The Problem With Plastic

(Bloomberg) -- Nothing exemplifies modernity like plastic. It’s cheap. It can be molded into all sorts of shapes and textures, dyed any color or be transparent. Unlike glass or ceramics, it’s flexible and doesn’t easily break, and it won’t rot or corrode like wood or metal. These qualities make it ideal for use in shopping bags, drinking straws, car bumpers, water pipes, even paint. On the other hand, because most plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it’s with us, literally, forever. Almost 80 percent of all plastic ever produced is entombed in landfills, strewn across the world’s landscapes or drifting in the seas, where it can ensnare marine life or be devoured, injuring and sometimes killing creatures. Rising concern about this impact and possible effects on human health have provoked new restrictions, particularly on single-use plastics, around the world. Skeptics say alternative materials will exact at least as high a toll on the environment.

The Situation

The European Union in 2018 said it will prohibit or limit plastic products such as straws, plates and utensils, as have countries including India and Rwanda. The tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica is adopting the world’s most comprehensive ban. Reducing use has grown more urgent since the beginning of 2018 when China, which once imported as much as 45 percent of the world’s used plastic for disposal or recycling, stopped accepting the waste in part because too much of it was contaminated. In any case, just 9 percent of plastic is recycled. The process isn’t always cost-effective since the half-dozen main chemical variants of plastic must be separated first. In developing nations without well-established solid-waste systems, most plastic is simply tossed aside. A large share washes into streams and rivers, and ultimately the ocean. Scientists are still assessing the threat plastic may pose to people.

The Problem With Plastic

The Background

The first plastic, Bakelite, was synthesized from compounds derived from coal and formaldehyde in 1907 by Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York. It was widely used in household wares and jewelry, but the material was brittle. Modern plastics, mostly derived from oil, proved more versatile, and after World War II production soared. About 40 percent of all plastic is used in packaging, much of it discarded after a single use. In landfills, plastic can contaminate ground water while emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. About 12 percent of plastic has been incinerated, often releasing toxins into the air. It’s estimated that about half the plastic in the oceans is abandoned fishing gear. This refuse and other waste is swept by currents into five recirculating gyres in the world’s oceans, creating vast, nautical garbage patches. There, the material is broken down into particles small enough to be ingested by zooplankton, which are then consumed by fish and other animals that people eat. Meanwhile, plastic microbeads once in wide use in personal-care products (the U.S., U.K. and several other countries have banned them) and fibers from laundered synthetic clothing pass through sewage-treatment systems into freshwater bodies. As much as 83 percent of the world’s drinking-water supplies contain plastic fibers and particles.  

The Argument

Critics of plastic restrictions note that a paper bag has to be reused at least three times and a cotton bag 131 times to undercut the effect on global warming of one use of a plastic bag, according to a report sponsored by the U.K. government. An analysis commissioned by the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, concluded that plastic is less damaging to the environment overall, and the ocean specifically, than the alternatives such as glass, tin and aluminum because they’re four times heavier on average and thus take more energy to transport. Critics of plastic restrictions say the solution to garbage in the oceans is to keep it out by improving waste-disposal systems, especially in quickly developing Asia and Africa, the location of eight of 10 rivers responsible for an estimated 90 percent of plastic input into the seas. Advocates of plastic curbs cite the damage from ocean debris to sea animals. They say even though it’s not clear whether people are harmed by eating animals that ingest microplastics, it’s safer to take precautions. The environmental organization Greenpeace urges companies and governments to bring an end to the production of single-use plastics.  

The Reference Shelf

  • A literature review in Science concludes that of reported encounters between marine debris and 693 species, 92 percent involved plastic.

  • A paper in Science Advances chronicles the “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made.”

  • An article in the Economist plots the knowns and unknowns in the plastic debate.

  • A report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization details current knowledge about the effects of microplastics on aquatic organisms and food safety.

  • The Guardian examines how the sudden backlash against plastic developed.

  • Related QuickTakes on recyling and on the idea of a circular economy, which would reduce material waste.

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