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For years plastic has been the most successful Invention in the world but now things might change for the first time. Images of birds and fish with cut open stomachs full of plastic waste strikes a chord of despair with many of us. Politicians and the civil society are more aware than ever of the problems plastic causes. In this essay we will have a look at the rise and fall of plastic. The first part will start with a short introduction on the invention of plastic, what the various types of plastic are made of, reasons for its popularity and how it came to conquer the world. The second part deals with the growing concerns about plastics and the effects it has on our environment, especially on our oceans and marine life. The third and final part focuses on a global solution of the plastic problem.
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HOW THE STORY OF PLASTIC STARTED
Plastic was first introduced in the 19th century. Around 1980 a ‘US pool and billiard company offered a prize of US$ 10 000 to a person who could design the best substitute for natural ivory.’ (The story of plastic, 2017) John Wesley Hyatt submitted a synthetic polymer which he had developed. He did not win the first price but his invention was to revolutionize our lives forever. For the first time manufacturing was not limited by nature and synthetic polymer was praised as the savior for thousands of elephant and tortoises.
In 1907 the Belgian American Chemist Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, which was the ‘first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature.’ (The history and future of plastics, 2018) Bakelite was called the material of a thousand uses. From this time on chemical companies invested in the research and development of new polymers and new plastics entered soon entered the market.
WHAT PLASTIC IS MADE OF
‘Plastics are typically organic polymers of high molecular mass and often contain other substances. They are usually synthetic, most commonly derived from petrochemicals.’ (Wikipedia, 2018)
Nowadays, 5000 different kinds of synthetics exist worldwide, 50 of which have commercial relevance. The four most commonly used synthetics are Polyethylene (99.6 million t/y), Polypropylene (55.2 million t/y), Polyvinyl Chloride (38.5 million t/y) and Polystyrene (26.4 million t/y). According to Plastics Europe, the highest demand for plastics is in for packaging with 39.9 %, followed by building and construction with 19.7 %, automotive is in third place with ten percent. The rest is used for electricals and electronics (6.2 %), agriculture (3.3 %), household, leisure and sports (4.2 %) and others (16.7 %).
The reason is not only its multifunctionality, but plastic is also inexpensive to produce, light, easily shaped, durable, and long-lasting. To improve its characteristics additives are added, which will enhance the workability of plastic as well as the mechanical, electrical, thermal and chemical qualities of it. Examples of additives are plasticizers, stabilizers, pigments, and colorants. Plasticizers, for example, are added against brittleness.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MICRO- AND MACROPLASTIC
Plastics can be divided into macro- and microplastics. Macroplastics are classified in three categories: metaplastic (> 1 m), macroplastic (2.5 cm – 1 m), and mesoplastic (5 mm - < 2.5 cm). Microplastics are particles in the size range of 1 nm to < 5 mm. We differentiate between primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are manufactured as microbeads, capsules, fibers and pellets. Examples include microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products, microfibers used in textiles, and virgin resin pellets used in plastic manufacturing processes. Secondary microplastics are the result of larger pieces disintegrating into smaller pieces. This occurs when plastic debris is exposed to sunlight, and the plastic begins to weather and fragment.
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PLASTIC ON THE RISE
Since the 1960s plastic production has increased 20-fold. It is expected that the amount of plastic will double within the next years. According to Plastics Europe in 2016, 335 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide. A mere 10 % of this amount was recycled and 90 % ended up in landfills or was littered or burnt.
To reduce the impact of plastics in landfills, ten countries within the European Union have implemented a landfill restriction for recyclable and recoverable waste. Due to this law, these countries automatically have a higher recycling rate of plastic post-consumer waste. In ten years, plastic packaging recycling has increased by almost 75 % within the EU. While the total waste collected increased by 12 %, the recycling rate also increased by 74 %, the energy recovery has increased by 71 %, and the landfill rate has decreased by 53 %.
While the production and consumption of plastic in industrialized countries might rise slowly in the future; it is expected that the use of plastic in African and Asian countries will strongly increase due to their economic growth.
HOW PLASTIC REACHES THE OCEAN
According to a study of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the three main global releases of primary microplastics to the world oceans are synthetic textiles, tires and city dust. ‘Nowadays the majority (62.7 %) of synthetic fibers are consumed in developing economies. In these economies, consumers by a larger proportion (68 %) of synthetic textiles than in developed economies (48.2 %). Tires erode when used. Tire dust is spread by the wind, or washed off the road by rain.’ (Boucher and Friot, 2018)
Other than these three main global releases, there are also different ways plastic makes its way into the oceans, via microbeads in personal care products, transport ships that lose their cargo, plastic pellets or secondary microplastics.
THE HARMS OF PLASTIC
As stated in a study of the UN as of now 18.000 plastic particles are floating on every square kilometer on the ocean surface. Every year ten million tones of waste, mainly plastic waste, lands in the oceans. 80 % of it originates from the land, and 20 % of it enters the sea via ships.
Despite its obvious advantages, plastic has a major disadvantage: its lengthy degradation process. Fishing lines can take up to 600, plastic beverage holders up to 400, styrofoam cups up to 50 and plastic bottles up to 450 years to degrade. After entering the ocean, it floats freely and breaks into smaller pieces. Lately, there are some organizations tackling the problem of marine litter already. Nonetheless, most marine debris is neither collected nor recycled so far. Plastic accumulates and every year the amount of plastic debris increases.
The problem has become so vast that it started to affect marine life; each year hundreds and thousands of animals die from marine debris. Some animals mistakenly think of microplastic as food; others get trapped in ghost nets, many birds make their nests out of it. But it is not only animals affected by the problem; it is humans as well. Nowadays, most fish contain plastic which then enters our food chain.
THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California. It is ‘the largest of five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans and covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area three times the size of France.’ (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2018) More than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic are said to make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is according to a recently published study by marine scientists ‘a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported.’ (Laurent C.M. Lebreton, et all., 2018)
As shown above, the plastic production and consumption is predicted to double within the 20 years. It is believed that the demand of plastic will strongly rise in African and Asian countries while in western countries the growth might slightly increase.
After all, worldwide politicians and human citizens are waking up to the problem of plastic pollution. In four African countries, including Rwanda and Kenya the production, sale, and use of plastic bags is illegal. Ten EU countries have implemented a landfill restriction for recyclable and recoverable waste. Great Britain has banned microbeads in the production of personal care products, recently. More and more supermarkets worldwide stop selling plastic bags in supermarkets. Grassroots movements, environmental organizations such as 2 Minute Beach Clean, Clean Coasts, Take 3 or Just Grabbits as well as single individuals are encouring people worldwide, to rethink their consumption of single-use plastic products. They aim to make society more aware of our environment and help them connect with nature again. Social media is a prominent means to achieve this.
After all, we only have one planet.
Hey there, my name is Fiona. I love travelling and getting to know different cultures. Because of travelling I realised I don't need many things to live a happy life. My transformation started ten years ago with my first big trip to India, since then I live a very minimalistic lifestyle. For a couple of years now, it is not only minimalistic but also zero waste.
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