MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. Every day we see more alarming news about the proliferation and ubiquity of plastics in our environment. It appears that every single ecosystem on the planet contains plastic and plastics refuse and is probably affected by it adversely. The worst offenders in this regard are the easily disposed wrapping and container products known as single use plastics, aka, SU plastics.
Single use plastics: The good, the bad and the ugly
Plastics are miracle materials. They are durable, they are inert and they do not affect food or medicine. Plus, they are disposable and cheap to manufacture. Plastics are also very tough and light in weight, so they are ideal for use as packing material. Durable plastics make our lives easier and make manufactured goods more affordable.
The most commonly used plastic today is polyethylene. It accounts for about 34% of all plastics used around the world. Polyethylene is the material used for single use plastic bags and protective wrapping for all types of consumer goods. While companies and individuals have made numerous attempts to recycle single use plastics, most of these products still end up in sanitary landfills. Or even worse, they wind up somewhere in our environment.
In the US, only 35% of plastics are recycled. It is difficult to assess how much of the remainder ends up in landfills or incinerators. Worldwide, a significant portion ends up dumped on land or in bodies of water, an even more problematic situation. Easily disposable polyethylene single use plastics make a major contribution to this kind of pollution.
Helpful bacteria: Can they solve this problem?
Some varieties of bacteria can degrade polyethylene. Several of these bacterial types can use this material as a source of carbon. There are two factors that make this potential solution more complex.
- The bacteria needed for the degradation of polyethylene may not always present; and, even if present, it may take some time for the bacteria to complete their task.
- The byproducts of this bacterial degradation are climate-change gases, such as methane and ethane.
The persistence of plastics in the environment
As unsightly as plastics are in our environment, scientists worry even more about what happens when plastics enter and remain in different ecosystems, at times becoming almost invisible. Due to mechanical phenomena resulting from weather and other events, natural forces can turn plastics into “microplastics.” Due to their reduced size, ever-presence and similarity to food and food products, microplastics can end up consumed as food by wildlife, especially in the oceans. It is now sadly common to see reports and news videos showing dead fish, amphibians and birds with their stomachs full of indigestible plastics – plastics that have directly caused their deaths.
These cases do not merely foreshadow what can happen. They are happening now. They provide grisly examples of what our food chain could become. Thus, we can already predict that if something is not done to address this growing problem, our main contemporary source of food, the oceans, may be seriously compromised. We seem to be on our way to trading our means of sustenance for the convenience of easy to use plastics that are easy to throw away.
Eliminating the use of single use plastics
The quickest solution to this growing problem is simple, but by no means painless. We must prohibit single use plastics. We must sacrifice convenience now to protect our future food sources.
Efforts are already underway throughout the US to ban SU plastics, albeit through a piecemeal approach. Solutions now occur on a county by county basis. Alternatively, some jurisdictions ban some SU plastics but not others. No universal, uniform approach currently exists.
As usual, progressive states on both coasts are taking the lead in this process. California, Hawaii, New York and Washington, DC have already banned single use plastic bags, the kind still used by many grocery chains across the country. Cities and counties in other states are or have banned such plastics. Still others have established fees for the continued use of plastic bags, although it remains unclear if the latter approach effectively reduces their use.
The European Union recently voted to ban some SU plastics gradually, spanning until 2025. The intent of the EU effort is to ban the top 10 products that account for 50% of their SU plastics in that part of the world.
The pressing question today: Should the US wait for worldwide famine and resulting social tsunamis to occur before we finally act to ban single-use plastics?
— Headline imgage: Plastic refuse clogging a canal in India. Image courtesy http://www.japantimes.co.jp
—Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a radical plastic recycler and hopes to be living in a world devoid of SU plastics. He is on Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).