According to the Earth Institute website, it is estimated there are 165 million tons of plastic debris in our oceans with more than eight additional tons pouring in annually. Some of the plastic floats on the surface, and swirling ocean currents gather the debris into great masses.
A National Geographic headline reads, “Plastic Garbage Patch Bigger than Mexico Found on Pacific Ocean.” The Great Pacific garbage patch is estimated to cover more than a million square miles. It has become the poster child for the overload of plastic pollution on earth.
A United Nations Ocean Conference estimated, “The oceans might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050.”
Plastic gradually breaks down and is assimilated into all levels of the oceans top to bottom. Smaller pieces float just below the surface. The tiny plastic bits absorb pollutants in seawater before they enter the food chain and are eaten by sea-dwelling birds, but also fish, which are then eaten by humans.
Much pelagic plastic debris accumulates at Midway Atoll in the Pacific, and it is estimated of nearly all of the 1.5 million Laysan albatrosses that live there have ingested significant levels of plastic detritus. Plastic bottles are becoming a typical component of the seafloor landscape.
Traditional plastic does not biodegrade. It photodegrades, gradually, over hundreds of years. Some plastic items in landfills might take 1000 years to break down. The typical #1 plastic bottle might take only 450 years or so. According to PBS News Hour, “Around 60 percent of the plastics we’ve ever made are on the planet somewhere.”
Plastic waste can be burned, but the smoke from incineration at lower temperatures, such the typical method used in developing countries, contains huge amounts of noxious chemicals that pose a health hazard. In more advanced countries, the environmental hazard is abated only by more effective technology and equipment.
Why do we even have plastic?
The first synthetic polymer was created in 1869 in an attempt to find a substitute for ivory for billiard balls. It was produced using cellulose from cotton fibers. Almost 40 years later, Leo Baekaland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic that contained only man-made molecules and nothing found in nature. It was easily produced and could be molded into an endless array of shapes. In another 40 years, World War II prompted the creation of other synthetic products such as nylon and Plexiglas, and a boom in the creation and uses of synthetic plastic products followed.
Researchers recently collected data from trade associations and other sources to determine that since 1950, humans have manufactured at least 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, seven billion tons of which are no longer in use. Much of this flexible and adaptable product is used for packaging. The same PBS article states, “An overwhelming majority of packaging plastics are acquired and discarded within the same year. In 2015, 146 million metric tons of polymer plastics went into use as packaging, but 141 million metric tons (96.5%) were thrown out.”
Also noteworthy is that half of the plastic made since 1950 has been made in the 21st century. Whereas two million metric tons of plastic products were made in 1950, we made 380 million tons in 2015.
Kinds of plastic
The industry distinguishes seven types of plastic. A consumer can often find on plastic products a triangle of arrows with a number inside and letters below to identify the kind of plastic.
#1 – PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is common in products such as water and soft drink bottles and other food containers. It’s intended for a single use because it is prone to bacterial growth and difficult to decontaminate. It is commonly accepted by recyclers. Recycled #1 plastics can be made into a polyester fiber for use in making garments, carpets, pillow stuffing.
#2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) is used for detergent bottles and milk jugs and is usually accepted by recyclers. According to Eartheasy, it is “very hard-wearing and does not break down under exposure to sunlight or extremes of heating or freezing. For this reason, HDPE is used to make picnic tables, plastic lumber, waste bins, park benches, bed liners for trucks and other products which require durability and weather-resistance.” Walmart bags are labeled #2 HDPE with the statement, “Please return to a participating store for recycling.”
#3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is used for wrapping both food and non-food items. It is also used for rigid piping, vinyl records and insulating electrical cables. Eartheasy also mentions it is “relatively impervious to sunlight and weather” and is therefore useful for making window frames, garden hoses and trellises. However, the same article called PVC the poison plastic because it might contain toxins that leach out during the life of the product. PVC plastic is not recyclable though some items can be repurposed.
#4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) is used for the bags bread comes in and for squeezable bottles and dry cleaner garment bags. Frozen food bags might be LDPE. It is also used to make container lids, plastic lumber, garbage can liners and floor tiles.
#5 – PP (Polypropylene) is the plastic bag containing the cereal inside the box. It is light weight and heat-resistant. Consumers see #5 plastics often as yogurt and butter containers, bottle caps and bags for potato chips. It’s also used to make garden pails, rope and straws. When recycled, it can become battery cases and household items such as brooms, trays and bins.
#6 – PS and EPS (Polystyrene and Expanded Polystyrene) is used to make disposable Styrofoam drinking cups and take out boxes in restaurants, peanuts for packing, and egg cartons. Foam insulation might also contain polystyrene. It is lightweight and brittle, and pieces of it that litter the environment are difficult to remove. Eartheasy states, “Beaches all over the world have bits of polystyrene lapping at the shores, and an untold number of marine species have ingested this plastic with immeasurable consequences to their health.” Polystyrene contains styrene, a possible carcinogen, so it should not be microwaved to avoid the styrene leaching into food. Styrofoam should be avoided when possible. Solid polystyrene is used to make CD and DVD cases.
#7 – A catch-all category for other plastics which include the polymers used to make baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler containers and certain car parts. A concern with some #7s, however, is polycarbonate products containing BPA (Bisphenol A), a known endocrine disruptor. Some water bottles are labeled “non-leaching,” though Eartheasy claims it is still possible BPA can leach into the liquid, especially if it is heated. It is best to avoid using #7 plastics.
Newcomers on the scene are at least two types of biodegradable plastic products. One is made from corn, and under perfect conditions it might break down in less 100 days. In less than perfect conditions, it takes as long as any typical Walmart bag. The other is a petroleum-based product, but to degrade it requires high temperatures at an appropriately-equipped composting facility.
Bryan Launius is the Education Coordinator for the Carroll County Solid Waste Authority, and he said CCSWA accepts only #1 and #2 plastics because they have no market for #3-7s. Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers also accept only #1-2 plastics, but the Fayetteville website states, “When sustainable and practical markets are identified, we will begin accepting these [other] materials in our recycling program.”
Launius said a recycler must first of all have space for the material collected, and personnel and equipment to process it, but most important there must be an end user who will purchase the product to make the effort financially worthwhile. He said CCSWA sells its plastics to a broker who resells it.
The end use recycler will sort and clean the plastic. Some plastics are separated by color, and impurities such as labeling must be removed. The products are then chipped and melted into pellets called nurdles. Nurdles can be melted into whatever form the end user needs.
Different types of plastics separate when melted together which presents a challenge for manufacturers. Nevertheless, crafty manufacturers continue to find ways to use reclaimed plastics.
Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies in Springdale is such an end user which, according to its website, “converts plastic and wood fiber waste into outdoor decking and railing systems, fence systems, and door and window components.” They claim their composite building products are termite-resistant, highly durable and non-toxic. Launius commented AERT products outlast wood.
He also mentioned the shirt he was wearing included recycled plastic fibers. Russell Athletics uses fiber from plastics for clothing products, as does the North Carolina company, Unifi, which makes three kinds of recycled yarn: totally from used plastic bottles, a mix of plastic bottles and fiber waste, and a hybrid of plastic bottles and used fabric. There are a host of other companies that use fibers from recycled plastic in clothing.
Seraphim Plastics is another company with a presence in eight states in the South and Midwest that buys post-use plastics to produce a wide variety of recycled products.
What we can do
Launius mentioned one simple thing consumers can do to decrease the amount of plastic in the waste stream is avoid using plastic straws when eating out. He said a straw is used for just a few minutes but takes forever to decompose in a landfill.
The Last Plastic Straw is a grassroots movement whose goal is to eliminate single-use plastics at the source. They claim beach cleanups around the protected Monterrey Bay Marine Sanctuary find at least 5000 plastic straws annually, and estimate “U.S. consumption equals enough straws to fill Yankee Stadium nine times a year!”
We can also ask restaurants to use cardboard instead of Styrofoam take-out boxes. Businesses can choose to eliminate the use of Styrofoam cups. Cities across the country including New York City, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and many others have completely or partially banned Styrofoam.