potentially Harmful Effects Of The Use Of Plastic (On The Environment, Wildlife/Animals, Humans & Health, & The Economy)

There’s many ways plastic has the potential to negatively affect society.

In this guide we outline how plastic may affect the environment and ecosystems, wildlife, humans and human health, natural resources, and the economy.

 

Summary – List Of 21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic

  • Human health concerns from BPA in plastic
  • Human health concerns from phthalates in plastic
  • PVC plastic can be uniquely toxic or harmful
  • Plastic can leach and release other chemicals (other than BPA and phthalates)
  • Humans ingesting microplastics
  • Microplastics and microbeads in the ocean, environment and ecosystems
  • Plastics take a long time to break down usually – increases time over which plastic has the potential to do harm
  • Plastic recycling can have problems and inefficiencies
  • Plastic in landfills can have problems
  • Incineration, burning, and waste to energy of plastic can have problems
  • Wildlife/animals ingesting plastic
  • Wildlife/animals entanglement in plastic
  • Environmental interaction with plastic
  • Plastic uses oil and other fossil fuels in production – fossil fuels require mining, fracking and other extraction techniques
  • Fossil fuels are a potentially finite resource
  • Fossil fuels require refining, and the plastic production process uses energy and other resources, and produces waste
  • It costs money to clean up plastic in the ocean and environment, and to address plastic pollution/waste
  • Plastic pollution and waste can cause lost money in other industries and other areas of society and the economy
  • Plastic can degrade natural resources via leaching
  • Plastic can attract other chemicals and toxins, build up, and transport them around
  • Plastic may be responsible for more greenhouse gases than first thought

 

1. Human Health Concerns From BPA In Plastics

BPA is Bisphenol A.

There’s many studies on BPA and it’s various potential impacts.

Some studies say it is safer in low levels, whilst other studies outline it’s potential impact on babies/infants and young children. It may also mimic estrogen and other hormones in the body of adults, as well as have other health effects on the human body.

There can be some debate about the current level of exposure and absorption of BPA by wider society. Some sources even say that it leaches into various food and water supplies, and humans are widely exposed to it, even though some official organisations and bodies say otherwise.

It can be found most commonly in polycarbonate plastics made into consumer goods, drink and food containers and storage products, and as an epoxy resin used to coat the inside of various objects and products. 

Read more about BPA and plastics at:

  • https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/221205.php
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bpa/faq-20058331
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A

These resources may also help you identify BPA in plastic products:

  • https://sciencestruck.com/how-to-identify-whether-plastic-is-bpa-free-or-not
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resin_identification_code
  • https://www.greenmatters.com/renewables/2018/09/13/ZG59GA/plastic-recycling-numbers-resin-codes
  • https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/promo-university/different-types-of-plastic.htm

 

On BPA and it’s potential impact on humans:

  • Though there is growing evidence that BPA can cause harm to humans, experts are not certain how exactly BPA affects the body, nor do they know the levels at which the chemical becomes harmful (livescience.com)

So, there can be some uncertainty with BPA that it looks like we need further clarification from in the future from more study and research.

 

2. Human Health Concerns From Phthalates In Plastics

Phthalates are substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. They are mainly used to soften PVC type plastic, and are referred to as plasticizers. 

High phthalates are commonly used in a lot of different types of building and construction material, while low phthalates are used in different types of consumer products like medical devices, general purpose PVC, adhesives, inks, and cosmetics.

PVC plastics are typically used for various containers and hard packaging, medical tubing, and bags, and are labelled “Type 3” for recycling reasons. PETE type plastic does not use phthalates as plasticizers (wikipedia.org).

One of the claimed main health effects of phthalates is as an endocrine disruptor, but there are other claimed health effects too.

Some studies and reports say that phthalates are not able to easily migrate out of the product they are added to and pose a very low level risk to humans because exposure is very low (via chemicalsafetyfacts.org), whilst others say they can easily leach out and be absorbed by humans in various ways, and there is ‘widespread general population exposure’ (niehs.nih.gov). So, there is is debate as to the level of exposure humans are currently subject to in society.

Some sources suggest low phthalates should be replaced with high phthalates, whilst others say phthalates should be replaced by non-phthalate plasticizers (wikipedia.org)

Read more about phthalates in plastics at:

  • https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/phthalates/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phthalate#Identification_in_plastics
  • https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/what-are-phthalates#1
  • https://silentspring.org/news/fresh-food-diet-reduces-levels-hormone-disruptors-bpa-and-dehp
  • https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/phthalates
  • https://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/reports/vinyl-floor-tiles/flooring_phthalate_hazards

Some resources on potential ways to avoid phthalates in plastics:

  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/phthalates-health_b_2464248?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABgJeg0NrktdKTX1WhtkwouqhrwH7y1-H-A51N0Ntrr6Ggw6_jdnO_5YNNrgoOpFN2SQj1pjAttOWzwZdSaMTteTXBILvhEfMa6HOJA_WDvjZ6ThaSAZ0myVlMBCCoqQfySEfillXHHyKvizL3N762ZlJwYXD4RQnenC9D7uQb-N
  • https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/assets/docs/j_q/phthalates_the_everywhere_chemical_handout_508.pdf

 

3. PVC Plastic Can Be Uniquely Toxic Or Harmful

PVC specifically as a plastic type (read about the other plastic types in this guide), can present unique risks compared to other types of plastic. PVC can be usefully modified by chlorination, and CPVC (chlorinated PVC) can also present risks.

PVC is used in many products such as children’s toys, pipes, electrical cables, construction products, signs, clothing, health products, flooring, and wire rope.

Health and safety risks from PVC might include cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption. Risks might arise from the production of PVC, degradation and the accumulation of pollutants on microplastics, the use of plasticizers, the use of lead, the use of vinyl chloride, the release of dioxides when PVC is burnt/combusted, and other activities and factors.

There’s debate over just how much risk PVC might present.

Greenpeace for example says ‘PVC is the most environmentally damaging plastic. The PVC lifecycle — its production, use, and disposal — results in the release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals. These toxins are building up in the water, air and food chain.’

Thefifthestate.com.au also writes: “100 per cent of the PVC supply chain globally depends on “at least one form of toxic technology” including mercury cells, diaphragms coated with asbestos, or membranes coated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)”

But, other sources suggest the PVC is safe as used in society today.

Consider this from vinyl.org.au about the disposal of PVC in landfill and when sent to incinerators:

  • “There is no evidence that PVC products, consisting of resin, additives and other materials, contribute to the toxicity of leachate in landfill”
  • “PVC in the waste stream of properly operated incinerators has negligible effect on the amount of dioxin emissions.”

Read more about PVC plastic and health risks in these resources:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvinyl_chloride#Health_and_safety
  • https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Global/usa/report/2009/4/pvc-the-poison-plastic.html
  • https://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/the-vinyl-debate
  • https://www.state.nj.us/humanservices/opmrdd/health/pvc.html
  • https://www.ecowatch.com/why-you-should-avoid-pvc-products-1881927242.html

Read about how you might identify PVC in products in this resource:

  • https://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/the-vinyl-debate (PVC plastics are number 3 recyclables, so if you’re wondering whether one of your products contains vinyl, look for a “3” somewhere on the product or packaging)

 

4. Plastic Can Leach & Release Other Chemicals (Other Than BPA & Phthalates)

You’ll see many resources mention that different plastic types can ‘leach’ harmful chemicals into the environment, and food and water supplies, which can end up being exposed to animals and humans.

This leaching might be referred to as the toxicity of plastic. 

Wikipedia.org mentions ‘Pure plastics have low toxicity due to their insolubility in water and because they are biochemically inert, due to a large molecular weight … [But] Plastic products contain a variety of additives, some of which can be toxic … Traces of these compounds can leach out of the product … Whereas the finished plastic may be non-toxic, the monomers used in the manufacture of the parent polymers may be toxic. In some cases, small amounts of those chemicals can remain trapped in the product unless suitable processing is employed.’ Typical additives plastics use are stabilizers, fillers and plasticizers. 

Sciencedaily.com mentions ‘The plastic polymers are not regarded as toxic, but there may be toxic residual chemicals, chemical additives and degradation products in the plastic products that can leach out as they are not bound to the plastic polymer.’

It doesn’t help that some sources say that the regulation around chemicals in food containers is weak (vox.com).

It’s worth noting that even though there are studies that confirm plastics can release toxins or mimic hormones, there is also debate over the causal relationship between plastics and human health problems. This is for a range of reasons including but not limited to – the studies have mostly been in relation to animals, and it’s hard to design tests to understand the effects of individual chemicals in plastics.

Read more about what you can do to limit your exposure to plastic leaching at:

  • https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/9/11/17614540/plastic-food-containers-contamination-health-risks

Read more about plastic leaching studies at:

  • https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/9/11/17614540/plastic-food-containers-contamination-health-risks
  • https://www.npr.org/2011/03/02/134196209/study-most-plastics-leach-hormone-like-chemicals
  • https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110516181337.htm
  • http://www.biomasspackaging.com/the-harmful-effects-of-bpa-and-plastic/

 

5. Humans Ingesting & Inhaling Microplastics

Microplastic are some of the smallest sizes of plastic (tiny pieces ranging from 5 millimetres down to 100 nanometres in diameter) – they occur from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic.

Microplastics end up almost everywhere – in the water, air, food and drink supplies, and eventually in human stomachs.

Different studies indicate humans ingest different amounts of microplastics at different rates, ranging from:

  • 203 and 312 bits of plastic every day, and 98,000 to 121,000 bits of plastic every year (businessinsider.com.au)
  • [humans might be] consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year. With added estimates of how much microplastic might be inhaled, that number is more than 74,000. (nationalgeographic.com)
  • People across the world unwittingly consume roughly 5 grams of plastic each week in the course of daily life, or about the weight of a credit card, according to Australian researchers. That’s about 250 grams per year—more than a half-pound of plastic every 12 months. … over the course of seven days, the average person consumes 2,000 tiny plastic particles and fibers, 1,769 of which come from drinking water alone. (qz.com)
  • Over the course of a meal, you’re most likely consuming around 100 bits of microplastic and, over the course of a year, closer to 70,000 pieces. (globalcitizen.org)

Some sources indicate bottled water drinkers consume far more microplastics than tap drinkers (businessinsider.com.au)

There’s also studies that report on humans inhaling microplastics in addition to ingesting them (from accuweather.com):

  • Although recent studies have shown that microplastics have been found in our bottled and tap water, additional research now reveals that the majority of microplastics in our bodies comes from the air we inhale each day
  • The fragmentation through friction, heat or light of plastic objects found indoors can introduce microplastics into the air inside
  • Research shows that most of the microplastics found in the air indoors comes from plastic fibers released from synthetic clothes as well as textiles used in furniture

It’s not 100% clear what impact microplastics in particular have on human health (it doesn’t look like there is enough clear evidence to tell), but there are indications of what plastic can do to human health from studies on BPA, phthalates, additives etc. Also, some evidence indicates microplastics hurt sea life and slow down growth and reproduction rates in fish (businessinsider.com.au)

More resources on microplastics can be read at:

  • https://www.businessinsider.com.au/eating-microplastic-potential-health-effects-2019-6?r=US&IR=T
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/you-eat-thousands-of-bits-of-plastic-every-year/
  • https://qz.com/1644802/you-eat-5-grams-of-plastic-per-week/
  • https://theconversation.com/youre-eating-microplastics-in-ways-you-dont-even-realise-97649 (how much microplastics different foods might contain)
  • https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/microplastics-in-food-eating-plastic-waste/

 

6. Microplastics (& Microbeads) In The Ocean, Environment & Ecosystems

Plastic ends up in the ocean via a variety of ways.

Larger plastic floats on the surface of the water, where it starts to degrade and break up into smaller microplastic.

Microplastic can sink to the deeper sea, but can also be carried around by ocean currents, or eaten and transported and excreted around the sea by small marine organisms and marine life.

Microbeads can also end up in the ocean from personal care products.

Micro plastics in the environment leads to other problems like ingestion by wildlife, and plastic accumulating organic pollutants and toxic substances.

Read more about microplastics and microbeads in these guides:

  • https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2016/04/04/pesky-plastic-the-true-harm-of-microplastics-in-the-oceans/
  • https://www.greenbiz.com/article/how-microplastic-particles-are-turning-oceans-plastic-soup
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/microplastics-spread-throughout-deep-sea-monterey-canyon/
  • https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/12/microplastic-pollution-in-oceans-is-far-greater-than-thought-say-scientists

 

7. Plastic Takes A Long Time To Break Down – Increases Time Over Which Plastic Can Do Harm

Different types of plastic waste take different amounts of time to decompose in the environment, or in disposal sites like landfill.

For example, in landfill, a plastic bottle may take 450 years, and 10-1000 years for a plastic bag (thebalancesmb.com)

In the environment, fishing line may take up to 600 years to break down and decompose.

If you consider all of the potential negative effects plastic can have, the longer it is around, the longer it has to do this harm. So, it’s durability is a con in this instance.

Read more about plastic decomposition of different plastic items and products:

  • https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033
  • https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/10/stark-truth-long-plastic-footprint-will-last-planet/
  • https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics#gs.1kf8ln
  • https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics#how-long-does-it-take-plastics-to-break-down

 

8. Plastic Recycling Can Have Problems & Inefficiencies

There can be several problems with recycling plastic, including but not limited to:

  • Not all plastic types and products can be recycled
  • Some plastic types and products can be inefficient to sort and recycle
  • Plastic isn’t always economical or profitable to recycle – especially when oil prices dip
  • There can be contamination and other issues that prevent plastic being recycled
  • A lot of plastic that gets sent to recycling ends up in land fill at this point in time

Read more about some of these issues in these guides:

 

  • Of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced each year globally, only 9% is recycled and the remaining 91% enters the air, land and water as waste

– biobagworld.com.au

 

9. Plastic In Landfill Can Have Problems

As mentioned above in the plastic break down section – plastic takes a long time to decompose in both landfills, and in the environment.

In addition to this, although plastic may not emit methane like organic matter while in landfills, it does have other potential problems.

Plastic in landfill is still at risk of breaking down and letting loose micro plastics, and in developing countries and even middle income countries, bigger bits of plastic can leak from open or uncontained landfill sites.

In addition to this, specific plastic types like PVC may ‘leach chemicals such as additives and plasticiser compounds … if landfills are [not] equipped with adequate liner and leachate treatment’ (ourworldindata.org)

 

10. Incineration, Burning & Waste To Energy Of Plastic Can Have Problems

The burning/incineration of plastic in waste to energy plants may or may not increase greenhouse gas emissions depending on what energy source would have been used in plastic’s place.

Air pollution from the burning of plastic is dependent on the air and environmental controls and technology the incineration plant has in place. Higher income countries tend to have regulations in place and the financing to afford better air pollution control. But, some incineration plants do not, and air contaminants and air pollution can be a problem in this instance.

Ourworldindata.org: ‘The burning of plastics can produce several toxic gases: incomplete combustion of Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP) and Polystyrene (PS) can release carbon monoxide (CO) and noxious emissions, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can produce dioxins’

 

11. Wildlife/Animals Ingesting Plastic

Wildlife can ingest large plastic, and microplastic.

Ingestion of regular plastic can occur unintentionally, intentionally, or indirectly through the ingestion of prey species containing plastic and it has now been documented for at least 233 marine species (ourworldindata.org)

We often see videos of wildlife like sea turtles getting plastic straws trapped in their breathing passages, just as one example.

Aquatic life and birds can mistake smaller plastic like microplastics for food and eat them. 

As mentioned above – some evidence indicates microplastics hurt sea life and slow down growth and reproduction rates in fish (businessinsider.com.au). Other sources indicate they can impact reproduction of filter feeders and oysters (blog.nationalgeographic.org)

Other side effects might include slower metabolic rates, reduced growth and development, and reduced energy storage (ourworldindata.org).

There’s debate about how much microplastic humans ingest from sea food as plastic may be discarded in the digestive system of sea life.

Read more about the impact of plastic on wildlife:

  • https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution (under the ‘impacts on wildlife’ section)

 

12. Wildlife/Animals Entanglement In Plastic

This is ‘The entrapping, encircling or constricting of marine animals by plastic debris’.  Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date (ourworldindata.org).

Commonly, seals, turtles, dolphins, whales, birds and other animals get tangled in fishing lines and other forms of durable tough plastics.

This can lead to restricted movement, cutting off of circulation, skin abrasions, and even death.

 

13. Environmental Interaction With Plastic

Interaction with plastic includes contact with plastic debris that causes damage or harm.

For example, coral reefs and other marine structures and environmental objects may come into contact with fishing gear that is dumped and be damaged.

 

14. Plastic Uses Oil & Other Fossil Fuels In It’s Production – Fossil Fuels Require Mining, Fracking & Other Extraction Techniques

Mining is a necessity in society – there’s no doubt about that.

But, mining also comes with negative side effects.

Plastic uses oil as a main feedstock for it’s production, and oil is a fossil fuel that needs to be mined. Natural gas is also used in the US.

The question may be asked what environmental impact would be at the material sourcing stage if other feedstocks (other than fossil fuels) were used to make different types of plastic, or if substitute materials could be used for different uses of plastic.

 

  • Although crude oil is a source of raw material (feedstock) for making plastics, it is not the major source of feedstock for plastics production in the United States. Plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining.

– eia.gov

 

  • Most plastics are made from petrochemicals, meaning that fossil feedstocks are used in their production. 
  • However, there is a growing interest in the use of biomass as a feedstock and the global bioplastic production reached 2.1 million tonnes in 2018

– bpf.co.uk

 

15. Plastic Uses Fossil Fuels, & Fossil Fuels Are A Potentially Finite Resource

Adding onto the previous point, fossil fuels are seen as a potentially finite resource in that there may only be a limited supply of each left.

Even though plastic only uses a small amount of fossil fuels compared to other industries like energy generation and transport, it still uses fossil fuels.

Some estimates of oil use for plastic production are:

 

  • Estimates vary by source, but tend to converge on a range between 4 to 8 percent of global oil consumption. 6 percent of global oil consumption is taken as the mid-range estimate

– ourworldindata.org

 

  • … 4% of the world’s fossil resources are used in plastics production.
  • In Europe, it is estimated that between 4–6% of oil and gas is used for producing plastics

– bpf.co.uk

 

  • According to estimates, every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic water bottles. 

– thebalancesmb.com

 

16. Fossil Fuels Require Refining, & The Plastic Production Process Uses Energy & Other Resources, & Produces Waste

In addition to the above points, fossil fuels require refining, and the plastic production process uses energy, along with other resources like water. It also produces waste, and can dump waste out into the environment.

If bioplastics or alternative materials can be used in the future, the question can be asked – how much more environmentally friendly would the production process be, and how much more efficient would it be?

 

17. It Costs Money To Clean Up Plastic In The Ocean & Environment, & To Address Plastic Waste/Pollution

There is a cost to clean up and process all the plastic waste that we produce on land, and that gets into the ocean.

Often, it is not an economically feasible exercise. 

Although, some may argue that the benefits of plastic in many industries may outweigh these end of lifecycle clean up and disposal costs.

 

  • it costs more than $5 to gather a kilo of plastic from the ocean, while that same plastic will only be valued at – at best – 30 cents. With about 8 billion kilos (8,000 tonnes) of plastic added to the ocean each year, the costs – and losses – involved are huge

– theconversation.com

 

  • It’s estimated that Americans use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps a year. Nationwide, litter clean up efforts amount to as much as $11 billion per year.  Even though not all of that is from disposable bags, it costs 30 cents to clean up each piece of litter out of our cities, streets, and roadsides.

– bagatatime.com

 

  • The Ocean Cleanup … can collect about five tons of ocean plastic per month
  • The total cost of System 001 is about 21 million euros ($24.6 million U.S.)

– forbes.com

 

18. Plastic Pollution & Waste Can Cause Lost Money In Other Industries & Other Areas Of Society & The Economy 

In a general sense, polluted areas of land and the ocean can impact other industries like tourism. This is particularly problematic in lower income countries where individuals may depend on tourism for their livelihood.

Other ways plastic waste impacts society and the economy are:

 

  • [plastic] has a wider and harder to quantify economic impact on lost marine life or reduced beach and water quality … These damages, estimated at US$1.25 billion annually, imply that recovering marine plastics is worthwhile. But … research suggests that it might not be financially viable to do so.
  • Plastic causes $13 in damages per kilogram per year

– theconversation.com

 

  • According to a study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, plastic pollution in the ocean costs society up to $2.5 trillion a year.

– waste360.com

 

  • Plastic waste is also believed to cost up to $33,000 per ton in reduced environmental value

– theguardian.com

 

The real costs of plastic to our economy:

  • Plastics finding their way into the world’s oceans costs approximately AUD$17.3 billion per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems.
  • Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was AUD$1.6 billion in our region alone.
  • Local authorities have to bear the cost of cleaning up plastic litter from beaches, maintaining litter traps and bins etc. The cost on local government to manage litter in NSW is a staggering $132 million per annum.
  • The total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry is estimated to be more than AUD$99 billion per year. Natural capital is the term used to describe the renewable and non-renewable natural resources that companies rely on to produce goods and deliver services. 

– biobagworld.com.au

 

19. Plastic Can Leach Chemicals, & Degrade Natural Resources

We mentioned above plastic’s potential to leach different types of chemicals.

This can come from general plastics, or from specific types of plastic like PVC.

Going one step further – plastic leaching can impact natural resources such as soil, water and air.

As one example, a landfill site without an adequate lining or leachate management system may allow leachate (of which plastic like PVC has contributed to) to contaminate clean soil and water resources

 

20. Plastic Can Attract Other Chemicals & Toxins, Build Up, & Transport Them Around 

Plastic as material has the potential as it breaks down to get other pollutants and and toxins stuck to it.

The effect of this is that one piece of plastic can continually pick up more pollutants and toxins already in different parts of the environment and carry them or transport them around. This is especially illustrated in the case of plastic that might start in an uncontained or open landfill site, that leaks into a river, gets carried from inland to the coast, and ends up in the ocean.

 

  • [degradation of plastics leads to microplastic particles that] act like sponges and soak up persistent organic pollutants (POPs) around them
  • [and] some plastics accumulate more pollutants than others

– wikipedia.org

 

21. Plastic May Be Responsible For More Greenhouse Gases Than First Thought

New studies are coming out on the impact plastic is having on greenhouse gas emissions.

Whilst contributions are estimated to be small right now, they may grow as our plastic use increases.

 

  • [plastic, as it is exposed to light] releases methane and ethylene — two of the most problematic greenhouse gases
  • Though the gases from degrading plastic probably account for a small percentage of global emissions, it’s likely their contributions will grow

– livescience.com

 

  • Newly published research calculates that across their lifecycle, plastics account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s almost double the emissions of the aviation sector.

– theconversation.com

 

A Few Other Notes On The Potential Negative Impact Of Plastic

  • Different plastic items and plastic types can’t be generalised in the same way as just ‘plastic’ – we must talk about the type of plastic or plastic item, and outline exactly what it does – because each plastic items and type of plastic has different potential impacts in different situations
  • Consider the benefits in addition to the negative of plastic too – burn for energy, can reduce fuel and oil consumption elsewhere as well as emissions (in transport – 80% of a product’s energy consumption comes after the production and manufacturing phase), can reduce energy use and GHGs compared to plastic alternatives (bpf.co.uk). This is just some of the potential benefits. Plastic in reality helps us do many things in society to provide us a livelihood, keep us safe, keep us healthy, and so on.

 

Sources

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3. https://www.bpf.co.uk/press/oil_consumption.aspx

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11. https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/phthalates/

12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phthalate#Identification_in_plastics

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48. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-recycling-economical-and-profitable/

49. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

50. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/mining-negative-effects-problems-environment-animals-humans-solutions/

51. https://theconversation.com/ocean-cleanup-wont-turn-a-profit-but-we-should-still-do-it-104097

52. https://1bagatatime.com/learn/plastic-bag-clean-costs/

53. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffkart/2018/08/28/the-ocean-cleanup-is-starting-aims-to-cut-garbage-patch-by-90-by-2040/#79a8ba8c253e

54. https://www.waste360.com/plastics/study-puts-economic-social-cost-ocean-plastic-pollution

55. https://biobagworld.com.au/reduce-plastic-pollution/real-costs-of-plastic-to-our-health-and-economy/

56. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/apr/04/marine-plastic-pollution-costs-the-world-up-to-25bn-a-year-researchers-find

57. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvinyl_chloride#Health_and_safety

58. https://www.livescience.com/63274-plastics-release-greenhouse-gases.html

59. https://theconversation.com/plastic-warms-the-planet-twice-as-much-as-aviation-heres-how-to-make-it-climate-friendly-116376

60. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/ways-in-which-plastic-benefits-society-the-environment-the-economy/

61. https://www.livescience.com/63592-bpa-free-plastic-dangers.html

62. https://vinyl.org.au/pvc-waste/incineration

63. https://vinyl.org.au/pvc-waste/pvc-in-landfill

64. https://www.thefifthestate.com.au/innovation/materials/pvc-manufacturing-how-toxic-really-is-it-and-what-can-be-done/

65. https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/most-of-the-indoor-air-we-breathe-is-polluted-with-microplastic-particles-research-shows/70005341

Is This The Most Effective Way To Solve & Stop/Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution?

Is This The Most Effective Way To Solve & Stop/Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution?

Worldwide, there’s many different types of initiatives aimed at addressing the ocean plastic pollution problem.

But, if you look at the stats and causes/sources, there might be a clear solution we need to focus on above others.

In this guide, we outline what might be the most effective way to address the ocean plastic pollution issue.

 

Summary – Most Effective Way To Stop Ocean Plastic Pollution

  • More effective waste management systems across the world could decrease the risk of  mismanaged plastic entering the ocean by up to 80%
  • Focussing on reducing marine waste like fishing equipment and gear could also help

 

Are Beach Pickups & Cleanups Effective?

Technically, beach pickups and clean ups address plastic waste on beaches, not in the ocean – so, you could argue we need to address both.

As an overview …

Beach cleanups certainly do help – no one is disputing that.

If you look at the report figures from any of the beach cleanup organisations worldwide, they are definitely able to clean up and remove a range of plastic waste items from beaches and shorelines. For example, you can see OceanConservancy.org’s 2018 report at https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/annual-data-release/. There, they list the top 10 items collected, and the numbers behind each.

Beach waste and rubbish may come from littered plastic, and littered plastic has a ‘rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries’ (ourworldindata.org). China for example produced 59.08 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2010, and littering rates may have been roughly 2% of that.

But, beach pickups and cleanups may not be the most effective  

 

Should We Focus On Reducing Plastic Straws?

From Ourworldindata.org:

  • It’s estimated that if all straws around the world’s coastlines were lost to the ocean, this would account for approximately 0.03 percent of ocean plastics. A global ban on their use could therefore achieve a maximum of a 0.03 percent reduction

So, we can see that addressing straws in particular doesn’t have a big impact from a quantity of plastic waste perspective.

Something to note though is that it’s not clear what the impact of plastic straws are on wildlife compared to other plastic items – so, it could be that straws aren’t big in quantity, but can do more damage in some ways. Impact of the individual plastic items isn’t something we have data on yet.

 

The Most Effective Way To Address Ocean Plastic Pollution Might Be … Upgrading Waste Management Systems Globally That Inadequately Dispose Of Plastic

Expanding on the above numbers of plastic straws, Ourworldindata.org writes:

  • With effective waste management systems across the world, mismanaged plastics at risk of entering the ocean could decline by more than 80 percent. If we focus all of our energy on contributions of negligible size [like plastic straws], we risk diverting our focus away from the large-scale contributions we need

So, effective waste management systems for mismanaged plastics could be the key (penalties for littering, more public general trash and recycling bins, better contained and closed off and secure landfills, better waste collection services, better waste infrastructure, and so on).

Mismanaged plastics are the sum of littered plastics, and inadequately disposed of plastics.

Definitions of each are:

  • Littered Waste – plastics that are dumped or disposed of without consent in an inappropriate location (Ourworldindata.org)
  • Inadequately Disposed Waste is that which has the intention of being managed through waste collection or storage sites, but is ultimately not formally or sufficiently managed. This includes disposal in dumps or open, uncontrolled landfills; this means the material is not fully contained and can be lost to the surrounding environment. This makes it at risk of leakage and transport to the natural environment and oceans via waterways, winds and tides. (Ourworldindata.org)

Specifically, we might focus on the regions and countries in the world that are responsible for the most littered, inadequately disposed of, and overall mismanaged plastic waste (via Ourworldindata.org):

  • Littered Plastic Waste – across all countries, there’s an average littering rate of 2% 
  • Inadequately Disposed Of Waste – low to middle income countries tend to be responsible for more inadequately disposed of waste, whilst high income countries are less responsible
  • Mismanaged Plastic – East Asia and the Pacific region is responsible for the most  mismanaged plastic waste

We can dive into these solutions even deeper – we will be writing a guide shortly about the full list of solutions for plastic waste shortly and relating it back to these sources of plastic waste.

 

Another Good Solution Might Be Greater Focus On The Dumping Of Fishing Equipment & Gear (Marine Based Plastic Waste Sources)

Per Ourworldindata.org:

  • … other sources of plastic pollution — such as discards of fishing nets and lines (which contributed to more than half of plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) receive significantly less attention [than plastic items like straws]

So, in addition to more effective waste management systems, we could look at ways to reduce fishing equipment and gear dumping to reduce plastic waste entering the ocean.

Marine waste makes up (overall), an estimated 20-30% of ocean plastic waste compared to land based plastic waste.

Maritime-executive.com has some interesting potential solutions for this, which you can view at https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/five-ways-to-tackle-ghost-fishing-gear

 

Sources

1. https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

2. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]

3. https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/annual-data-release/

4. https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/five-ways-to-tackle-ghost-fishing-gear

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/plastic-in-the-ocean-faq-guide/