The Plastic Invasion by Silvia Milanova, April 05 2017
Plastic is Earth’s kryptonite. And it’s killing it and us fast. In fact, we are drowning in plastic. It’s everywhere. Sadly, plastic is a material the Earth cannot ingest and dispose of easily. Once plastic is created, it cannot naturally biodegrade in soil, nor will it fully disintegrate any other way. All plastic can do is break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Even in the most secluded places on Earth, scientists have found chemical pollutants from plastics. Marine life that resides in the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean—a place almost 11 km deep—contains persistent organic pollutants (POPs), compounds found in plastics and highly toxic to organisms.
The famous line, “There is a great future in plastics” from the movie The Graduate may have been amusing, and accurate. But it’s much less amusing to realize that in the future (today), more than 5 trillion plastic pieces float in the oceans and that by the year 2050 we could have more plastic in our oceans than fish.
Next to food waste, plastics had the highest percentage of material that ended up as garbage—not composted, recycled or combusted. In 2014, the United States generated more than 33 million tons of plastic waste. Of those 33 million tons, only about 3 million tons, or 10%, was recycled. And 25 million tons of plastics, or 75% of the plastic we generate, went into landfills. The rest was combusted to create energy. Globally, 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all. Forty percent goes to landfills, while 32% leaks after collection—either accidentally, or on purpose through illegal action and mismanagement.
Plastics were invented more than a century ago as a durable, but lighter alternative to glass and metal. But today too many of the plastics produced each year are single-use, e.g. plastic cups and straws; plastic wrapping; plastic sandwich and shopping bags, plastic bottles.
The New Plastics Economy
The New Plastics Economy initiative was launched in 2016 and led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with a broad group of leading companies, cities, philanthropists, policy-makers, designers, academics, students and NGOs. The initiative released a new report in 2017 called Catalysing Action, which highlights three areas of opportunity and priority for plastics:
- Reuse. We are not recycling nearly as much as we could. Most single-use items don’t end up being recycled even though they may be recyclable. Instead, they end up in a landfill and often leak into our oceans. This very linear economical model (make use throw) is harmful to the environment. Instead, we should focus on making plastic products and packaging with a second life, those that can come back into the value chain—what is called a circular economy.
- Redesign and Innovation. We need to invest in innovative solutions to make plastics with a lesser footprint on Earth—for example, bio-based and compostable plastics. We should also focus on making small-format and multi-material plastics easier and more economical to recycle.
- After-Use Systems. The opportunities and technologies for better recycling programs and processes are improving and we need to utilize them. The interest is there, but current efforts are too small-scale. Governments and main industry players can create more structured and harmonized ways of collecting, sorting and recycling plastics. This can help remove public confusion around recycling and increase the percentage of recycling.
These action steps were fueled by Project MainStream, a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the World Economic Forum and McKinsey & Company, which published a detailed report in 2016 called Rethinking the Future of Plastics. This report explored how we globally create, use and dispose of plastic and the benefits of shifting from a linear model to a circular economic model. It established three main goals:
- Value capture and collective effort: Create an after-use plastics economy that brings value back into the economic chain and involve local governments to set standardized recycling policies.
- Positive environmental outcome: Decrease leakage that otherwise harms natural systems and infrastructure (particularly, our oceans).
- Imaginative innovation: Separate plastics’ dependence on virgin fossil fuels by developing new recycling processes and technologies and renewable feedstocks.
How much plastic are we using?
The production of plastics has exploded in the last 50 years, from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, according to the report. This number will only continue to grow, doubling in the next 20 years and quadrupling by 2050, with its wide use in cosmetics, food and beverage, packaging, agriculture, medical supplies, technology, construction, entertainment, transport, textiles/goods and many other industries.
Why is plastic so widely used?
Plastic packaging is much lighter in weight than its metal or glass counterparts and it reduces fuel consumption for transportation. Plastic packaging is also economical by preserving other commodities—such as extending the shelf life of food and, in turn, reducing food spoilage and waste.
Of all the plastics we produce and use, plastic packaging is the largest application with 26% of the total volume. And the material has come to, and will continue to, play an important role in the global economy. Its importance comes mainly from its malleable properties and economic benefits. Plastic can:
- Form into many different shapes when soft and squeezable (example: cables);
- Act as an adhesive or coating and be applied to other surfaces;
- Mimic other materials—such as glass;
- Resist heat and chemicals, repel water; and
- Be durable, making it ideal for strong applications while remaining low weight.
Problems with plastic
Despite its practical and economic benefits, plastic packaging is known as a one-time use material in business-to-consumer scenarios. Its linear consumption model is too wasteful—it has a short useful life and an eternal useless presence. Most plastic products, and primarily packaging, never see a “second life” as something else. Of the $84-$126 billion of plastics manufactured every year, 95% of that value is lost—the plastic is discarded and not brought back into the economy. This results in an $80-120 billion economic loss annually.
Plastic packaging is a big culprit here—only 14% of all plastic packaging worldwide is recycled. It doesn’t mean that it’s not recyclable, but that most of it is not collected for recycling. And recycling plastic packaging usually yields lower quality items that can’t be recycled again after their second life. This differs greatly from the global recycling rates for paper (58%) and iron and steel (70–90%).
Some plastic that is not recycled or thrown out is combusted for fuel and energy. This may seem like a good thing, but burning plastic is potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Pollutants released into the atmosphere from burning plastic—such as PVC and BPA—can deposit themselves on land or into bodies of water. These same chemicals are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Frequent exposure to plastic chemicals is linked to cancers, birth defects, weaker immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments. Even newborn babies may enter the world already contaminated with chemicals from plastics passed down from their mothers through the umbilical cord.
Producing plastics also releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and uses natural resources. In 2012, plastic production contributed around 390 million tons of CO2 emissions. And about 10% of all the oil and gas that the United States produces and imports is used in the production of synthetic plastics. The market is growing at a rate of up to 15% per year. By 2050, the entire plastics industry could be consuming 20% of total oil production. In contrast, recycling one ton of plastics reduces emissions by 1-3 tons of CO2 compared to producing the same amount of the material from virgin fossil fuel feedstock (raw material).
Innovative Solution(ists): Linear vs. Circular Plastics Economy
To combat this ever-growing plastic plague, a possible solution is to eliminate the linear model (make use throw), and move toward a circular economy. That’s the idea behind manufacturing products that don’t have an end-life after their first use, but rather come back into the economy as equally-valued items. This concept focuses on three main principles: a more productive economy, optimal resource usage and better system effectiveness.
For example, plastic bottles are collected and recycled into fabric and in turn, clothing—as seen with a recent partnership between fashion brand Timberland and Thread. This would take the value of the bottles and recycle their worth into something that is again usable. Reusing plastics and other consumer goods that otherwise end up in the garbage could save an estimated $2.6 trillion each year.
Some current innovations, aiming at the root of these problems, are developing bio-based and renewable-source plastics and using greenhouse gases as feedstock to create plastics.
Traditionally, plastics are created from fossil fuel products like natural gas and crude oil. But they can also be made from plants such as corn, soy and hemp caster beans, sugar cane, wheat, potatoes, rice, tapioca, palm fiber, wood cellulose and bagasse, all bio-based feedstocks. One big difference between bio-based and petro-based plastics is that bioplastics are made from renewable materials and petro plastics use fossil fuels that are finite—eventually we will run out of them. Bioplastics can also be biodegradable, although bio-based doesn’t automatically make a material biodegradable or compostable. In addition, bioplastics don't contribute as much to CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. On the contrary, they may even remove CO2 from the air, creating a negative carbon footprint.
But there are some challenges with bio-based plastics. The main one is an inferior performance to petro plastics—mainly low heat resistance issues. Others include lack of recycling programs specific to bioplastics, vague standards for the percentage of bio-based material needed to classify a product as “bio-based”, and controversial sources (GMO plants).
Some companies, however, are tackling these challenges and making significant and competitive progress. One example is US Bioplastics™, which produces Gatoresin®, a bioplastic made from by-products of sugar, paper production, rice bran, or other plant waste. The material is biorenewable, biodegradable, water degradable, recyclable, heat resistant and also in line with petro plastic costs per pound. These characteristics make this bioplastic a competitive option to petro plastic.
Another company, NatureWorks, has used scientific research and development to create a process where greenhouse gases, like atmospheric carbon, are used to create polylactic acid (PLA) materials labeled Ingeo. According to the company: “manufacturing Ingeo produces approximately 80% less greenhouse gases and uses approximately 52% less non-renewable energy (NREU) than traditional polymers.”
Lego is also on a quest to find healthier alternatives to make its well-known plastic building bricks. The company is investing millions of dollars to develop more sustainable materials that can perform as well as oil-based plastics.
To close the loop, companies like Relan, Looptworks and Norton Point, try to divert plastic and other trash from landfills. Instead, they offer products made from recycled or upcycled materials such as sunglasses made from recovered ocean plastic or coolers made from reclaimed billboards.
Today, we are slowly drowning in plastic—plastic we aren’t recycling, plastic that’s leaking into our oceans and into marine life, plastic that is simply used once and thrown away. But there is hope. We can come together and strive for a more circular economy by:
- Refusing single-use plastics;
- Manufacturing plastics with a lesser footprint and many afterlives;
- Supporting the circular economy by purchasing plastic products made of more biodegradable materials, or those made from recycled or upcycled plastic;
- Advocating for more successful recycling programs and processes; and
- Involving local and Federal governments to invent global standards for labeling, collecting and sorting plastics.
Then, we just may be able to escape the plastic plague.
EDITORIAL NOTE: EcoPlum Business Gifts aims to do its part in reducing plastic waste by providing companies and organizations with ethically-sourced and sustainable alternatives to promotional products made from 1st-use, petroleum-based plastic.