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September 28, 2018
The Perils of Plastic Pollution
Meena Miriam Yust
Plastics are found in the products we use every day: the toys we give our children, the
clothing we wear, the disposable cups we drink from, the automobiles we make, the
straws we use, the list goes on. Cheap and easy to make, plastic goods and plastic
production have exploded in recent years. Yet the junked cars, the used straws and
cups, they all end up somewhere, perhaps in a landfill, or perhaps drifting in the wind.
91% of plastic goods are not recycled. Most have found their way to rivers, lakes,
and oceans, and over time break down into tiny microscopic particles of plastic.
Microplastics are everywhere, even in the deepest sea floor sediments and in the
Arctic. They can originate in small form from toothpaste or makeup, or can be derived
from larger pieces of plastic, which over time break down into small particles.
Not very long ago (Sept. 8, 2018), a giant 2,000 foot long tube was launched from
San Francisco to be towed to a suitable site. The brainchild of a young 24-year-old
Dutchman named Boyan Slat, it is intended to trap some of the ever-increasing tons
of plastic polluting our oceans. To be sure California lends a more sympathetic ear to
pollution problems than does Washington or the Federal Government these days.
Researchers have sought to determine the extent of plastic pollution and tested water
samples from cities and towns on five continents. The results: microscopic plastic
particles were present in 83%. Ironically samples that tested positive included the US
Capitol building and the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, as well
as the Trump Grill in New York. Researchers say these plastic particles are also likely
in foods prepared with water, such as pasta and bread.
Every day, more plastics are added to the world’s waters. From coastal regions
alone, between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic find their way to the oceans
each year. By 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean is expected to ‘outweigh the
fish’, says Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.
Currently estimated to be 150 million tons, they take a very long time to biodegrade –
an estimated 450 years to never.
Almost 700 species that we are aware of have been affected by plastic pollution,
ranging from tiny creatures to the largest, and some are already endangered.
Whales have already fallen victim to plastic contamination. This past June, a whale in
Thailand died from ingesting more than 80 plastic bags. And a sperm whale was
found dead on a beach in Spain with 29 kilos of plastic in its stomach.
Australian researchers studying a large sample of sea turtles recently reported in
Nature that half of the baby sea turtles had stomachs filled with plastic. They
calculated that turtles have a 50% probability of death after ingesting 14 pieces of
plastic, and that younger turtles are more likely to be harmed.
Can plastics affect human health too? The answer is ‘yes,’ and in various ways,
depending on the kind of plastic. Diethylhexyl, found in some plastics, is a
carcinogen. Bisphenol-A (BPA), present in some plastic bottles and food packaging
materials, can interfere with human hormonal functioning and can be ingested
through water or from eating contaminated fish. Some toxins in plastics are known to
cause birth defects, cancers, and immune system problems. Cadmium, mercury,
bromine and lead are highly toxic, although now restricted or banned in plastic
manufacture in many countries, some for several decades. Yet a recent 2018 study
examining the water of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, found levels of these chemicals
sometimes beyond the accepted limits under EU law. The findings were a testament
to how long plastic pollution remains in the environment, the metals being released as
the plastics break down over time.
It is very difficult to study the exact impact of plastic pollution on humans because
plastic pollution is so widespread that ‘there are almost no unexposed subjects’, notes
Norway has managed to recycle a remarkable 97% of its plastic bottles. It achieved
this by installing plastic bottle machines that return money in exchange. The UK is
considering adopting a similar strategy.
Denmark recycles far more plastic bags than the United States: an average Dane
uses four single-use bags per year, an American almost one per day. How do they do
it? Denmark adopted a tax on plastic bags in 1993 and the bag is not free – it costs
about 50 cents, part of the money going to the tax and part to the store. The effect
has been a reduction in the sale of bags by over 40% over the last 25 years. One
can only hope that more countries will follow.
The United States currently recycles only about 9% of plastics. According to an EPA
study this past August, the U.S. recycling rate actually decreased in 2015. Could the
Scandinavian techniques help? Only a handful of states in the U.S. have passed laws
regarding deposit machines; adding laws requiring a charge for plastic bags or a tax,
as the City of Chicago did, is not impossible.
For years China has been importing much of the world’s scraps, including 40% of U.S.
recyclables. But in 2018, China placed a ban on imports of plastics, mixed paper, and
other materials. Recycled plastics from the U.S. to China dropped 92% in the first five
months of the year. California may be especially hard hit, as it had been exporting
about a third of its recyclables, amounting to 15 million tons in 2016. 62% of those
exports went to China. It is unclear whether the U.S. will be able to cope with the
increased influx of recyclables on home territory.
Sadly, even if the U.S. and all developed countries had sufficient machines and
facilities to reach Norway’s 97% level of plastic bottle recycling, it would not be enough
to save the oceans. This is because the bulk of ocean plastic pollution comes from
developing countries who often lack recycling and waste pickup infrastructure. In
2010, one researcher estimated that half of the world’s plastic pollution was
generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam,
and Sri Lanka.
The top polluters were again listed for Earth Day 2018, by quantity of annual
mismanaged plastic waste. The top six:
1 China: 1.32 – 3.52 Million Metric Tons (MMT) / year
2 Indonesia: 0.48 – 1.29 MMT/year
3 Philippines: 0.28 – 0.75 MMT/year
4 Vietnam: 0.28 – 0.73 MMT/year
5 Sri Lanka: 0.24 – 0.64 MMT/year
6 Thailand: 0.15 – 0.41 MMT/year
The statistics also showed a percentage of mismanaged plastic waste. Eight countries
had over 80% mismanaged plastic waste: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri
Lanka, India, Pakistan, Burma, and North Korea. These are developing nations and
they often do not have a proper waste and recycling infrastructure. In the Philippines,
recycling is sometimes done slowly and laboriously by hand picking from dump yards.
Not surprisingly, much is washed away to sea. The Pasig River that flows through
Manila carries an estimated 72,000 tons of plastic downstream each year, and the
river has been declared “biologically dead” since 1990. Of course, developed nations
could provide aid to help create a recycling infrastructure where it is lacking. But such
foreign aid without educating the public of its necessity is unlikely.
Then there is the intriguing possibility of actually scavenging ocean plastic. Boyan
Slat’s giant flexible tube, appended on its underside with a curtain barrier, will be
shaped into a U to trap the plastic, which a sister ship will retrieve for recycling and
safe disposal. Due to ocean currents, the plastic collects in the relatively stagnant
ocean pools between them easing the job of Mr. Slat’s device. The Ocean Cleanup,
Slat’s foundation, displays five such sites in the world’s oceans: one each in the North
and South Atlantic and Pacific, and one in the south Indian Ocean. They claim the
device can clean up 90% of the floating waste. Everyone is rooting for him.
In the mean time, there are a few things we can do each day, which, collectively could
have a positive impact:
-Ordering fewer products online could help, as packaging is a huge source of
pollution and often includes bubble wrap, made of low-density polyethylene. It is not
the easiest form of plastic to recycle and it comprises 20% of global plastic waste.
Bringing ones own bags to a local store would be far less taxing on the environment.
-Minimizing foam cups and takeout containers would be highly beneficial – they are
made from polystyrene, which is difficult to recycle.
-Avoiding the use of straws, when possible, would aid sea creatures. Straws, made of
polypropylene usually end up in the ocean. Polypropylene comprises 19% of global
-Reusing and recycling as much as possible is a mantra that cannot be repeated too
Collectively, we could make a difference. And if we can also pool our resources to
help developing countries recycle, then perhaps we can save our oceans, the turtles,
the whales, and even, us.