I am obsessed with the tyranny of plastics. Everywhere I look — my house, office, refrigerator, barn, car — there is plastic. So, recently I tried to see if I could spend a day without plastics. It would be a car-less day of course, just home on the farm.
It didn’t last more than thirty minutes.
As I sat down to start the morning with online access to the Washington Post, I came in contact with the plastic keys of the keyboard and the plastic covering on the mouse.
I decided to plant some carrots and onions. Went out to the garden and pulled out my trowel only to realize that the grip was made of plastic. Luckily the ground was soft, so I used my hands and fingers. One of my dogs wandered over to offer assistance. I ran my hand over his head, gave his ears a good scratch, and then felt it: the plastic flea-and-tick collar.
Okay, so maybe a walk would be nice. Grabbed my wooden walking stick, and sat down to put on my hiking shoes…plastic soles and tread. On closer examination, the eyelets were also plastic and the laces were nylon. I checked the rest of my clothes. My Levis had elastane, my socks were acrylic and cotton blend, my underwear was nylon. Only my 100% cotton t-shirt passed muster.
Plastics are actually polymers derived from petroleum or natural gas. The word “plastic” is short for thermoplastic, which describes polymeric materials that can be shaped and reshaped using heat.
The modern polymer industry was created by Dupont in the 1930s, which led to the early commercialization of nylon for stockings during the Second World War. It was also during that war that a synthetic polymer was developed for vehicle tires, as the supply of natural rubber was cut off by the Japanese.
Today, the production of synthetic polymers is dominated by polyethylene and polypropylene. One reason these polymers are so dominant is that they can be produced using relatively inexpensive natural gas. They are also the lightest synthetic polymers; their low density allows them to float. These polymers resist damage by water, air, grease, and cleaning solvents. They’re easy to shape into products, yet robust enough that they won’t deform in a delivery truck sitting in the sun all day.
Synthetic polymers and the environment
Because these polymers degrade slowly, they can survive in the environment for centuries. Water and wind can abrade them, creating micro-particles that are ingested by fish and animals, thus making their way in the food chain to humans. Microplastics have reached every corner of the planet: from the beaches of Florida to Arctic sea ice. They can affect the health of our soils, and water, and air.
It’s estimated that more than 15 trillion tons of micro-particles are floating on the ocean surface. There is ongoing research around the globe to study the amount of micro-plastics in lakes and soils.
Researchers have found signs that, when microplastics are ingested, hazardous chemicals used during their production can be leached into the body. Environmental pollutants such as pesticides are attracted to the surface of plastic and, if ingested via these micro-particles, could lead to inflammation and liver damage.
The Great Lakes
According to researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology, currently, over four tons of microplastic is floating just in Lake Erie. Among all the Great Lakes combined, researchers estimate that anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000 tons of plastic enters every year. In 2017, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes collected more than 16 tons of plastic at beach cleanups. This begs the question: where is the rest of it?
Based on advanced computer models, a large proportion of the yearly tonnage of entering the Great Lakes sinks to the bottom. In fact, sediment samples collected and analyzed do contain high concentrations of plastic.
The recycling dilemma
Unfortunately, the antidote to micro-particle accumulation is not recycling. Oxygen and heat cause polymer chain damage during reprocessing, and food and other materials contaminate the polymers with impurities. Due to advances in chemistry there are new grades of polymers, with enhanced durability, but these cannot be mixed with other grades of polymers during recycling. Multi-layer polymer packaging works well for food preservation and electronics but is impossible to recycle.
Technological development required for the sorting of different varieties of plastic is lagging. The quality of a recycled plastic depends on its purity. It must be decontaminated — cleaned of food waste, labels, and other polymer types before it is melted down and resold to a product maker.
In 2017, China announced it would stop accepting imports of certain classes of waste that come from the recycling streams in countries around the world. The ban included contaminated bales of mixed plastics that are difficult to reprocess. This has resulted in mountains of waste plastic sitting on loading docks at municipal recycling facilities in the US, Canada, and Europe.
You always have a choice: send to recycling or the landfill.
How we use plastics
As of 2015, here’s a breakdown of plastic polymer use in the US:
- Packaging: 35.9%
- Building and construction: 16.0%
- Textiles: 14.5%
- Consumer and institutional products: 10.3%
- Transportation: 6.6%
- Electrical/electronic: 4.4%
- Industrial machinery: 0.7%
- Other: 11.5%
Towards a circular economy
Our culture today supports a linear economy in which items, particularly plastics, are used only once and tossed away. In a circular economy, plastics would be designed, manufactured and collected so that they can be easily broken down, separated, recycled, and then reused.
Imagine a cell phone that could be broken down and separated by component — glass, electronic materials, plastics — with each component stream then recycled into new high-quality parts or other useful end products.
Today, several countries in the EU are working toward a more circular economy in some sectors, particularly waste management; they’re turning trash into fuel to heat homes!
What can we do right now?
- We can be aware of microbeads: tiny plastic bits added to personal care products as exfoliants, emulsifying agents, or just cheap fillers. Check your labels for polyethylene, polypropylene, or polystyrene.
- Check out an app called Beat the Microbead, available in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. With this app you can scan the product code bar of personal care products and learn instantly whether or not the product contains plastic.
- Bring your own drinking straw to restaurants and bars. Take a personal stand against single-use straws.
- Shop farmers’ markets for produce and avoid grocery store plastic for vegetables and fruits.
- Bring your own shopping bag for groceries.
- Stop buying bottled water.
- Stop purchasing disposable razors.
- Bring your own cup to the coffee shop.
- Use wax paper rather than ziplock bags for leftovers.
- Use candles or incense rather than air fresheners.
- Use cloth napkins rather than paper napkins.
- Just say no to the little plastic table in the middle of a pizza box.
There are hundreds of other tips on reducing plastic (just do a simple Google search), but it all comes down to mindfulness. Start with 2 or 3 changes, not 10. Once the changes have become habits, then add another.
The clothes-horse speaks
True confession: I am a clothes-horse. I love clothes, I love fashion (although I don’t dress particularly fashionably), and yet the fashion industry is a big contributor to plastic waste. In the last year, I’ve grown fond of shopping for vintage, buying used clothing at Salvation Army stores, online at Poshmark, and I love Patagonia’s Worn Wear option on their website. I turn much-loved threadbare jeans into rags for cleaning wet dog paws and kitchen spills, and old polo shirts and t-shirts into barn rags.
Every little bit counts
I used to believe that our pollution of the planet via trash and plastics was an unsolvable problem — too immense for one person to take on. But now I see that every little bit is important. Every small step in reducing plastics in our own personal lives is a ripple of change for the better.
If each us changes one behavior related to plastic, there will be more ripples in the water, leading to waves of change.