Plastic is probably the most important material in our lives today. We see it all around us and use it all the time. So much so that we throw away enough plastic waste each year to circle the planet four times. Why do we consume so much plastic? Sure, it makes our lives more comfortable, and production of plastic products is cheaper and takes less energy than production of paper products. But are these benefits really worth the costs?
On March 19th 2015, Athens Science Café hosted Jenna Jambeck from the College of Engineering, University of Georgia as the speaker. She spoke to a tightly packed crowd about her recently published article in the journal Science, according to which an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the oceans in the year 2010. This was only the grand total of 99.5 million metric tons of plastic waste generated in coastal regions of 192 countries.
Plastic waste in the ocean is particularly notorious. It poses a threat to marine life, as well as absorbs harmful chemicals like PCBs and DDT. On land, plastic accumulates and takes 1000 years to degrade. During this time, it may cause harmful chemicals like BPA and PDBE to leak into the air or groundwater. The complete extent of the adverse effects of these chemicals on human health is still being studied, but the outcome looks pretty bleak.
(Towards) the solutions
Cleaning up oceans can be a good place to start. 20-year-old Boyan Slat has started a foundation called The Ocean Cleanup, which is currently focusing on cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the massive debris accumulation in the ocean gyre of the North Pacific Ocean. We do have to make sure that waste management systems are improved so that all the mismanaged waste doesn’t end up in the oceans in the first place.
To curb plastic pollution on land, biodegradable plastics – which can undergo oxy-degradation to be converted into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass – are under development. However, if they are allowed to degrade in anaerobic conditions, they can lead to production of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. TDPAs, or Totally Degradable Plastic Additives, are formulations that catalyze the oxy degradation of commonly used plastics. Another really cool innovation is shrilk, developed by the people at the Wyss Institute of Harvard University. It is a completely degradable plastic made from chitosan, which is extracted from shrimp shells. And no, chitosan doesn’t have an effect on people with allergies.
Finally, if all else fails we can always fall back on recycling. Mark Biddle has been successful in finding a way to completely separate mixed plastics, and now collects plastic scraps and converts it into pellets that can be used to make completely new plastic products.
The Problem With the Solutions
You made have heard about the term “bioplastic” in passing. This term technically applies to plastic materials made using biological products instead of fossil fuels. However, materials made from biological products may still not be biodegradable and recyclable – sometimes they are either one of the two, and sometimes neither. Biodegradable plastics still remain a very good choice. However, these cannot be recycled with other plastics because introduction of biodegradable plastics with different properties can hinder the technology used to recycle conventional plastics.
Some people argue that reduction is the best way to go. The deal is that plastic recycling can be better described as down cycling sometimes. The recycled products created from one plastic bottles and bags will be recycled into something other than bottles or bags, which will in turn not be recyclable and end up in the landfill. Also, the quality of plastic resin reduces with repeated use.
Also, like Dr. Jambeck said, there has been a 620% increase in the amount of plastic waste since 1975. Now that we know what the problem is, we can start changing things and be a part of the solution. So go get yourself a reusable water bottle and start saving the planet!
Sunishka “Sonny” Thakur is an undergraduate majoring in Genetics, currently just trying to make the most of her freshman year at UGA. She loves to read, dance, work with student organizations like First Book and World Ambassadors, and gets very excited about science.