Alternatives To Plastic: Complete Guide

Alternatives To Plastic

This is a guide outlining the alternatives to plastic as a material, and the alternatives to different plastic products and items.

 

Alternative Materials To Plastic

Alternative materials to plastic can be completely different materials to plastic, or they can be modified types of plastic. 

The material used depends on the application or activity the material has to be used for.

Some examples include:

Just because a material is a plastic alternative, it doesn’t mean it’s better from a sustainability or eco stand point.

An assessment of the lifecycle of the material needs to be done (from sourcing and production, all the way through to end of use and waste management/re-use).

In addition to the materials above, two eco friendly options and alternatives to plastic may be:

  • No Material/Zero Waste – people often think they always have to replace plastic with something. Although, for some things, no material at all needs to be used. For example, people may choose to buy fruit and vegetables that come without plastic packaging. A banana is a good example of this – it comes with it’s own natural packaging i.e. the banana peel.
  • Second Hand & Re-Used Materials – rather than buying a new bag, some people choose to buy a second hand bag from a thrift store, or make their own bag out of waste materials.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Bags

The most common plastic bag is perhaps the shopping bag:

  • Shopping Bags – alternative plastic shopping bags can be made of jute/hessian, cotton, hemp, and other natural fibres.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Packaging

Plastic packaging comes in many forms and types, and is used for many different applications:

  • Wrap Packaging – regular paper is sometimes used for food wrapping. Bees wax wrap is sometimes used for food wraps too.
  • Tray Packaging – recycled cardboard trays are replacing plastic trays in some supermarkets (Woolworths in Australia is one example of this).
  • Containers & Storage Packaging – paper bags, with plant based bag liners and tin ties can be used of plastic packaging to transport and deliver goods. One example of this is thesourcebulkfoods.com.au: “Products for delivery are packed in biodegradable and compostable unbleached Eco paper bags made from sustainably sourced materials. The bags are lined with a 100% plant based film (PLA) which is made from natural starch derived from plants such as corn and sugar cane. … [the] product bags have a tin-tie close, so no sticky tape is needed to seal the bags. The bags can be re-used for lunch boxes or storage before final compost. To compost the bags remove the tin tie first. You can reuse the tin-tie in the kitchen.”

Also note, different plastic packaging can be used at various stages of the product lifecycle – for example, the transport/delivery stage, and the in-store stage.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Bottles

Alternatives to plastic bottles most commonly include metal/steel re-usable drink bottles, and glass beverage bottles.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Wrap

As mentioned above, regular paper can be used as a wrap.

But, bees wax food wrap is also used as another example.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Bin Bags & Bin Liners

A few alternatives (that may be used in conjunction with each other) to plastic bin liners and plastic bin bags are:

  • Set up a compost bin for compostable waste
  • Consider using paper as a bin liners for dry waste
  • Use no bin liner, individually wrap wet waste in paper, and empty bin directly into kerbside collection bin
  • Use a fully biodegradable and compostable bin liner made from bioplastic or something similar

Some people also choose to start changing the things they buy so that they buy more compostable and recyclable items, so they have less reliance on plastic bin liners and general waste.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Cups

People use metal cups, ceramic cups, and glass cups.

These types of cups are often reusable.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Straws

Paper straws and metal straws are used as alternatives – both with their own pros and cons.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Cutlery

Metal cutlery is a common alternative to plastic cutlery.

 

Alternatives To Plastic Sandwich Bags

Bees wax food wrap is a common alternative to plastic sandwich bags.

But also, some people use washable and re-usable glass or metal food containers with a sealable plastic cover/lid.

 

Biodegradable, Eco Friendly, & Sustainable Alternatives To Plastic

Not all alternatives to plastic are biodegradable, eco friendly or sustainable.

Zero waste or zero new materials is usually the best option, followed by something that is reusable or secondhand, followed by something that is disposable but eco friendly or sustainable (usually natural products and resources with minimal additives, that replenish quickly, with minimal resource input, and break down naturally or can be re-used – or something similar along those lines).

Some notes:

  • Biodegradable – Biodegradable labels can mean different things. If something is labelled as biodegradable, you want to look at what it is made of, and look at what conditions it is biodegradable under. The same applies to compostable. Commercial landfill conditions might not match the conditions an item is designed to be biodegradable under.
  • Eco Friendly – can mean anything. To get a real gauge if something is eco friendly, a full lifecycle assessment needs to be carried out. Just as one example, plastic is actually more eco friendly in some ways at some stages of the product or material life cycle than materials like glass or metal. One example of this is the weight of plastic (which is very light) and how flexible and durable it is (which allows more of it to be packed onto transport vehicles) – this can lead to less fuel being used, more product being transported with the same vehicle, less greenhouse gas emissions, less energy and resources used in production, and so on. So, you really have to dig down and get detailed and specific for a true eco friendly assessment.
  • Sustainability – can mean a range of things. You have to define what you mean by sustainable (what factor are you measuring it by … sustainable use of energy, water, land, emissions, raw materials, or something else like sustainable in terms of waste management and contributing to a circular economy?)

Also note, practicality and feasibility has to be considered.

There’s no use using a plastic alternative if it’s going to make something unsafe (especially with food or in the medical/health field), or lead to huge inefficiency (like for example when it comes to waste management, recycling, the use of virgin materials vs trying to make use existing materials, and so on).

In some instances too, there may just not be a suitable plastic alternative for some applications and activities.

 

Sources

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

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

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

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-eco-friendly-sustainable-animal-friendly-fibres-fabrics/

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

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic

7. https://www.woolworths.com.au/shop/discover/sustainability/recycling

8. https://thesourcebulkfoods.com.au/shipping/

Solutions To Plastic Problems: How To Solve Plastic Pollution, & How To Manage Plastic In Society In The Future

Solutions To Plastic Problems: How To Solve Plastic Pollution, & How To Manage Plastic In Society In The Future

This is a ‘catch all’ guide that outlines key problems with plastic and plastic pollution in society, and potential solutions to solve them and manage them into the future.

We are aware some problems can’t be ‘solved’ completely – so, this guide can also be viewed as a starting point for discussion for managing plastic problems in a better way.

The way we have structured the guide is:

  • General Solutions To Plastic Problems
  • Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems
  • Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems
  • Solutions To The 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic

 

Summary – Solutions To Plastic Problems

  • Solutions to plastic problems center around the production, use, waste, disposal and waste management, and pollution involving plastic 
  • Some solutions are very simple, whilst some solutions are going to take a multi layered approach by individual and consumers, businesses/producers and innovators, and government/policy makers. It’s also clear that we need much clearer and more comprehensive research and study done on some potential issues and existing issues to understand them and gain better certainty on them (e.g. the real impact of BPA, phthalates and microplastics on human health) 
  • In solving plastic problems, the pros and cons of plastic should be weighed up against each other, and considerations should span across social and human health, economic, environmental and wildlife, and technological and practical. Although plastic creates some problems, it also serves various important uses across society, and benefits us in various ways. So, we must consider how the choices we make impact these pros and cons, and benefits and drawbacks

NOTE: there are solutions that will essentially help solve a wide range of, or most of the plastic problems listed. These include reducing plastic consumption and production (at least of single use or short use types of plastic like plastic packaging, or commonly highly disposable plastic items), re-using and repurposing plastic, re-designing plastic material itself (or creating new types of non harmful plastic), re-designing plastic packaging and plastic products (for better recycling for example), and using alternate materials to plastic. To avoid repetition, we have not listed these solutions under all problems below, even though they are often relevant to each. 

 

General Solutions To Plastic Problems

As mentioned above, some of the general solutions to plastic issues we face in society might be:

  • Invest in much clearer, more transparent, and more definitive research, study and data on the plastic issues. There is still significant uncertainty around the actual risk (to human health) of BPA, phthalates, and plastic additives at the current levels of exposure in society. There is still uncertainty around the toxicity and problems with certain types of highly chlorinated PVC plastic. There is still a lack of data plastic pollution on land. There is still uncertainty of what impact micro plastics and nano plastics might be having on humans. These are just four examples, but there are more. Without clearer data and more definitive findings, it’s hard to justify spending time and money on addressing specific plastic problems, and focussing in on specific causes of these problems.
  • Get some real certainty on the types of plastic, and types of plastic products or plastic items that are causing the most issues, and doing the most significant damage or harm. When and how are they causing problems, and for who (humans? wildlife? the air, water and soil in the environment? the economy?)? What is the exact impact of effect of these plastics?
  • Distinguish between plastics that are necessary for critical functions and important priorities in society (plastics that preserve safety and hygiene, plastics that prevent food waste etc.), and problem plastics (toxic plastics, plastics that have high waste rates, unnecessary or easily substitutable plastics etc). First, aggressively address how we can manage problem plastics.
  • Some plastics have far more significant pros than cons. When planning or pursuing solutions to plastic problems – consider what the drawback to these choices will be. For example, plastics that don’t have a high waste rate, or make things far safer, more economical, eco friendly etc. for us – may not be reduced or phased out as quickly as other plastics.
  • Consider that many plastics are actually very beneficial at the transport and pre consumer phase in a lot of ways (plastics are lighter, more affordable, more flexible, more durable, and more eco friendly to produce and use than some alternate materials). Disposal of plastic and plastic pollution are where some of the major problems arise – so, consider the stage of the plastic lifecycle that is most problematic and see where solutions may be available at these stages.
  • Reduce the use of plastics overall (by individuals, businesses and commercial and industrial organisations) – which will have a flow on effect of decreasing the per capita rate of plastic production, plastic waste, the need to manage plastic waste, and plastic pollution
  • Invest time and money into making sure that low to middle income countries have adequate waste collection and waste management systems and facilities, such as contained/secure landfills that don’t leak plastic waste
  • Invest time and money into reducing the littering of plastic waste in all countries, and into the clean up of littered plastic waste on land and on beaches (by volunteers, councils, or private organisations)
  • Invest time and money into reducing the dumping of marine plastic waste in oceans from fishing vessels, especially in intensively fished areas
  • Focus specifically on reducing mismanaged plastic waste (littered plastic, and inadequately disposed of plastic), and plastic pollution in rivers, in countries and regions where it is most prevalent (Asia is the most notable region)
  • Reduce the use of highly disposable, single use plastics like plastic food wrappers, plastic bags, plastic straws etc. – these are often the most littered plastic items too
  • Specifically focus on reducing plastics with the highest rate of waste – like plastic packaging (compared to construction plastics as an example – which might be in use for years or decades). Understand solutions specifically for addressing plastic packaging over other types of plastic and plastic waste
  • Put time and money into research development for changing the chemical makeup, and/or changing the additives in plastic to address specific problems such as fossil fuels as a feedstock in plastics, leaching of plastic chemicals, or not being able to recycle certain plastics
  • Redesign plastic packaging and plastic products to use less problem type plastics, or to be more recyclable, more re-suable, better for repurposing, or compostable
  • Use alternative materials to plastic where possible for all applications
  • Spend time and money on making sure that the right plastics are being targeted to be recycled in each locale, and that effective recycling collection and processing systems and facilities are in place. It may make sense to only recycle some types of plastics due to feasibility factors
  • Spend time and money making sure that the right plastics are being used for waste to energy, and that the right incineration or plastic burning technology is in place
  • Spend time and money making sure that landfills are receiving the right plastics, and that they have effective landfill liners and leachate management
  • Use textiles and clothing made from natural fibres or materials, and/or, ensure households are using more effective washing practices and filtering systems to capture and deal with micro and nano plastics
  • Use more natural and organic personal care and cosmetic products over products with micro bead issues
  • Ensure potable water, waste water and sewage treatment facilities are set up with proper filtration, capture and management technology to deal with micro and nano plastics
  • Ensure that waste water and sewage treatment facilities are not contributing to micro plastics in the environment by making sure that they aren’t using plastic beads or pellets that create micro plastic problems
  • Make sure tap water is filtered to capture micro plastics
  • Use metal, glass and additive free drink and food containers and products where possible over those made of plastic (especially for drinking water)
  • Have more awareness campaigns around flushing plastic items down toilets in households (ear cleaners, wet wipes, personal hygiene items)
  • Consider how plastic additives can be removed or substituted from roads, road marking, car tyres, and the sole of human shoes. If this is unrealistic, consider how strom water and waste water run off drains can better capture and filter plastic out of water and waste streams
  • Consider how agricultural plastics can be substituted for alternate materials
  • Consider that the use of bio solids and sewage sludge for fertilizer on agricultural land might be contributing to microplastics in soil on agricultural land, and sediments elsewhere. Are there alternate fertilizers that can be used instead, or can bio solids and ex sewage sludge fertilizer be filtered and purified in a better way to remove plastic particles? Also, consider how recycled wastewater and rubbish contributes to micro plastic in agricultural soils, and plastic products used by farmers themselves.
  • Use natural products where possible inside homes, such as wooden furniture or natural fibres in clothing, over plastic furniture or synthetic fibre clothing and textiles
  • Be aware of the main stats and numbers of the plastic lifecycle at each stage in society.
  • Be aware of the main causes of land based plastic issues, and the main causes of ocean based plastic issues, and aggressively address these main causes to be more effective in addressing plastic problems, as opposed to trying to address causes that might be less significant. Just as one example, one source indicates that we should be focussing on improving effective waste management in low to middle income to better address ocean plastic pollution, rather than worry about trying to reduce the use of plastic straws in developed countries 
  • Develop individual solutions for each town, city, State/Province and country depending their individual plastic issues and problems, and how they contribute to national and global plastic issues and problems

 

Additionally, some extra resources which might provide extra answers to plastic problems are:

  • How Individuals, Producers & Industry, & Government & Policy Makers Can Address Plastic Issues On Each Level – https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics
  • Suggestion On What A New Plastic Economy Might Look Like In The Future – http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf
  • Designing Plastics & Plastic Packaging In A More Effective Way For Recycling – http://www.plasticsrecycling.org/images/pdf/design-guide/PET_APR_Design_Guide.pdf

 

Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems

We’ve already put together a guide on solutions to ocean plastic pollution which you can read here.

You can also read the ‘Plastic In The Ocean: FAQ Guide‘, which generally explains plastic in the ocean, including problems, causes, sources, effects etc.

 

Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems

You can read a guide about land based plastic pollution problems here.

What really needs to be done is, each source of land based plastic pollution needs to be identified, and these sources each need a solution of their own.

We will list the problems followed by potential solutions:

 

  • Lack of certainty over the full extent and impact of plastics on land

Although several sources indicate that plastic land pollution may be far bigger an issue than ocean plastic pollution, there seems to be less certainty about it, and less data and research available on it. More research, more data available, and more certainty around the core issues, sources, impact and solutions would help.

It’s difficult to focus on major causes, or see the utility in solving a problem (or justify spending money and time on it) when you don’t know how negative the impact of that problem or issue actually is.

 

  • Mismanaged plastic – littered plastic, and inadequately disposed of plastic

Littered plastic: stopping the litter of plastic is the clear solution here – specifically, focussing on reducing the littering of plastic packaging type plastic waste (which are some of the most commonly found/littered items on cleanups). But, if plastic continues to be littered, land and beach volunteer and council cleanups will help reduce the amount of littered plastic.

Inadequately disposed of plastic: more a problem in low to middle income countries, where open and uncontained landfills allow plastic waste to spill out into the environment and breakdown. Quite simply, better waste collection and waste management (contained and secure landfills), would help here.

 

  • Plastic in landfills

Aside from ensuring that landfills are secure and closed off (to prevent the leaking of plastic waste), landfills should have effective soil liners to prevent soil contamination, and should have a proper leachate management system to handle any leachate (especially from potentially problem plastics like high chlorine PVC).

 

  • Incinerated plastic

Plastic that is being burnt in a waste for energy plant should have the proper air filter and air contaminant devices fitted (to deal with carbon, and air contaminants like dioxins and other air pollutants). There should also be proper waste management services in place to deal with the waste by products caught in filtering systems.

 

  • Lack of plastic being recycled

There’s many reasons why majority of plastic isn’t being recycled, and why some plastic gets rejected from recycling facilities (plastic is mixed, plastic is contaminated, it’s a non recyclable plastic etc.).

Firstly, there needs to be more clarity on which plastics are feasible, beneficial, and practical to recycle in each local market (not all plastic types and plastic products make sense to recycle). 

Secondly, recycling collection services and recycling processing facilities need to be adequate and effective in dealing with plastics that are approved to be recycled. Some cities and town don’t have recycling facilities at all, and others have facilities that are simply too inefficient or can’t process enough types of plastic products in an effective way.

Plastic that isn’t recycled ends up in landfill, incineration or as waste in the environment – so it’s important to get recycling right, as it has a flow on effect.

Recycling plastic in reality is something that needs local solution, and needs a multi level approach.

 

  • Break down of plastic into micro and nano plastics

There’s really no way to solve the presence of micro-plastics and nano plastics, unless the use of plastic is reduced.

Just as one example, plastic fibres in the air indoors in households is thought to come partially from synthetic textiles and clothing, and plastic furniture. Using natural fibre textiles and alternative furniture like wood furniture may be one part of the solution to this specific example.

But, micro plastics and nano plastics are found everywhere on land – in soil, sediments, the air, rivers, lakes, drinking water, and more. 

 

  • Micro plastics in bottled water

Use glass or metal reusable drinking bottles.

 

  • Micro plastics in tap water

Tap water can be filtered, but to better address the issue, the causes of micro plastic contamination upstream where the tap water is sourced from need to be addressed.

 

  • Plastic in sewage and wastewater 

There’s many ways plastic fibres and micro plastics get into sewage and waste water.

Micro plastics and plastic fibres can come from upstream sources, or they can come from water treatment and sewage treatment facilities themselves.

Upstream sources may include plastic fibres from clothing and textiles that are being washed in homes, plastic items being flushed down the toilet, run off from roads (plastic road additives, markings, and car tyres) etc.

Plastic can also come from treatment facilities that use plastic beads in processing or filtering water and waste.

 

  • Plastic fibres from washing of synthetic plastic fibre clothing 

Now we are getting into the causes and sources of micro plastic pollution on land.

Better filtering and waste water management from washing machines could help.

 

  • Micro beads from cosmetics and personal care products

Pretty self explanatory – plastic filled products can be replaced with natural and organic products.

 

  • Plastic from road run off

A hard one to address, unless the run off water is properly filtered and plastic fibres and micro plastics are disposed of in the right way.

 

  • Plastic in fresh water sources (lakes, rivers etc.)

Sources suggest a lot of the micro plastic in fresh water sources comes from the washing of synthetic fibre clothing and textiles in homes.

In low to middle income countries, a lack of contained and closed off landfill sites and inadequate plastic waste collection services contributes to plastic pollution in rivers.

 

  • Plastic in soil and sediments

Comes from many sources – would need to address each source individually.

 

  • Micro plastic in the air

Comes from many sources – would need to address each source individually.

As mentioned above though, indoor micro plastic pollution could be addressed if more natural fibre textiles are used and furniture such as wood (or natural materials) are used over plastic furniture.

 

Solutions To 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic

You can read about the 21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic in this guide.

We will list the problems followed by potential solutions:

  • BPA in plastic

Firstly, there needs to be far more certainty (which will come about with more transparent and more definitive studies) around just how harmful BPA might be in the plastic we use and are exposed to in society. 

Too many studies offer uncertainty about the plastic types and plastic products that might be the problem, and what the definite impact of exposure to these plastics is.

If we assume BPA is a problem in the levels we are exposed to it through plastic right now – then, BPA free plastic products may be one part of the answer.

But, some sources indicate that ‘BPA Free Products’ that are being offered may be a concern too, as the substitutes for BPA have questions over their safety (livescience.com).

So, BPA free plastic products may need some type of certification for safety (in a similar way that organic cotton has certification).

 

  • Phthalates in plastic

The same solutions for phthalates in plastic would be suggested as has been listed above for BPA.

 

  • PVC as a problem plastic type

Some sources indicate PVC as a plastic type (and highly chlorinated PVC in particular) can be a problem (over it’s lifecycle from production to disposal), whilst others sources say it isn’t.

There needs to be more certainty on what types of PVC are a problem, and when/how they are a problem.

Problem PVC types may need certification for safe or eco friendly production, use and disposal.

Using alternblate materials to PVC may also be an solution.

 

  • Plastic leaching other chemicals

We are talking about additives, stabilizers, fillers and plasticizers, the release of toxins or hormone disruptors.

Again – there needs to be more definitive studies that provide more clarity and certainty around how and when plastic does this. Is it impacting just animals, or humans too?

If we assume plastic is leaching harmful chemicals or additives into the environment, that is finding it’s way into humans, wildlife, food sources, water supplies, and so on, then we need to use alternate materials to plastic, or start a certification system for plastic that the plastics we are using don’t have these harmful chemicals and toxins.

 

  • Microplastics ingested and inhaled by humans

We need more certainty on how micro plastics are impacting humans.

But, the reality is that there are many ways humans are ingesting or inhaling micro plastics.

We need to look at each source individually and address them.

We’ve used the indoor example above of humans inhaling micro plastic fibres from synthetic fibre textiles/clothing and plastic furniture.

 

  • Plastics taking a long time to decompose

The key way to address this would be to isolate plastic to landfills where they can decompose with less impact on the environment, animals and humans.

But, newer plastics like compostable plastics or bioplastics may help too.

 

  • Better plastic recycling

There’s various ways to improve the recycling of plastic, some of which we mentioned above.

But, one way is to develop new types of plastic like PDK plastic that can be recycled a greater amount fo times (plastic currently can only be recycled between one to nine times as an estimate before it can’t be recycled anymore). Even PDK plastic though might only have limited applications for use – so, it isn’t a complete solution.

 

  • Plastics in landfill

As mentioned above, make sure landfills are adequate to contain and manage plastic waste (with effective liners and leachate management systems).

Make sure landfill sites in low to middle income countries are secure and closed off to prevent the leaking of plastic.

 

  • Incinerating plastics

We need to incinerate the right plastics that are feasible to burn for waste to energy.

But also, the incineration technology needs to be eco friendly.

Burning plastic in an eco friendly way can be expensive, so, we may also look for ways to bring costs and technology capital costs down.

 

  • Ingestion of plastics by wildlife

Better containment in landfills, and waste management of plastic would help with this.

More plastic staying in landfills and less plastic getting out into rivers and the ocean would mean lower rates of ingestion of plastic by wildlife.

Ingestion of micro plastics would be harder to address.

 

  • Entanglement in plastic by wildlife

Fishing nets and fishing line are big culprits of this, along with plastic items like plastic can holder packaging.

Less littered and inadequately disposed of plastic in the environment would help (via better waste management systems).

But, also, there is marine plastic pollution in addition to land based sources of plastic pollution. 

A lot of marine based plastic pollution comes from fishing vessels.

There’s some ideas for reducing the dumping of fishing gear and fishing equipment at https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/five-ways-to-tackle-ghost-fishing-gear

 

  • Plastic uses fossil fuels in it’s production, and can be energy and resource intensive

Using alternative materials to plastic is the obvious answer here, or alternate feedstocks like those used in bioplastics. 

 

  • Plastic pollution costs money to address

Pretty obvious – reduce plastic waste rates, and the amount of plastic waste getting out into rivers and oceans, and the cost to address plastic pollution will go down.

 

  • Plastic attracting and building up with toxic pollutants

We can help with this issue by reducing the amount of toxic pollutants we use as part of society and in every day life.

But also, reducing plastic pollution in the environment and restricting plastic to landfill would help with this.

 

  • Plastic and the emission greenhouse gases

Using less plastic overall is really the only way to address this if majority of GHGs from plastic are coming from the production process.

 

Sources

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

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

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

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/pros-cons-of-recycling-plastic/

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

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

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

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/what-is-plastic-used-for-in-society-sectors-that-use-the-most-plastic/

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

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

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

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

13. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/key-stats-numbers-that-explain-what-happens-to-plastic-each-stage-plastic-lifecycle-society/

14. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-to-reduce-better-manage-plastic-packaging-waste-other-plastic-waste-ideas-solutions/

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

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 waste (sewage sludge and biosolids used for fertilizer), waste water and storm 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, agricultural plastics, and more 
  • 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)

 

Microplastic pollution of agricultural lands may be a source of land plastic pollution that needs more awareness and attention:

  • Between 107,000-730,000 tonnes of microplastic are added to European and North American farmlands each year
  • In 2017, Australia produced 327,000 tonnes of dry biosolids containing microplastics and 75 per cent of it was used in agriculture
  • … plastics find their way into agricultural soils through recycled wastewater and rubbish
  • [another major source is] organic fertiliser made from treated and dewatered sewage, known as biosolids … [and] Food scraps recycled from our mixed waste bins for compost and plastic products used directly by farmers, such as plastic mulch
  • … clothing fibres, tyre debris in stormwater, and microbeads in cleaning products were contaminating wastewater
  • … [it is not known] what effect microplastics are having on our agricultural ecosystems

– abc.net.au

 

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

16. https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2019-01-17/microplastics-on-farms-ignored-say-scientists/10717126

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]