Friday, August 4, 2017
“There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Party guest to a young college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 Mike Nichols film, The Graduate)
Plastics? Half a century later, what do we have to show for it? “We have produced 9 billion tons of the material, and most ends up as waste… By 2050, it is projected that there will be more than 13 billion tons of plastic waste worldwide. Recycling, researchers note, doesn’t prevent plastic waste — it merely delays its entry into a landfill or the environment.” Los Angeles Times, July 29th. It might keep a tad more plastic from being created, but waste is waste. Recyclable is definitely not“biodegradable.”
Landfills? Sure some of that plastic waste gets there, but too much of it finds its way scattered across the land, floating down rivers and streams or swirling in nasty “garbage patches” across the ocean. Some of it snags and chokes the life out of creatures everywhere. Picture a seal choking to death in the rings of a plastic beer carrier.
But mostly, it’s permanent or virtually permanent ugly, disgusting garbage. Sometimes highly concentrated. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch [pictured above] is one of many areas in the ocean where marine debris naturally concentrates because of ocean currents… [Dianna Parker for NOAA] ‘There are garbage patches all over the world. These are areas where debris naturally accumulates. So there are garbage patches of all different sizes and shapes and compositions. The one that we know the most about is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which lies in an area between Hawaii and California. What we know about this area is that it's made up of tiny micro plastics, almost akin to a peppery soup, with scattered larger items, fishing gear, those kind of items swirling around…
“‘"The words 'garbage patch' accurately describes what it is, because these are patches of ocean that contain our garbage. But they're not areas where you can easily go through and skim trash off the surface. First of all, because they are tiny micro plastics that aren't easily removable from the ocean. But also just because of the size of this area. We did some quick calculations that if you tried to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion. And the bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean.’" OceanService.NOAA.gov. Tens/hundreds of thousands of square miles of trash (considerably larger than the state of Texas) – mostly plastics – just floating around forever? An estimate from 2010 tells us that somewhere between 4 million and 13 million tons of plastic waste entered the marine environment in that year alone.
But it’s not just floating plastic waste in the ocean. Plastic waste is everywhere: “Humans make more plastic than just about anything…. Since the 1950s, plastic production worldwide has exploded from about 2 million tons to a whopping 440 million tons in 2015, surpassing any other man-made material except for concrete and steel.
“A total of 9.1 billion tons of plastic have ever been produced, with half coming in the last 13 years, according to a new analysis in Science Advances… And that makes sense: Plastic is ridiculously useful and durable. The problem is the stuff is a little too durable.
“The plastic produced 60 years ago is still around today and probably will be with us for centuries or longer. If it’s not incinerated, it piles up in landfills or the environment, most notably in the oceans. As of 2015, the plastic boom has been accompanied by nearly 7 billion tons of waste, according to the analysis.
“The study, led by Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, tallies the sheer amount of plastic humans have produced, how it’s used and ultimately where it ends up… And the numbers are dizzying: Of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic ever produced, 6.9 billion tons are waste, 5.4 billion tons of which are discarded in either a landfill or the environment; 661 million tons of plastic are recycled.
“About 42% of all plastics ever produced have been used in packaging. The next largest use for plastics is in construction, which accounts for 19% of the share… ‘Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use; plastic is the opposite,’ Geyer said in a statement. ‘Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.’
“The researchers excluded biodegradable or bio-based plastics from their study, which has a global production capacity of only about 4.4 million tons.” LA Times. The issue demands more research, redesign of materials destined for the global garbage heap and some very serious policy-making from governments everywhere. But if the current administration is anti-environmental regulation, effectively unraveling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is there really any hope?
“If production continues at its current rate, the world faces a glut of plastic waste by 2050. By then it is estimated there would be 28.7 billion tons of plastic resins produced, 6.6 billion tons of acrylic fibers produced, 9.9 billion tons of plastic recycled, 13.2 billion tons of plastic incinerated, and 13.2 billion tons of plastic discarded in landfills or the environment… Put another way: ‘We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,’ Geyer said.” LA Times. Sigh! The problem isn’t even on Congress’ radar!
I’m Peter Dekom, and in your daily life, the consumption choices you make, are you helping or hurting this mounting plastic waste problem?