WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT…
- Unexpected places to find plastics.
- What’s so damn special about plastic?
- Why is plastic bad?
- What kind of material is plastic material?
- Short history of plastics.
- How can we manage plastic?
- What does the future look like?
When you read something in the news like – dead whale has 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach (1), you start to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of the environment. Or is it the end of the beginning, and we’re already really, really deep in sh… plastic garbage?
I understand the use of plastic- it’s cheap, it’s light, it can be very cute and colorful and so – it’s practical. How practical are we talking about?
Let’s review the positive sides of plastic:
- It can be used E V E R Y W H E R E. And I mean – E V E R Y W H E R E. In every industry.
- It’s cheap and easily replaceable.
- It can be in any color.
- It can be recycled.
- It’s light.
- It does not shatter.
- It has been proven that a certain worm and a certain bacteria CAN breakdown non-degradable plastic at a certain rate (HINT: very, very slow).
So, we’ve seen the good side, let’s have a look at the evil one then:
- It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to break down and 600 years for a fishing line to succumb to the degrading laws of nature.
- Biodegradable plastic is plastic that degrades at a higher speed than regular plastic. And the market is not very controlled. So you can have a plastic peace that degrades 5 minutes faster than regular plastic and have a stamp on it claiming it to be biodegradable. It’s murky waters at best.
- Leaching of chemicals into content (BPA, for example – a known endocrine disruptor).
- Adsorption of substances, leading to foul taste and smell of the content.
- Last but not least – carbon footprint is through the roof.
But, I know what you’re thinking – EVERY industry has a high carbon footprint.
Even YOU have a high carbon footprint!
*Cough, cough* Excuse me – but I don’t even own a car! Ha!
… And I can already hear you thinking –
wait till you get a job that TELLS you to own a car! Or lends you one for that matter. You’ll end up just like the rest of us.
Yes – I know – Point taken people! We are all in one plastic bucket. Drowning in sh..Plastic.
Speaking of drowning in plastic, have I ever told you that there’s about 4.8 – 12.7 million tons of plastic in the oceans? (2) I’m not joking. There’s 321,003,271 cubic miles (1.332 billion cubic kilometers) of water in the oceans (all together), (3) and every day we find ways to dump something in it.
WHAT KIND OF MATERIAL IS PLASTIC MATERIAL?
Plastic material is polymeric material that may or may not contain other substances which improve effectiveness and/or reduce costs.
And what is a polymeric material? (you know how much I love to split hairs).
A polymer is a substance made out of macromolecules.
What is a macromolecule?
Well, it’s a very big molecule.
How big? You ask.
Think of two small molecules, for example, terephthalic acid (HOOC—C6H4—COOH) and ethylene glycol (HO—CH2—CH2—OH). Combine them (minus 2 molecules of water) and connect them with a repetition unit (—OC—C6H4—COO—CH2—CH2—O—). You can use the repetition unit as much as you want …
… And voila! – You get a macromolecule.
In this concrete example, you get Polyethylene terephthalate or PET, which is the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family. You find it in fibres for clothes, containers for liquids and foods, etc. Here’s a short sequence:
HOW IN THE WORLD DID PLASTIC GET INTO OUR LIVES?
Technically, plastics are nothing new. The first ever natural rubber was used by the Mesopotamians in 1600BC.
Now, I know what you’re gonna say!
Rubber and plastic is not the same, duuh!
Yes, genius, but they are both polymers, and we can safely say that plastics are the evolutionary child of natural materials, such as rubber, nitrocellulose, collagen and galalite.
Of course, we – the Humans, had something to do with this evolution. We played with chemical modification and journeyed into the world of modern plastics. We closed the door and cannot go back, but is that bad?
HOW DO WE MANAGE PLASTIC? THIS IS TO SAY – BESIDE DUMPING IT IN THE OCEANS OR JUST GENERALLY IN NATURE, WHAT DO WE DO WITH IT/TO IT?
Well, one thing is recycling. I don’t know if you know this or not – but recycling of plastic is actually a very hard and challenging deal. Plastic has low density and low value, and combined with one or few technical hurdles, it still represents a central part of many environmental safety and pollution debates.
There are many processes to recycle plastic, but here are the main ones:
- Thermal depolarization – organic compounds are heated up to really high temperatures in the presence of water, and turned into light crude oil. Here, different waste streams require different cooking ways and coking times, and yield different finished products. But it works like a charm! (4) (5)
- Heat compression – all plastic, no matter the size, is put together in giant rotating drums, that apply heat to the plastics and convert them to a new plastic material. This method is criticized for its large energy costs. (6)
Thermal depolarization is considered the future of recycling.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
It’s probably made of plastic. God, I hope not.
But, over 660 species, like seabirds, fish, planktons, etc., are noted to be affected by plastic debris. We eat fish. So, plastic micro/nano particles end up in us as well. To this end, it is very important, to know with high precision, where plastic junk is generated and prioritize those areas for reduction of that shit. I mean plastic. More importantly, the mismanaged plastic waste needs to be reduced!
Global mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) generation in 2015.
Here’s a map of the mismanaged plastic waste generation from 2015. It was posted in an article on January 2019. The scientists in the mentioned article talk about the accumulation of mismanaged plastic waste and how it represents a huge global concern. They wanted to improve the level of detail present in country-level plastic waste generation data, based on population density and affluence. They did a great job, and for the first time, distributions of mismanaged municipal plastic waste generation were published and shown, at an order of 1 km resolution, worldwide from now to 2060. (7)
If it’s business as usual, they say, by 2060 mismanaged plastic waste generation could triple. (7)
So, what do we do?
We can control how we manage plastic waste. Report mismanage. Educate people. Tell them, that they already eat plastic. Ew.
National and international cooperation is of course vital. This is our Planet. Our Home. There isn’t another one. Yet. And I doubt Elon or NASA will find one tomorrow and transport us there.
I think they need more time.
So, until then – we must reduce plastic waste releases into natural environments.
Till next time.
- The Guardian: Environment. Online Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/20/indonesia-dead-whale-had-1000-pieces-of-plastic-in-stomach. (21.04.2019).
- Haward M: Plastic Pollution of the World’s Seas and Oceans as a Contemporary Challenge in Ocean Governance. Nature Communications. 2018. (9):667.
- National Ocean Service. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. US Department of Commerce. Online Source: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oceanwater.html. (21.04.2019).
- Fox JA, Stacey NT: Process Targeting: An Energy Based Comparison of Waste Plastic Processing Technologies. Energy. 2019. 170: (273-283).
- Discover: Science for the Curious. Online Source: http://discovermagazine.com/2003/may/featoil/ (21.04.2019).
- Recycle Nation. Heat Compression. Online Source: https://recyclenation.com/green-glossary/heat-compression/ (21.04.2019).
- Lebreton L, Andrady A: Future Scenarios of Global Plastic Waste Generation and Disposal. Palgrave Communications. 2019. (5): 6.