Time to get drastic about plastic

Time to get drastic about plastic

Plastic can do all manner of harm to humans, as VITTORIO BOLLO jolted us into realising in the previous issue of SHEQ MANAGEMENT. Now he addresses its impact on the natural environment, demonstrating that we really do have an urgent need to get drastic about plastic.

Our addiction to plastic is beyond comprehension. It’s been estimated that the amount of plastic manufactured in the first 10 years of the 21st century is almost equal to the total output of plastic produced in the entire 20th century. This is according to a 2009 report of a study undertaken by 60 scientists as part of the British Antarctic Survey. The report stated that since its mass production began in the 1940s, plastic has been propelled to essential status in society. The report showed that more than 300 million tonnes of plastic was expected to be produced in 2010 alone.

That’s a lot of plastic, especially when one considers how lightweight plastic is. The problem is that plastic doesn’t biodegrade; no microbe able to feed on and entirely break plastic down has evolved as yet. Plastic bio-accumulates. Birds and fish mistake plastic for food, eat it, and then slowly starve in what must be a horrifying death. Once inside the animal’s stomach, plastic packs a one-two punch: it clogs the animal’s stomach, and poisons it with chemicals that have concentrated in the plastic. Some chemicals are transferred to the food web when these animals are eaten by others.

The British wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking found that many thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks are dying every year on Midway Island in the North Pacific, due to the chicks eating pieces of plastic their parents mistake for food and bring back for them. A 2005 study of Fulmar carcases that washed up on North Sea coastlines in the UK and northern Europe found that 95 percent had plastic in their stomachs, at an average of 45 pieces per bird.

There is more evidence of plastic ravaging nature: worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic kills about a million seabirds a year, and an estimated 100 000 marine mammals and turtles. It kills by entanglement, most commonly in discarded synthetic fishing lines and nets. Plastic also kills by choking throats and gullets and clogging up digestive tracts, leading to fatal constipation. A UNEP study stated that “Bottle caps, pocket combs, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, cottonbud shafts, toothbrushes, toys, syringes and plastic shopping bags are routinely found in the stomachs of dead seabirds and turtles.” Generally, scientists are only able to examine the stomachs of dead animals, so the full extent of plastic-related detriment to marine and coastal ecosystems can only be estimated at best.

Nearly all the plastic items in our lives begin as little manufactured pellets of raw plastic resin, known in the industry as nurdles. More than 100 billion kilograms of these nurdles are shipped around the world every year, delivered to processing plants, then heated up, treated with other chemicals, and stretched and moulded into plastic products, containers and packaging. During loading and unloading, however, nurdles often spill out. They’re light enough to become airborne and easily float in oceans. Pagan Island between Hawaii and the Philippines has what locals call the “shopping beach”. If islanders need a cigarette lighter, a toy, or any other item for that matter, they simply go down to this shopping beach and pick it out of all the plastic trash that has washed up from literally thousands of miles away. Nurdles have been found on the most remote uninhabited Pacific islands, along with all kinds of other plastic “confetti”. According to a 2010 article in The Daily Telegraph, nurdles “can now be found in every ocean in the world, hence their new nickname: mermaids’ tears.”

It’s in the oceans of the world that the astounding extent of just how entrenched plastics have become in the environment is seen. There is an area of the ocean famously known as the “doldrums”. This is a perennial high pressure zone over the Pacific Ocean where the northern jet stream and the southern trade winds, moving in opposite directions to each other, create a vast, gently circling region of water called the North Pacific Gyre. It creates an immense, slowly spiralling vortex of warm equatorial air that pulls in all ocean wind currents and turns them gently until they die out. Readers may have already heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, which has become infamous for the vast amount of plastic swirling in these waters, and which lies slap bang in the middle of this region of the North Pacific Ocean.

This oceanic garbage patch is invisible to satellites, poorly understood by scientists and thought to be twice the size of France. And don’t think of it as a solid mass of “floating plastic” in the ocean, as is commonly assumed. Rather, it is a type of marine “soup”, of which the main ingredient in the water is floating plastic debris, much of it tiny fragments. Besides not being biodegradable, the further problem with plastic is that it “photodegrades”, meaning that it breaks down due to exposure to sunlight. Plastic can endure for thousands of years due to the reduced UV exposure and lower temperatures of marine habitats. Prolonged exposure to sunlight causes polymer chains to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, a process accelerated by physical friction, such as being blown across a beach or rolled by waves. This is especially prevalent in a marine environment, and therefore accounts for most of the tiny flecks and fragments in this ginormous “plastic soup” swirling around the Pacific.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 by Californian sailor, surfer and environmentalist Charles Moore. Heading home with his crew after competing in a sailing race in Hawaii, Moore decided to take a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific usually avoided by sailors due to the doldrums. He was horrified at what he saw and later stated: “It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by … bottle caps, toothbrushes, Styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn’t identify. It wasn’t a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here … ”

Time to get drastic about plasticIt is very telling that after a few more years of sampling ocean water in the gyre, Moore was able to conclude that 80 percent of marine plastic was initially discarded on land. UNEP studies concur with these findings. The wind blows plastic rubbish out of littered streets and landfills, and off garbage trucks on their way to landfills. This blowing plastic gets into rivers, streams and down stormwater drains, and then rides the tides and currents out to sea. Litter dropped by people at beaches is also a major source. The oceans on our doorstep here in southern Africa are the Indian and Atlantic; can anyone claim that those oceans aren’t similarly awash with the plastic detritus of Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa? Richard Grant reported in The Telegraph how scientists estimate that there are approximately 46 000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in the world’s oceans. The world’s oceans are literally drowning
in plastic.

You probably think the planet is made up of the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), lithosphere (earth), cryosphere (ice), anthrosphere (human society) and biosphere (the part of the world that supports all life), correct? Think again. Enter the “plastisphere,” a term coined by marine biologist Erik Zettler to describe the creatures – like water skaters – who thrive in an environment with hard surfaces in the water. In the past, this was natural flotsam and jetsam in the water, and nearly all biodegradable; today it’s almost 90 percent plastic. The problem with this plastisphere is that it’s radically changing the balance of the marine ecosystem. As David Barnes, a lead author and researcher for the 2009 British Antarctic Survey report, wrote: “One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics.”

The French cultural theorist Paul Virilio observed that every new technology opens the possibility for a new form of “accident”. By inventing the motor car, for example, humanity created car crashes. By inventing the aeroplane, plane crashes were created, and so forth. So what of Leo Baekeland’s invention? Who is he? Back in the early 20th century, Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, was trying to mimic shellac, a natural polymer secreted by the Asian scale beetle, and which was used at the time to coat electrical wires. It was also very expensive. In 1909, he patented a mouldable hard plastic that he called Bakelite, derived from a condensation reaction of phenol (derived from coal tar) and formaldehyde, which he had invented in his garage in New York City and which made him a very rich man.

Chemists were soon experimenting with variations of this first synthetic polymer, breaking down the long hydrocarbon chains in crude petroleum into smaller ones and mixing them together, adding chlorine to get PVC, and introducing gas to get polystyrene. After World War II came the explosion in plastics in the form of acrylics, foam rubber, polythene, polyurethane, Plexiglass and many more. All of this thanks to the pioneering invention of Baekeland. But could Baekeland ever have imagined that this genius invention would result, a mere hundred years later, in the fact that plastic would outweigh plankton by six-to-one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Talk about an accident due to an invention.

Incredible as it seems, but for the small percentage of plastic that has been incinerated, every single molecule of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still somewhere in the environment. And there is perhaps 100 million tonnes of it floating in the oceans. A dead albatross was found a few years ago with a piece of plastic dating back to the 1940s in its stomach. Nearly all plastic ever manufactured and used still exists among us. It is a very sobering thought.

So, what to do about all this plastic? What we know is that we can’t miraculously scoop it out of the oceans. Nor can we dredge plastic out of landfills, where it also wreaks environmental havoc by slowly leaching into groundwater, and where, according to the Environmental Literacy Council: “Although paper accounts for most of the trash in landfills by volume, plastics account for 25 percent of all waste in landfills when buried.” Realistically, the emphasis should be on the re-use and re-design of plastic. Unfortunately, at present only a few of the many hundred different types of plastics can be melted down and moulded into something else; the rest are cross-contaminated with other chemicals and types of plastic. The multi-billion dollar global plastic industry is also predicated on virgin plastic (plastic made from raw materials, not recycled plastic) and is highly resistant to change, as Charles Moore found. In dealing with plastic industry executives, he has found very little interest in recycling, because it’s the least profitable sector of the industry. As  the environmental activist David de Rothschild, head of Adventure Ecology, stated: “A lot of companies and product designers and marketing people don’t like recycled plastic either. You can’t dye it with those bright, attention-grabbing colours.”

For us as consumers, the easiest way to make a difference is to give up plastic shopping bags and plastic water bottles, which contribute more to plastic pollution than any other products. Plastic packaging, especially for food, is more complicated. Recyclable plastic packaging remains probably the best option with regard to keeping food fresh longer and in ensuring the hygiene of many food-related products.

There needs to be a shift in how all of us – manufacturers, packagers, retailers and consumers – regard plastic, from that of the current paradigm of it primarily being a waste product (the epitome of our “throwaway society”) to it being treated as essentially a raw material, and not a waste or end product.

What of biodegradable plastic, which can be made from renewable materials from plants such as corn and soy as another option? “Biodegradable plastics have the potential to solve a number of waste-management issues, especially for disposable packaging that cannot be easily separated from organic waste in catering or from agricultural applications,” according to the British Antarctic Survey report. However, there are currently pros and cons to biodegradable plastics. Current global production capacity for biodegradable plastics is only about 350 000 tonnes, representing less than 0,2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic. In addition, “most of these materials are unlikely to degrade quickly in natural habitats …” stated the report. In the meantime, the report recommends reducing the use of these chemicals and developing safer alternatives, a strategy known as green chemistry.

To help mitigate the potentially harmful chemicals found in the vast majority of plastics today, experts recommend that more studies need to be conducted on the effects of exposure to plastic; in other words, how biological systems may be affected by the chemical additives in plastic. Of interest to many scientists is what the particular characteristics of low-dose chronic exposures to biological systems could be. When reading the literature, one thing becomes clear: still so much remains unknown about the effects of plastic on both the natural environment and human health. This is backed by the words of John Meeker of the University of Michigan School of Public Health: “You take the whole picture [of the effects of plastic to animal and human health] and it does raise concerns, but more research is needed.”

Yet the compulsive use of throwaway plastic continues to grow. As with so many things environmental, it once again boils down to priorities. The words of David de Rothschild are very telling: “We spent US$265 billion preparing for the Y2K bug and we didn’t even know if it was going to happen or not [and we all know it amounted to nothing]. We know for an absolute fact that if we continue on our current rate of consumption, we’re going to run out of resources. But the annual budget for the United National Environmental Programme last year was US$190 million. And the budget for the latest James Bond movie was US$205 million.” Those are our priorities. Enough said.


Vittorio Bollo achieved an LL B in Law and Politics from a UK university and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Law from a Canadian university. He has over 12 years experience in the SHE field, primarily in consulting, training and R&D. He joined NOSA to work in its growing R&D department, where he continues to do work in environmental/SHE risk management and corporate governance, as well as his chief passion, sustainability.

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