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Plastics in Our Environment

Ed Robinson
November 9, 2020

“Just one word. Plastics.” So said neighbor Mr. McGuire with great conviction. But young Benjamin Braddock was far more interested in the career advice from Mr. Robinson, another neighbor, to “…sow a few wild oats” particularly with Mrs. Robinson in the classic 1967 movie “The Graduate.” Since 1967 the world has certainly embraced the use of plastics and they are now ubiquitous nearly around the globe. The vast desert regions and the top of Mt. Everest are hosts to mounds of plastic waste, and the polar regions suffer from its presence in their waters.

In 2019 the global plastics industry was estimated at $570 billion dollars with an annual growth rate of nearly four percent. While the industry has innovated and produced millions of products that enhance our quality of life and save us considerable amounts of money, that has not come without significant impacts on our world. The plastics industry has an unfortunate history of toxic emissions, chemical leaks, explosions and fires, along with illegal dumping. While those problems are substantially mitigated in the US, we inevitably suffer the ongoing problems in other countries such as India and China where companies have set up vast facilities to lower their manufacturing and waste treatment costs.

If you have traveled to less developed countries in Asia, Africa and South America, you certainly have seen the tragic conditions of waterways and lands used for waste disposal. I have witnessed bays, canals and streams in China, India and other countries where the waters are literally covered with a myriad of discarded plastic. You may have seen photos or reports of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of trillions of pieces of plastic brought together by ocean currents that now spans an area four times the size of France – think about that! It has been estimated that by the year 2050 the accumulated mass of plastic waste in the ocean will exceed the mass of all marine fish species. Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of sea bird guts contain plastic materials. The same is true of more than half the world’s sea turtles. Huge creatures like our minke whales have been found with more than a ton of plastic in their bellies. The result for the affected animals is often intestinal blockages, malnutrition, slow poisoning or death.

Photo by David Bokuchava, iStock

It is estimated that 80 percent of the pieces and 10 percent of the volume of ocean plastics is in the form of microplastics. These tiny bits of plastic are floating in the world’s waters and entering the food chain of all living creatures, including humans. Even worse, in recent decades manufacturers of human health and beauty products have been substituting polyethylene microbeads for natural materials used as exfoliants in cleansers and toothpaste. These microbeads can remain in our bodies, at the risk of leaching chemicals and interfering with our digestive processes. Microbeads easily pass through filtration and water treatment systems to flow into fresh water and marine ecosystems. They can be ingested by microbes and zooplankton that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web, with those microplastics finding their way back to us in the form of seafoods.

Plastic microbeads (Photo by pcess609, iStock)

A group of 20 researchers from around the world estimated that between 19 and 23 million tons of plastic waste entered aquatic ecosystems in 2016. Sadly, the use of plastics, and therefore the improper disposal of plastics, increases every year. A recent review by Pew Charitable Trusts projected the volume of plastics entering the oceans will triple by 2040 reaching 29 million tons per year, equal to 35 pounds of plastic for every foot of coastline worldwide. The Pew report noted that currently available technologies could stem that flow by 80 percent if there is a global commitment to reduction and substitution of plastics as well as comprehensive waste management. Unfortunately, most countries have poor regulations and enforcement, combined with weak business models and inadequate funding for such initiatives. Even if all current commitments by industry and governments are met, the flow of plastics would be reduced only seven percent, making clear how big is the challenge ahead of us.

Scientists are advising that there are only two ways to make a substantial dent in the problem. First, the world must slow, not grow, the production and use of plastics. That requires a huge effort to find adequate substitutes for plastics in many thousands of applications, while changing consumer attitudes towards plastics. The second mandate is to turn the world’s focus from viewing plastics as readily disposable materials into viewing plastics as feedstocks for a major industry of recycling and reuse. This will require a concerted effort in both public education and scientific research along with financial incentives to make it happen even in periods of economic downturn. Proposals such as placing carbon taxes on plastics have historically met significant resistance but such steps may be the only way to begin solving the problem. Europe is ahead of us having passed a tax of $0.43 per pound of nonrecycled plastic packaging. This type of full cost environmental accounting may be necessary to drive change.

Today a small minority of plastics are truly compostable or biodegradable, and the large majority of plastics are used once then discarded in landfills or worse, in our environment. Many plastics are nearly indestructible and will last long after we are gone from the Earth. Some people argue that plastics themselves are not really the problem, it is how they are made, used and discarded.

Our country has made major adjustments in the past, for example in the recycling and reuse of aluminum. If you are old enough, you remember seeing huge numbers of aluminum cans discarded in parks and along roadways. Today, thanks to government mandates and financial incentives, aluminum recycling is very well established. In recent years plastics have accounted for more than 15 percent of municipal solid wastes while aluminum products are less than two percent. More than 50 percent of aluminum cans and containers are recycled versus less than 10 percent of plastics. Recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than making virgin material, while recycling plastics saves about 70 percent of energy. While there are differences in the costs of production and recycling between the two materials, the example shows what can be achieved with the right approach.

The problems of plastics recycling in the US were made worse in 2018 when China adopted a new policy called “National Sword.” Among other changes, this mandated an end to the importation by China of huge volumes of US curbside collected plastic waste. This put enormous pressure on the chemical and plastics industry in the US to find ways to improve the recycling and reuse of plastics. Multinational giant Unilever has announced the intention to dramatically cut its consumption of virgin plastic in half by 2025, down from 700,000 tons per year, in part by using 175,000 tons of recycled plastic resin, up from 5,000 tons in 2019. Many other chemical and plastics companies have made similar public pledges and they are determined to deliver upon those commitments.

Plastics recycling is not an easy problem to tackle. For one thing, there is no one type of plastic – the industry has invented hundreds of different polymers for various applications. Normal plastic waste streams contain a wide variety of materials that are nearly impossible to separate for reprocessing, thus raising costs and lowering the purity and utility of the resulting resins. Many plastic products contain multiple layers of different polymers, limiting their value for recycling. Further, some polymers degrade when they are recycled, either limiting the number of times they can be reused or limiting the applications where they can be used. Recycled materials are particularly problematic in the food industry due to concerns about contamination. Chemical recycling technologies are being advanced that can address the problems of mechanical recycling to produce resins nearly the equal of virgin material.

Plastics recycling is already a major business estimated at $48 billion today by IDTechEx, and is expected to grow 30 percent annually through 2030. Much of the industry to date has been focused on mechanical shredding and incineration. As global chemical and plastics manufacturers feel the heat of broader regulation and public opinion, they are spending more money on research and development, while pushing their suppliers to improve their own technologies. Many environmental groups remain skeptical both about the sincerity and the ability of the chemical and plastics industries to make radical improvements in their businesses. Groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace state that the best way to reduce plastic waste is to use less plastic, and they have called the efforts of plastics recycling to be self-serving window dressing by the companies. The American Chemistry Council counters this by noting that consumer product companies are lined up to purchase recycled resins even at high prices in response to consumer demands for reduced volumes of packaging material and more environmentally friendly products. It is clear that the top priority long term has to be on lowering overall emissions and energy use in the circular business of making and reusing plastic materials.

A technology in growing use is pyrolysis, which involves the use of heat above 400 degrees F in an oxygen-free reactor to break down plastics into small hydrocarbons. One advantage of the technology is that it can handle mixed polymer plastic waste. Substantial investments are being made in the US and Europe to expand the use of pyrolysis. Oregon-based company Agilyx uses the technology to break down polystyrene into styrene. Environmentalists argue that this releases more than three pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of styrene produced. Agilyx counters this by pointing out that their process produces half the carbon dioxide of the conventional route to styrene. Environmentalists also challenge the use of pyrolysis to make diesel fuel but the trucking industry claims this is better than pumping more oil from underground and throwing away more plastic waste. A study from Argonne National Laboratory found that low sulfur diesel made from plastic waste was 14 percent less greenhouse gas intensive than conventional diesel fuel. The scale of planned or in-process investments for pyrolysis plants is massive, such as Brightmark’s $260 million plant in Indiana to make naphtha, diesel and industrial waxes from mixed plastics. Brightmark’s CEO stated that his company plans to build several such plants up to $1 billion each with the intent of processing a total of 8.4 million tons of plastic by 2024.

What can consumers do to help bring change to the world of plastics? Historical research studies have shown that consumers may talk a good game about wanting more environmentally-friendly products but when spending their own money, their actions show they are often unwilling to pay much of a premium. That may be changing however as the public becomes better educated about the state of our environment and growing middle class affluence allows consumers to make better choices. An example of this is the growing support for organic farming and local farming initiatives such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Consumers can have a big impact on the decisions of manufacturers and suppliers when they voice their interest in less plastic consumption and more recycling. When you see or purchase a product that has excess or unnecessary packaging of any sort, pick up the phone or write an email to the company involved to express your displeasure. There are already many examples of companies that have made substantial changes in their products or packaging in response to such consumer demands, including fast food companies. City ordinances to ban the use of plastic bags at stores are another example of consumer pressure. Amazon and companies that ship easy prep meals to your doorstep are all under pressure to make better decisions on packaging materials or to provide recycling options. When you have a choice of products to meet your needs, buy the one that uses the least amount of packaging including plastic, or choose refillable containers.

For many years we have seen signs along our highways naming local companies or groups that take responsibility for picking up litter along our roads. Many outdoor groups and environmental organizations encourage their members to pick up trash on trails, and to avoid leaving any trash from their own excursions. Maine is a particularly good example of this ethic in my experience. There are still many miles of highway that could benefit from this approach.

In recent years I have come across a number of small startup companies seeking to make a difference in this world by using plastics or plastic wastes to make “green” products. I recall meeting some enthusiastic college grads who set up a company in Chile to collect old plastic fishing nets to make skateboards and sunglasses instead of having those nets discarded at sea. Other examples include the Bureo Fishnet Flyer frisbee, the Fishpond River Bank backpack, the Nomadix travel towel and Rothy’s shoes. Even Adidas got into the act with a sneaker called the X Parley. United Kingdom company MacRebur uses plastic waste in road paving materials. Another company, E6PR, makes biodegradable six pack rings.

When you have a choice of products, consider what you are buying and consider its long-term impact on our world.

Photo by Ian Dyball, iStock