Plastics derived from fossil fuels are now becoming a significant environmental pollution issue. So it's not just climate change due to fossil fuel emissions that we should be worried about. Another reason to keep those fossil fuels in the ground.
Of over 280 million tonnes of plastic the world produces each year, around 10% ends up in the Oceans, according to Greenpeace’s report: Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans. 70% of the plastic material mass eventually sinks, damaging life on the seabed. The rest floats in open seas, often ending up in gyres, ie. circular motion of currents, forming swirling plastic rubbish called ‘garbage patches’, ultimately ending up washed ashore on beaches.
But the washed up or floating plastic pollution is a lot more than an eyesore or a choking/ entanglement hazard for marine animals or birds. Once plastic debris enters the water, it becomes one of THE most pervasive problems because of plastic’s inherent properties:
Unfortunately, people value plastics for exactly what creates the most problems out at sea and on lands: their Durability.
Plastic debris, of all sizes and shapes, is a trans-boundary pollution problem with a powerful transport vehicle: the Ocean.
What Is Plastic?
A simple definition could be: any of a group of synthetic or natural organic materials that may be shaped when soft and then hardened, including many types of resins, resinoids, polymers, cellulose derivatives, and proteins; used in place of other materials, such as glass, wood, metals, and wearable fabrics.
In chemistry, plastics are large molecules, called polymers, composed of repeated segments, called monomers, with carbon backbones. A polymer is simply a very large molecule made up of many smaller units joined together, generally end to end, to create a long chain. The smallest building block of a polymer is called a monomer.
The first plastic was created at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London, and since then a vast range of plastics have been developed:-
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – Used in soft drink, juice, water, beer, mouthwash, peanut butter, salad dressing, detergent, and cleaner containers. Leaches antimony trioxide and (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). DEHP is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the female hormone estrogen. It has been strongly linked to asthma and allergies in children. It may cause certain types of cancer and it has been linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation, and body weight. In Europe, DEHP has been banned since 1999 from use in plastic toys for children under the age of 3. Not so elsewhere, including in Canada and the United States.
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) – Used in opaque milk, water, and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, rubbish bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, and cereal box liners. Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.
Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC) – Used in toys, clear food and non-food packaging (eg. cling film), some squeezy bottles, shampoo bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, shower curtains, medical tubing, and numerous construction products (eg. pipes). PVC has been described as one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. Leaches di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) or butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), depending on which is used as the plasticizer or softener (usually DEHP). DEHP and BBzP are endocrine disruptors mimicking the female hormone estrogen. Dioxins are unintentionally, but unavoidably, produced during the manufacture of materials containing chlorine, including PVC and other chlorinated plastic feedstocks. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals. A characterization by the USA National Institute of Standards and Technology of cancer causing potential evaluated dioxin as over 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), and half a million times more than arsenic.
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – Used in grocery stores, dry cleaning, bread and frozen food bags, most plastic films, and squeezable bottles (honey, mustard). Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.
Polypropylene (PP) – Used in ketchup bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, medicine and syrup bottles, straws, opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles. Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.
Polystyrene (PS) – Used in Styrofoam containers, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, take-away food containers, plastic cutlery, and CD cases. Leaches styrene, an endocrine disruptor mimicking the female hormone estrogen, and thus has the potential to cause reproductive and developmental problems. Long-term exposure by workers has shown brain and nervous system effects and adverse effects on red blood cells, liver, kidneys, and stomach in animal studies. Also present in second-hand cigarette smoke, off-gassing of building materials, and car exhaust. Styrene migrates rapidly and significantly from polystyrene containers into the container’s contents when oily foods are heated in such containers.
Other plastics– This is a catch-all category that includes anything that does not come within the other six categories. As such, one must be careful in interpreting this category because it includes polycarbonate, a dangerous plastic, but it also includes the new and safer, biodegradable bio-based plastics made from renewable resources such as corn and potato starch and sugar cane.
Polycarbonate is used in many plastic baby bottles, clear plastic sippy cups, sports water bottles, water storage containers, metal food can liners, some juice and ketchup containers, DVD discs, mobile phones, computers. Polycarbonate leaches Bisphenol-A (some effects described above) and numerous studies have indicated a wide array of possible adverse effects from low-level exposure to Bisphenol-A: chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production in males, early onset of puberty, various behavioural changes, altered immune function, and sex reversal in frogs.
So think carefully when it comes to plastics. Potentially some plastic is the next asbestos of our age. Furthermore, with our wasteful polluting society we are allowing it to enter the human food chain.
Read more and view some truly scary photos from around the world of plastic pollution at: www.plastic-pollution.org
Here are nine areas where you can make a difference :
In the UK we use over 35 million plastic bottles every year! Carrying a reusable bottle is a great way to cut your plastic use and save money too! Why pay over £1.59 for a small bottle of water when you can get just as good water from the tap for less than 1p. Why?
Plastic straws are bad news for our oceans. Next time you order a drink, think about whether you need a straw – and if you don’t, just say no! You can also ask your local pub to stop adding straws to drinks and offer paper straws to those who want one – more info here.
Over 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK – and less than 1 in 400 are recycled. Carry a reusable cup with you – some cafes even offer a discount if you use your own cup (and if they don’t ask them why not!)
Whether it’s making different choices in the supermarket or choosing a different place to shop, we can all try and cut down the plastic we buy. And as an added bonus, loose fruit and veg is normally cheaper than pre-packaged alternatives.
5. Use Refill Stations for Detergents
There are some products where it’s difficult to avoid a plastic container (for example washing up liquid or laundry liquid) – the good news is that there are an increasing amount of places where you can refill your old bottles. Find your nearest refill station here.
6. Say No to Disposable Plastic Cutlery
We’ve all been there – caught out in a cafe or at a train station when we’ve bought a salad or a yogurt but the only cutlery on offer is plastic! Whilst it’s hard to plan for every opportunity, consider carrying a spoon or fork (or spork!) in your bag or keeping cutlery in your desk at work.
7. Get your Milk Delivered
Although the early morning sound of a milk float is not as common as it used to be, there are still lots of places in the UK where you can get milk delivered in glass bottles – which are then collected and reused. You can find your nearest milkround here. This avoids lots of plastic.
8. Avoid Plastic Microbeads in Cosmetics and Washing Materials
The good news is that the UK government have announced a ban on microbeads! However until the ban comes into force in 2018/19, there will still be products on the shelves, so keep checking those labels before you buy and avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and Nylon.
9. Carry a fabric Shopping Bag
Since the plastic bag charge was introduced in England, there’s been a massive 85% drop in their use. Many of us are used to carrying an extra bag with us – if you still find it hard to remember, try a foldaway one that you can carry in your handbag, briefcase or pocket.