The Plastic Problem: The importance of diminishing plastic consumption

June 3, 2016

Plastic pollution in Rio de Janeiro's bay (Ilha Fiscal)

 

The global consumption of plastic is constantly rising. Statistics from 2015 report that every person in Western Europe consumes 136 kilos of plastic per year, showing a 37.4% increase from the 99 kilos per year recorded in 2005.  On a global scale, plastic consumption per citizen showed a 50% increase between 2005 and 2015.

Growing plastic consumption raises important challenges regarding environmental and health security. For what regards the environment, plastic is dangerous in a twofold way, both in its production and its disposal. At the production level most plastics are produced using petrol and natural gas, these sources, other than being non renewable, are highly pollutant for ecosystems. Furthermore, due to the complexity and the costs of the recycling process, the great majority of the world’s plastic ends up in landfills (ex. in the US 50%). Also, great quantities of plastic are dispersed into the open environment, and being plastic non biodegradable, it can be around for a very long time. A consequence of this problem is plastic pollution in the oceans, with disastrous effects on the marine environment and its ecosystem.

Furthermore, there are growing evidences connecting usage of many kinds of plastics to some health-related issues. The two main health issues derived from plastic are the use of plastic polycarbonate, present in most food and drinks packaging and anything requiring clear and hard plastic, which has been linked to health threats such as chromosomal abnormalities, cancer and resistance to chemotherapy and the use of phthalate plasticisers, widespread softening agents (with very high quantities contained in PVC) that are considered carcinogen and dangerous for the endocrine system.

Plastic is considered a mono-use material, which is used for one purpose and immediately disposed, meaning that all its value goes immediately waste after its first use. In this regard, I will also analyse the idea of Circular Economy and how it would be possible to create a system in which non recyclable plastic consumption is diminished, and the remaining plastic is fully recycled in a way to preserve all its value over time.

Today, Growing plastic production and consumption is posing serious threats, especially to developing countries, who often lack adequate facilities to dispose of such a difficult material, with tonnes of plastic being thrown in the open environment every year.

Solving this issue is a need of primary importance in matters of environmental protection.

 

The Rise in Plastic Consumption

Plastic was first invented in the 1860’s and it started to be developed at the industrial level in the 1920’s. However, the plastic sector started to gain real momentum in the 1940s, when it become one of the world’s fastest growing sectors. From 1950 until today, the plastic sector growth averaged a striking 8.7% per year, rising from 1.7 million tons produced in 1950 to the nearly 300 million tons produced today. In developing countries, mainly because of their current economic growth and of the deriving changes in the patterns of production and consumption, the increase in plastic usage has been even higher than the world average. For this reason, plastic waste are becoming an increasingly difficult challenge in developing countries.

 Why has plastic production and consumption increased so steadily? There are many reasons why, taking out of the picture the deriving environmental and health threats, plastic may seem the perfect material for any kind of market. First of all, plastic is inexpensive (a bag made of plastic costs 1-2 cents against the 4-5 of a paper bag), it is durable and very resistant. Also, plastic is easy to work and to shape, making it suitable for a great variety of usages. This characteristics made plastic the most used material in industry, and in fact, today plastic is to be found everywhere in our daily life. Everything we buy, ranging from food, clothes, packaging materials, everything is wrapped or made at least in part of plastic. Because of the low costs and the versatility of this material, it is likely that in the future, plastic consumption will increase even further. 

Despite the appealing characteristics of this material, the downsides connected to the usage of plastic are many. Plastics are derived from materials such as silica, petrol, coal and natural gas. The greatest concern regarding the composition of plastic is that of the additives present in the material such as phthalate plasticisers, BPA, brominated flame retardants and anti-microbial agents, the negatives effect of which will be analysed later in this paper. 

 

Environmental Issues Connected to the Use of Plastic

The greatest environmental concern regarding the use of plastic is its disposal. In fact, plastic is never biodegradable and as such its end-of-life disposal is particularly delicate. Plastic can go through photo-degradation, meaning that in a time span of 450 to 1000 years it can disappear by being exposed to the sun, however, even in that case, it still poses a long term environmental threat. Furthermore, there is a wide range of types of plastic and not all of them can be recycled, and even when they can be recycled, the process is complicated, expensive and it decreases its quality over time, often making the disposal of plastic more attractive than its recycle. As of today, an average of 20% of the world’s plastic waste is being recycled. The remaining 80% is either disposed in landfill or through incineration, or worse, it is discarded in the environment. According to the UNEP, between 20 and 40% of the world’s plastic waste are thrown in landfills, where they occupy valuable space and end up polluting the environment, while incinerating them to create energy would have some potential in solving the problem. However, incinerating plastic creates further problems, especially in terms of air pollution as toxins such as dioxin are released into the air. Therefore this solution seems to move the problem somewhere else rather than solving it.

 A further problem is that of plastic waste exportation, as great quantities of plastic waste produced in developed countries are shipped to countries with lower environmental standards for disposal, with China alone receiving 56% of the world’s plastic waste imports.

Yet, the greatest risk connected to plastic usage is the contamination that can derive from the disposal of plastic in the environment. Discarded plastic can contaminate a wide range of habitats, soils, groundwaters and above all, the sea. In fact, the most evident example of the risks connected to plastic emerges from the actual situation of plastic pollution of the marine environment. Today, plastic accounts for most of the marine litter worldwide. Most of the plastic’s polymers are buoyant in water and as such they accumulate in the sea surface and often they are washed ashore. As a consequence, plastic accounts for between 50 and 80% of the world’s shoreline debris. Furthermore, there are reports about 3 520 000 items km–2 present at the ocean surface, with catastrophic consequences for the environment. These debris are made even more dangerous by the presence of Gyres, which through their movement have created large masses of ever-accumulating plastic debris, which are today known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GGP). However, the garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean are not the only ones as there are three other giant garbage patches linked to the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre and to the Indian Ocean Gyre.

This striking presence of plastic debris can present several hazards, such as that to finishing and tourism. Yet, the most worrying hazard is that connecting to wildlife.  Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers and death . A further area of particular concern is the presence of micro-fragments of plastic debris in the marine environment. These fragments can be accidentally ingested by small marine invertebrates including filter feeders, deposit feeders and detritivores endangering the basis of the food chain. Last, it is important to remind that plastic is a fuel derived material and as such, its production involves the use of highly pollutant non-renewable sources, such as petrol, which is at the basis of the production of plastic. Thus, this is an important additional environmental cost deriving from  the production cycle of plastic.

 

Health Threats Connected to the Use of Plastic

In addition to the negative impact that plastic production and disposal have on the environment, there are also several health threats connected to the use of this material. Thousands of additives are added to plastic during the manufacturing process. Some of these additives, such as Phthalates, Bisphenol A (BPA) and many others, are known to be toxic and repeated exposure to such material is proved to pose a threat to human health

 The greatest health concern relating to the use of plastic is the chemical migration that can take place between plastic packaging and its content, allowing these toxic chemical additives to leak and contaminate the products they contain. For instance, most plastic bottles requiring a rigid and clear plastic contain plastic polycarbonate, which is composed primarily of BPA. There is now a rich literature regarding the negative effects that exposure to chemicals such as BPA can have. Phthalates and BPA are considered to be endocrine disruptors. When these chemicals enter our body through food packaging or any other kind of plastic object, they can interfere with our body’s production of hormones. Furthermore, scientific studies show how BPA can cause chromosome damage to female ovaries, decrease sperm production in males, cause resistance to chemotherapy, increase breast cancer and much more. So far many studies have been conducted to address the health risks connected to the use of plastic, however, many of them are still under review as they are still not considered fully scientifically reliable.

The health risks connected to the use of plastic are particularly amplified in children, whose immune system is much weaker and vulnerable than that of adults. This high concentration of chemicals in children was confirmed by a research carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health, which shows that BPA and phthalates presence in babies is on average ten times higher than on the general population average.

 

Possible Solutions to the Problem

Today, we live in a world dominated by a linear economy in which we “take, make and dispose” everything. This model relies on large quantities of cheap and accessible resources, being them materials or energy. Plastic is a fundamental element in our linear economy, as it provides for the cheap material that the economy needs, and this view of our linear economic model provides us with another reason behind the surge in plastic consumption over the last century.

A circular economy instead is a whole new way of interpreting our economic system, developed by the famous sailor Ellen MacArthur. The circular economy model explains how it is not efficient to have every person in the economy buy, use and dispose of every object, rather, the model provides for a service based economy in which the consumer pays for a service rather than for owning the object providing that service. For instance, instead of buying a washing machine which we use for a limited period of time to then dispose it, we can pay the washing machine producer to always provide us with the latest model of washing machine, givingback the old model so that the producer can reuse and recycle its components. This model aims precisely at keeping every product at its maximum utility at all times, optimising resources and reducing waste of any kind. This model is particularly relevant when referring to the use of plastic. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, today  95% of plastic packaging material value, or USD 80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use. In a circular economy instead, plastic never becomes waste. Rather, it keeps reentering the economy in new forms, such as that of biological nutrients. Furthermore, according to the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, technical materials such as polymers, alloys and other man-made compounds can be reused with minimal energy consumption and highest quality retention.

The core arguments of the “New Plastics Economy” are to radically increase the quality and quantity of the recycling system, to scale up the adoption of reusable packaging and to scale up the adoption of industrially compostable plastic packaging. Thus, in a circular economy the use of plastic would be drastically reduced, substituted by reusable and compostable materials which would drastically diminish environmental pollution, while the residual plastic consumed would be 100% recycled and when it is not recyclable anymore it would be converted into biological nutrients or similar, in a way to ensure that no value of the plastic is ever wasted in the system, rather it would keep circulating over and over. 

However, we cannot expect the economic system as a whole to take measures to solve the problem of plastic without a serious involvement at the individual level. We as consumer guide through our everyday choices the choices that the economic system make, and, notwithstanding the important insights contained in the circular economy model, we too have to play our part. This does not mean that we have to suddenly stop using plastic but rather to give more weight to our small-scale everyday choices by making them more economically and environmentally sustainable. Some of our consumer habits have a surprising environmental impact, for example, it is estimated that 4.7 billion toothbrushes are produced every year (136 millions kilos of plastic), switching to the inexpensive and compostable bamboo toothbrushes could save huge quantities of plastic every year. Also, a more common example is that of plastic bags and disposable water bottles, of which we often don’t understand the real impact on the environment. For instance, 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year, worldwide, and, in the United States alone, 1500 plastic water bottles are used every second. Always carrying a reusable bag and a reusable bottle could be easy and economically efficient solutions to the problem.

In this regard I believe that it would be important to raise awareness about the side effects of plastic consumption.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that the use of plastic has played an important role in our economy, allowing for cheap packaging and adapting to any kind of usage. However, the way in which plastic is seen in our economy, namely as a mono-use material which is in most cases disposed of in landfills poses an urgent problem. The growing magnitude of plastic pollution in the marine environment together with the health threats linked to the use of plastic urges us to take dramatic measures at all levels, and to change our consumption patterns in a way to contain this environmental catastrophe. The potential solutions to the problem are many.  At a macro level, the idea of a circular economy as thought by Ellen MacArthur provides for a useful insight in this regard. We can guide a decrease in plastic consumption without single dramatic measures, rather we can one step at the time shift to a more responsible plastic consumption, made of reusable and biodegradable plastic in a way to reduce our impact on the environment and preserve the value of plastic in the system.

 

Bibliography

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