Plastics or Planet?

plastic pollution incubatorium environment

Title image by Gargi Chandola

The argument against plastic bans

Not long ago, someone I knew, tagged me on a Facebook post quoting an article on how, presumably, scientific research on plastic pollution has been cherry-picked by dishonest researchers in order to push their agenda of supporting climate change and the contribution of plastics to worsening it. This, according to said article, was done in order to limit the developed nations by forcing unnecessary plastic bans onto them, while the developing nations were the real origin of the problem and the plastic issue is entirely their fault. The main argument being that a third of the plastic pollution making its way to the oceans comes from just a few major developing nations which are not even trying to ameliorate the situation. 

While there is a lot to unpack from this virtual quarrel (yes, I am unfortunately the type of person who can’t sit still and let people with intentionally limited knowledge of how science, logic and the world work spread stupidity), I will only focus on the few major flaws in the facts which make the rest of the argument simply not worth discussing.

Who produces more waste?

The argument that the developing world is generating the big bulk of plastic pollution is flawed on several accounts and there is plenty of data over the decades to support these claims:

plastic waste per capita world map
Sources: OurWorldInData.org and Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., ... & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), 768-771.

Taiwan - the recycling miracle

Previously known as “Garbage Island”, Taiwan is now recycling more than 55% of their waste, ranking among the top recycling nations in the world. As a result of the demand of the civil society of Taiwan, the government has completely changed its waste disposal system in the past decades.  The presorted waste is collected 5 times a week.

In comparison to the US and the European Union where the recycling rate is well below 50%, Taiwan negates the perception that a fast growing nations can’t lead the way to reduction of waste. Not only the island country  recycles more than half of its waste but it also produces less than a third of waste per day per person than the average for the USA.

plastic alternative pollution recycle repurpouse

Malaysia to return the garbage of the rich

Different countries in the East fight pollution in different manners. Malaysia is one of the latest countries to join the movement of rejecting rich countries’ trash exports. Aside from finding ways to reduce the generation of waste in the country, and finding ways to recycle better, the Southeast Asian country has become the second one in Asia to refuse the import of waste from the developed world after China did so last year. Next to suspending the import of garbage from the West, the country vouched to return to its place of origin a load of trash which has been imported and disposed of illegally.

Together with reducing waste and increasing its recycling, Taiwan has made amazing advances in reusing waste (especially plastic) to create one of the best examples around the world of circular economies.

What are the viable alternatives to plastics?

Bickering on who wastes more is not solving the problem of pollution. What is more interesting, is to establish what are the world’s best bets in reducing the amounts of plastic before it became waste, instead of finding out what to do with it ones it is trash.

Microbe-grown plastics

Using bacteria and fungi to grow materials imitating the properties and textures of know and existing ones such as leather, plastic and foams is a relatively new trend picking up speed around the world. Bacteria can be used to both produce bioplastics and degrade them. Needless to say, this is much better for the environment and for the economies than anything we would be able to do with chemical and petroleum derived plastics (probably ever).

Apart from having less greenhouse-gas emissions, bio-plastics also can increase the shelf-life of food products (reducing also food waste), and can be designed so as to have more beneficial properties than petroleum plastics.

However, there is a long way to go until the process of producing bioplastics is fully optimized for large-scale production and the complete product life-cycle is more than just a proof of concept trial. So in the meantime, we still need to find a solution to our existing plastic problem and bacteria might be coming to the rescue in this too.

Plastic-eating bacteria and enzymes

While the potential of biomaterials is being developed and established, we collectively still need to figure out what to do with the billions of tons of plastics already turned into waste. Researchers have been busy at work trying to solve this puzzle and have come up with some interesting proposals. 

Teams in Japan and the UK have created, via the means of bio-molecular engineering, enzymes degrading petroleum plastics. The smaller residues of the process are more manageable for recycling and upcycling, returning the material back in operational use and reducing the amount wasted in landfills and released into the environment.

Bacteria, on the other hand, have been used for much longer in the decontamination of plastics, with various success. Depending on the needs and the raw materials from which the plastics were created, different bacteria can be used to either fragment, assimilate, deteriorate or completely mineralise the materials. Depending on the process chosen, the final products of it can be fed back into production and reduce the need to further extract petroleum-based chemicals for the needs of the production processes.

In either case, both developed and developing world need to continue the efforts in further exploring the methods to reduce the production of and increase the recycling of environmentally unfriendly plastics, and strive to increase the shares of bioplastics where plastics remain necessary. 

Speeding up climate change

The fact that a small number of papers exist that question the contribution of plastics to the worsening of climate change and general environment deterioration does not mean that the results in those articles negate or disprove the mountain of scientific proof existing to support the fact. A recent estimate shows that plastics are one of the worst contributors to climate change with as much as 2.8 million gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane to be released in the atmosphere each year in the next couple of decades if we continue producing, using and disposing of plastics like we do today. This is the equivalent to the emissions from 615 coal power plants! 

Killing wild life

Next to the detrimental effects on the climate, the plastic industry as it exists today, together with the negligent disposal of plastics which should weigh heavy on all our consciousness, is harming significantly the wild life around the planet.

How is plastic killing animals?

Deers snaking on plastic found dead

Earlier this year, yet another species was shown to be vulnerable to the afflictions of plastics.  30 deers were found dead near a landfill with their stomachs full of plastic bags. This puts the species in a long list of animals suffering from ingestion of plastics – whales, birds, seals, fish, turtles, elephants…

The time for tip-toeing around the problem is long gone. So if you think that plastics are not as big problem for wild life as they are for humanity, browse through the pictures below. Some of the animals on them are still alive, but probably not for long… If you get sick from looking at the photos just remember – you can look away at any time, but those animals (and the millions other like them) don’t have that luxury!

One Reply to “Plastics or Planet?”

  1. Thank you so much for laying it all out there so clearly. I will be sharing this article as much as I can and it definitely is going to make me pause before I purchase or dispose of another piece of plastic.

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