Plastics have been used for countless applications since the invention of the first synthetic polymer in 1869, which was created to replace products like ivory and other materials that come from nature. Plastics were originally seen as something that could be beneficial for the environment by reducing humanity’s use of natural resources. Plastic production became much more widespread after World War II, and since the 1950s more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced. Plastic is an inexpensive option that is durable and pliable and can be used in a variety of different ways, but this property of being resistant that makes plastic so useful is also the reason why it poses such a massive environmental threat today. Plastic polymers are derived from petroleum products and drive our societies need for fossil fuels.
Only a small percentage of plastics are recycled, and nearly all of the plastic that has ever been produced is still on the planet, mostly in landfills or released into the environment. Plastic products break down into increasingly smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that can enter the food chain and contaminate water sources, and recent research has indicated that microplastics can contain toxic chemicals and may be more harmful to human health and the environment than previously thought. Plastic waste polluting the environment and filling landfills is an issue that is growing as millions of tons of plastic continue to be produced every year. Most plastic products that are recycled are only able to be made into lower quality plastic goods that eventually end up in a landfill anyway through a process known as downcycling, so in many ways the idea of recycling as a solution to the plastic waste is potentially distracting from more effective methods. Plastic materials are a cheap and convenient option, but at a great expense that is paid for by the entire planet.
Many single use plastic products are only used for a few minutes until they are disposed of, but they will continue to persist on the planet long after we are gone. Plastic that does not end up in a landfill or recycled is carried through rivers and streams and eventually enters the oceans, where it can be carried thousands of miles by ocean currents. These currents gather waste in certain areas where it accumulates and forms large patches, the most famous and largest of these being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of two major patches of garbage off the coasts of Japan and California, and much of the plastic that makes up these patches are tiny particles known as microplastics. These plastics come from boats and wash into the ocean from the land, and much of the patch is made up of fishing nets. Plastic products break apart into small pieces, and this process is sped up by the sun through photodegradation. Microplastics also come from small plastic beads used in cosmetic products that enter the water supply. Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm, and these particles have been found throughout the world’s most remote regions. Microplastics have recently been identified in snowfall in the Arctic and in Europe, which is evidence that these particles can be carried by the wind and are likely contaminating the atmosphere and being inhaled as well. This can cause damage to lungs and is only one of the many ways that these particles are potentially harming human health. Microplastics are consumed by organisms and accumulate in the food chain until they are eventually consumed by humans. These particles can also enter the food we eat from plastic packaging used to transport and store products. Microplastics can contain BPA and phthalates as well as potentially carrying other toxic chemicals like PCBs. The impacts of ingesting microplastics are not fully understood yet, but these chemicals are known to cause hormonal issues as well as cancers, reproductive problems, and nervous system problems as well as numerous other diseases (4).
It is my intention to explore sustainable solutions to the problem of plastic waste in the environment over the next three months. A solution meets sustainability objectives if it meets the following definition of sustainability:
A practice, process, or entity is sustainable if its initiatives, actions or impacts serve to meet the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations through:
- the extraction, creation and use of resources in ways that maximize renewal, reduce or eliminate pollution and waste, and mitigate and/or support adaptation to global climate change while protecting and restoring the health of natural systems and biodiversity;
- equitable economic development including profit that empowers people to meet their own needs without undermining the ability of others to do so for themselves particularly by eliminating exploitation;
- an elevated and dignified standard of human well-being that ensures basic human rights and social justice for all people;
Best practices for meeting these objectives include using an inclusive, transparent process that employs systems thinking and scientific principles, encourages individual and collective action, and assessment using measurable indicators.