Ethics and Sustainable Materials

Image result for plastic bag swap

Plastics are turned to solve many day-to-day convenience “issues”. Why do some prefer a plastic fork over a metal one? Maybe they’re on the go, and they’ll have to carry this utensil to use it later. Well it’s lighter, it’s disposable, and it’s cheaper than a metal fork. These reasons apply to most other plastic products. It’s simply more convenient. It’s impermanence and lower cost draws us to use and discard, we don’t have to pay special attention to its care because we can buy a new one without breaking the bank. But, considering the detrimental effects plastics have on the earth, is it justified to continue use simply because it benefits our lives in this way? Would decreasing the risk of chemical leaching into our food or saving sea life from toxification caused by microplastics be worth the switch to carrying an actual fork instead? Some of the major problems plastics impose on the environment include non-biodegradable physical waste, chemical run-off, and harm to the surrounding ecosystems.

Image result for reusable on the go fork

There are many materials that require fossil fuels in their development process. With these fossil fuels, many ethical questions arise due to some of these natural resources not being able to biodegrade completely. These unsustainable materials affect the earth in a large way. First off, non-biodegradable materials, which can include plastic bags, will remain in the environment for several years after it is thrown away. Certain materials that cannot be broken down by microorganisms are considered non-biodegradable and will affect the environment in a major way. Secondly, run off can be described as part of the water cycle and is caused by certain things such as rainfall amount, permeability, vegetation, and slope. While runoff is not necessarily caused by humans, it does have an environmental impact. Runoff can cause erosion, and specifically with unsustainable materials it can cause pollution. Unsustainable materials can also have harmful effects on animals. If these plastics or papers end up in the environments of animals, there can be significant health impacts. Likewise, these unsustainable materials can have health impacts on human health. For example, chemicals leaking out into food or water bottles in the heat.

Due to the mass production and distribution of plastic related materials, our environment and its inhabitants are subjected to face several ongoing health impacts. For starters, when plastics are improperly disposed into our environment, the debris of these materials can impose several threats on both the wildlife and the health of an ecosystem. For example, in a marine environment, smaller forms of plastic debris, called microplastics, can be ingested by populations of a species and threaten the health of the organisms. These microplastics have been found to contain harmful organic contaminants and have yet to be studied enough to truly determine their potential impacts, yet the amount of plastic debris in environments is rapidly increasing. Apart from the environment, plastics can also affect human health on a range of different levels. Scientists have used a process called biomonitoring, which measures the concentration of contaminants in the human body, to show that, “chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are present in the human population, and studies using laboratory animals as model organisms indicate potential adverse health effects of these chemicals” (Thompson, 2009). These adverse impacts on the human population can include: reproductive abnormalities, higher toxicity exposure to children, hormonal alterations and more. It is important that we understand the potential risks associated with plastics, as well as the unknown, grey areas that we have yet to discover about the true effects these materials bring to the table.

Another ethical aspect that plays a large role in shaping the environment is social Ecology. This explains how our ecological ills are social in nature. Modern day society is molded by people’s busy lives which values efficiency rather than effectiveness or value. This led us to form unsustainable plastics and single use items. This way of thinking leads to developing solutions to fix the primary problem without caring much about the side effects of the solution which can include landfill waste or other negative effects toward the earth.

It starts with grocery shopping. You’re planning what you will eat this week, and have come to deciding on the snack portion of your diet. Cheese! And maybe crackers. When you’re looking through the cheeses you see one package that has slices stacked just slightly on top of each other, then you compare it to another package that offers individual packets of two slices of cheese. You think, “Oh that would be much more convenient. I can just grab a slice or two and put it into my lunch bag without it touching my fruit!” But what you don’t realize is that the 30 seconds you took to choose convenience, will result in a decomposition process that takes 1000 years (Connor, 2011). That’s right, on average, each plastic bag we use takes about that long to decompose on earth. Now think about how many other products you use have the same type of “convenient” packaging” or the plastic bag(s) you’ll use to transport those products from the grocery to your home. Then, multiply that by how many times you shop per week, month, year or lifetime. America’s Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2011, America produced 32 million tons of plastic waste within one year (Bond, 2014)!

Despite the adverse environmental consequences of using these materials and excess packaging, it is all too easy to pick the packaging option that seems more convenient for us personally rather than thinking of how our choices affect our ecology. This way of thinking, called anthropocentrism, is the norm of our time and culture. According to Sarah Boslaugh of Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism is the “philosophical viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world” (Boslaugh, 2016). This view places humans as set apart from and superior to nature, values human life over those of other organisms, and therefore justifies any use or exploitation of nature for human benefit. Because this view is a prominent element of popular western religions, it has come to be embedded in our modern culture. For example, in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God instructs Adam and Eve, the pinnacle of his creation, to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). In many translations of the Bible, the language suggests a position of authority rather than stewardship. It is therefore no surprise that throughout history, this passage has been interpreted so as to condone the destruction or abuse of natural resources for the sake of humankind or what humankind considered progressive. The prominence of Christianity and the religion’s role in the colonization of the Americas spread this ideology past the European continent and embedded it in common Western culture, making it in a sense the default environmental philosophy of contemporary culture.

In recent years, there has been a stronger push for a shift towards the spread of an ecocentric philosophy and culture. Additionally, people are starting to partake in moral extensionism which is extending our sphere of moral concern beyond the human realm to animals and other sentient beings. As can be assumed from its name, ecocentrism is a nature-centered environmental ethic that places an intrinsic value on all natural elements regardless of their usefulness to humankind. We practice ecocentrism if and when we place the healthy preservation of nature above our own personal gain. Examples of this would be washing and reusing glass or ceramic dishes instead of constantly purchasing disposable ones to prevent excess waste, paying more for organic or locally grown foods and veganism. This is counter-cultural to the common habits of finding the fastest and most convenient option for every decision we make.

In this case, ecocentrism is both logical and ethical. Ethical in the sense that we are acting altruistically, giving other life forms importance in our decision making. We fail to realize behaving this way also serves our longevity as a species. The earth is what makes life possible, so if we take care of it, we increase our span of access to the life that earth gives: food, water, and air.

It becomes clear that ethical standards are important with regards to using plastics for both the health of humans, animals and the environment. Since plastics can be harmful to the environment, there is a push for other alternative sustainable materials. Large industries or corporations could change their packaging to paper or glass as opposed to plastic since both of these are made from natural elements such as sand and trees instead of natural gas and polymers (Trimarchi). By making this switch our waste would be reusable or biodegradable and would be using a renewable resource. “Once upon a time, milkmen filled glass bottles with milk… sometimes going back in time is a good thing” (Trimarchi). Manufacturers and the common consumer can learn what was sustainable from the past and correct course along the way by adopting newer sustainable materials as they become available. Another easy swap shoppers can make is to bring their own reusable bags to stores. If this practice was adopted worldwide then the need for plastic bags would cease to exist.

Since these problems plastics present are becoming more prevalent, scientists are researching how to convert plastic into a biodegradable substance. Several different new studies have shown that plastic could potentially be converted into a biodegradable substance by either adding “prodegradant concentrates” or replacing its main component, natural gas, with other materials. Prodegradant concentrates allows the plastic to break down into smaller fragments that are ingestible by bacteria which in return breaks them down into “carbon dioxide, water and biomass, which reportedly contains nor harmful residues” (Trimarchi). Other research has found that other materials could be turned into plastics including milk protein, liquid wood, polycaprolactone, or polylactic acid (PLA) (Trimarchi). Liquid wood is a biopolymer “which looks, feels and acts just like plastic but unlike petroleum-based plastics, they’re biodegradable”. Manufacturers mix lignin with water and then expose it to heat and pressure to form this kind of plastic and since it is made of wood it is recyclable too (Trimarchi). Polycaprolactone is a synthetic aliphatic polyester and although it still does use natural gas it can degrade after six weeks of composting (Trimarchi). PLA is formed during starch fermentation during corn wet milling. “It decomposes within 47 days of composting, won’t emit toxic fumes when burned and manufacturing them uses 20-50 percent less fossil fuels than petroleum-based plastic” (Trimarchi). Overall, if society collectively tries to make these swaps while researching and innovation continues to take place, people can begin to use more sustainable materials.

When people make decisions about purchasing or using a product based upon factors such as convenience, there is usually a hidden cost along with this preference. Using a plastic fork instead of a metal one or buying paper plates instead of glass or ceramic plates might save the consumer time and money, but cost through the detrimental effects they have on the Earth. Is saving time and money on convenience worth the damage done by unsustainable materials such as plastics? Ethical questions tie into purchase decisions when dealing with unsustainable materials and their impact on the environment. Anthropocentrism, or the way of viewing the world as a human centered one in which we are the most significant entities, can justify in people’s mind their use of unsustainable materials. In order to educate people on their negative impact on the environment, we must switch to a more ecocentric point of view. An ecocentric culture places more importance on nature than personal gain, which is important to help people think about the hidden costs next time they decide on purchases solely based on convenience. Ethical standards should be of high importance to people because of materials such as plastics and their damage that they cause to the environment. A solution to this is to use reusable materials instead of plastic water bottles or plastics shopping bags. Since the conflicts between price, convenience, and environmental ethics are so closely related, scientists have even started to research ways to make plastics biodegradable. In conclusion, using products with unsustainable materials such as plastics for convenience raises ethical concerns due to the negative impact they have on the environment.

Sources:

Bond, Shannon. (2014). “Where do Plastic Bags Go?” Environmental Protection Agency Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2014/03/where-do-plastic-bags-go/

Boslaugh, Sarah. (2016). “Anthropocentrism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/anthropocentrism

Connor, K. (2011). “How Long Does it Take a Plastic Bottle to Biodegrade?” Postconsumers.com. Retrieved from http://www.postconsumers.com/education/how-long-does-it-take-a-plastic-bottle-to-biodegrade/

Thompson, R., Moore, C., Saal, F. & Swan, S. (2009). “Plastics, the Environment and human health: current consensus and future trends.” NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021/

Trimarchi, M. & Giuggio, V. “Top 10 Eco-friendly Substitutes for Plastic.” How Stuff Works, Science. Retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/5-plastic-substitutes1.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Risks and Hazards of Plastics

Risks and Hazards of Plastics

Image result for lots of plastic tupperware

Plastics can pose many risks and hazards to the environment and to human health both indirectly, by the process of its production, and directly in its day to day use . Chemicals can travel from these plastics into the environment, and the foods and products they carry. Looking at different risks with plastics, including the use of BPA, phthalates, and other plasticizers, can help people understand how they can better protect themselves from the hazards of plastic packaging. By avoiding certain plastics and using alternatives people can better protect their health, while also preserving the environment around them. These hazards with plastics not only affect people everywhere, but also have a great effect on this planet. It is important to comprehend the issues with plastic packaging so that these risks can be avoided in future generations.

Do you frequently buy prepackaged food? Do children in your family often play with plastic toys? Have you ever been to the hospital or the dentist? If so, you have probably come in contact with Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is a material frequently used to produce plastics food packaging, toys for infants, dental and health equipment, and even the paper commonly used for receipts. Since most of us are so frequently exposed to BPA, it is no surprise that in a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2003, detectable levels of BPA were found in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older. Unfortunately, this is not a good thing. While BPA can be metabolized in the liver, high levels of BPA in the body can cause several endocrine disorders including infertility in males, hormone dependent tumors, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and even breast and prostate cancers.  (Konieczna, Rutkowska, Rachoń, 2015). This is because its chemical structure allows it to weakly mimic the hormone estrogen. High BPA intake therefore causes the body to react as if it were in the presence of excess estrogen, disrupting the endocrine system and hormone levels in estrogen-dependent organs and systems such as mammary glands and the reproductive system.  (Konieczna, et al, 2015). It is concerning this chemical, with which we are in contact on a daily basis has been associated with such severe health risks, yet it is still so frequently utilized and so rarely monitored.

Another group of chemicals of concern are phthalates. These are known plasticizers, materials used in the production of plastics to add flexibility and strength. Though not all phthalates pose significant health and environmental risks, example is di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), a material used to fabricate the PVC used in hospital equipment including tubing and IV bags. DEHP is particularly concerning because it has been known to leach out of the product it forms and into the environment in a matter of hours (Peason, Trissel 1993) Thankfully, the body can rid itself of the chemical almost as fast, so it is not a major hazard for people with infrequent exposure (Erythropel, Leask, Maric, Nicell, and Yargeau 2014). However, people who experience more frequent contact, such as newborns and dialysis patients, are at much higher risk.

Nowadays, the mass production of plastic materials containing phthalates has made modern life impossible to imagine without these products. The widespread use of plastic products is the result of our culture becoming accustomed to the convenience that plastic can provide; it is inexpensive, requires low material costs, and can be efficiently produced. Considering that we live in this type of world, it is important that we understand the potential dangers associated with phthalates and how we can protect ourselves and limit our exposure to this chemical compound.

Although we may never truly be able to avoid phthalates completely, there are simple steps and practices that we can use to lessen the impact it has on our lives. For starters, if you are living in a household it would be in your best interests to replace all plastic tupperware with glass or silicone containers for your food. When shopping, pay attention to the product label of what you are buying and rule out materials that could possibly contain phthalates. If the product label does not clearly specify if it has phthalates or not, one can look at the recycling code. According to Maia James, “plastic products with recycling codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates or BPA. Look for plastic with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5”. Other techniques used to avoid plastics can involve purchasing stainless steel water bottles to avoid the unnecessary purchasing and consumption of plastic water bottles. Alternatively, one could install a water filter on their faucet to eliminate the potential consumption of different types of phthalates found in water pipes. When it comes to making a choice in terms of food products, look for produce that is organic, considering non-organic produce often contain pesticides and other chemicals that contain phthalate in them. Although switching from plastic materials to more environmentally friendly materials might be more costly or inconvenient, they will improve the health of our lives and our environment.

Aside from the hazards plastics pose on humans there are also numerous negative effects they pose on the environment throughout their entire lifecycle, from production to disposal. “Plastic bags start as crude oil, natural gas or other petrochemical derivatives, which are transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers or polymer resin. By some estimates nearly 12 million barrels of petroleum oil (or fuel equivalents such as natural gas) are used to produce 100 billion plastic bags” (Kazda, 2014). This is a large use of our highly valued resource, natural gas, considering 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags are produced globally each year and 100 billion are thrown away each year by the United States alone. Once they are produced and distributed they also have a very short lifespan of use. Most bags are not made thick enough to reuse more than once so they often are thrown away or recycled. Recycling these bags is a good thought but most recycling plants cannot accept these since they don’t have the correct facilities in place to recycle them so they will either send them to landfills or burn them. Neither of these are great options with regards to sustaining a healthy environment since “burning emits toxic gases that harm the atmosphere and increase the level of VOCs in the air, while landfills hold them indefinitely as part of the plastic waste problem” (Wagner). These volatile organic compounds then contribute to thickening the ozone and contributing to global warming. Bags that end up in the landfill will most likely never go away since the breakdown process is so slow. Other plastics are also blown away by the wind and by weathering broken down into smaller pieces of plastic. These can then end up in our waterways or harm animals when ingested.

In today’s society, plastic is a cheap convenient material commonly found in packaging, containers, toys, and even plumbing amongst other things. Due to plastics being deeply ingrained in our way of life, it is impossible to avoid contact or use of plastics completely. Society’s continuous use of plastics pose many risks to human health and the environment due to harmful chemicals used in the process of plastic production. A synthetic chemical compound known as Bisphenol A, or BPA for short, is one of many plasticizers that are used to add flexibility and strength to plastic materials. If exposed to Bisphenol A, there are many possible health effects to the brain, infants, prostate in fetuses, and is thought to be a link to increased blood pressure. These chemicals, such as BPA, found in plastics can travel to people, the food or product they carry, or the environment. Most plastics are also non-biodegradable, meaning it can take hundreds of years just for one plastic water bottle to biodegrade and in turn causes degradation to the environment. Hazards associated with the use of plastics can be reduced through avoiding certain plastics completely, using alternatives such as reusable metal water bottles, and in general switching to more environmentally friendly materials. Even though plastics are prominent in our daily lives, educating people to understand the risks and associate them with plastics is important to protect human health and preserve the environment.

Sources:

Aleksandra Konieczna, Aleksandra Rutkowska*, Dominik Rachoń. (2015). “Health Risk of Exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA).” Annals of the National Institute of Hygiene. 66. Pp 5-11

Bauer, Brent. (2016). “What is BPA, and What are the Concerns about BPA?” Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bpa/faq-20058331

Erythropel H.C., Maric M, Nicell JA, Leask RL & Yargeau V. “Leaching of the Plasticizer de(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) from Plastic Containers and the Question of Human Exposure.” (2014) NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25376446

James, Maia. “How to Avoid Phthalates (Even though you can’t avoid phthalates).” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maia-james/phthalates-health_b_2464248.html

Kazda, Katrina. (2014). “The Plastic Bag Problem.” Sustainable America. Retrieved from http://www.sustainableamerica.org/blog/the-plastic-bag-problem/

Koester, Vera. (2015). “Plasticizers- Benefits, Trends, Health and Environmental Issues.” Chemistry Views. Retrieved from http://www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/7874391/Plasticizers__Benefits_Trends_Health_and_Environmental_Issues.html

Pearson SD1, Trissel LA “Leaching of diethylhexyl phthalate from polyvinyl chloride containers by selected drugs and formulation components.” (1993) NCBI Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8362871

Wagner, Jamey. “The Effects of Plastic Bags on the Environment.” Health Guidance: Health Guidance for Better Health. Retrieved from http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/14901/1/The-Effects-of-Plastic-Bags-on-Environment.html

Wolchover, Natalie. “Why Doesn’t Plastic Biodegrade?” Live Science. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/33085-petroleum-derived-plastic-non-biodegradable.html

 

The History of Plastics

Image result for fruit in plastic packaging

Have you ever returned from a shopping trip or errands without having the need to throw things away when unpacking? Chances are slim since plastics and other non biodegradable materials are intertwined with the products we buy. Supermarkets have groceries in every aisle which are packaged in plastic and even fresh produce have plastic stickers on them and are bagged in plastic. Clothes have plastic tags and stickers on them as well. Even fast food restaurants have placed convenience in front of sustainability since all of their meals are usually packaged in single use disposable items. What led to the development and implementation of these unsustainable materials in our daily life? Many different factors played a key role which led them to become a common material. The turn of the twenty first century has led to a faster pace of life where modernization and efficiency have taken prominence over other factors including our health and the environment. Modernization also led to new technological innovations both good and bad. Plastic was one of many new innovative products that were introduced during this time period. In sum, the development of plastics starting in the late 1860s to the recent market changes of the twenty-first century have led to the development and mass use of unsustainable materials in multiple aspects of our daily lives.

Ever since populations have started to exponentially grow,  humans have only had one limitation: nature. Natural resources are finite. Once they are used we will have to turn to other alternatives. In this sense, synthetic materials like plastic originated as a useful alternative resource. “Plastic was conceived to cut manufacturers free from one of the greatest obstacles in industrial production: the limits of nature” (Rogers).  The first plastic was invented in 1868 when inventor John Wesley synthesized celluloid, a material that was later used in photographic film and even in the first motion picture (History of Plastics).

Once plastic was developed, the contributions of multiple people influenced its structure and led it to evolve to what it is today. Despite its invention in the mid-1800’s, plastics did not attain global popularity until 1909 when Dr. Lee Hendrik Baekeland introduced phenoformaldehyde plastics. Baekland was also able to streamline synthesis by adding the elements of heat and pressure to the reaction. This modification yielded a liquid phenoformaldehyde product, which is much easier to mold than its solid counterpart, and thus increased the potential of the still new material. The third major development in plastics occurred in the 1920s when several new material, including nylon and vinyl, were introduced. Because of its chemical properties, the introduction of cellulose acetate made fabrication and use of plastics much safer. Ureaformaldehyde was also developed during this time. Unlike its dark-colored predecessors, it boasted a light color that could be dyed to make more attractive, and therefore more marketable, products. Resins and polystyrenes, used in paints and packaging respectively,  came shortly after in the 1930’s.

World War II induced rapid growth and technological advancement in many industries, so it is no surprise that a wide variety of plastics were developed during this period and a few years afterward. Here we see the rise of insulating plastics as were needed for military equipment. To fill this need, polyethylene and thermoset polyester were developed. The following decade brought the production of engineering thermoplastics, a subgroup of plastics with an incredible impact strength as well as thermal and dimensional stability comparable to that of metals. This group included materials such as polypropylene, acetal, and polycarbonate. The trend of thermoresistant plastics carried over into the 1960s and 1970s to fill the demands of emerging aircraft and aerospace technologies during the Space Race of the Cold War period. This period also brought polyesters that are now commonly used in packaging because of their impermeability.

History has shown how plastics with favorable properties can be designed to fill a niche in an industry. This convenient truth has made it easy for plastics to rapidly make their way into every corner of our modern lives.

The use of unsustainable materials, specifically for product packaging, was exponentially increased due to the changing manufacturing processes of the industrial revolution. During the mid 1800’s mass production was the goal of many companies in order to increase efficiency and accessibility. America’s changes in product production brought along a shift in culture, it is stated best in this excerpt  “Where once people had grown and prepared their own food and made their own clothes, increasingly they were eating, drinking, wearing, and using things that came from factories. We were fast on our way to becoming a country of consumers” (Freinkel).  Depending on factories and mass production in our daily lives created this consumer culture that relies on efficiency in the factories and accessibility to the consumer. To do this, there had to be a way to quickly package goods. The answer that came to be was with the use of plastics, the first being synthesized celluloid. Celluloid and other similar materials helped mass production in two main ways, “Ample supplies of celluloid allowed manufacturers to keep up with rapidly rising demand while also keeping costs down” (Freinkel). As time went on this trend of using synthetic unsustainable materials took off, and now are frequently used in our daily lives.

The impact of the mass production of plastics during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s has created an everlasting effect on both our consumer lifestyle and our environment. Nowadays, it would seem unimaginable to live in a life without out plastic packaging products such as tupperware, plastic zip-lock bags, and other plastic food containers. As our populations increased over the years, manufacturers of plastic materials had to increasingly produce products to keep up with consumer demand. This increase in production in plastics has riddled our environment with unsustainable materials and has created a variety of issues to be dealt with. Innovation has allowed plastic factories and manufactures to develop new products using different materials at an extremely efficient rate. The problem with this is that when these new products are created, we aren’t likely to know the possible exposure effects of theses products on our environment and health. Plastic materials are extremely harmful to the environment in the way that they are slow to degrade, meaning that their physical presence lasts longer than other materials in our environment. Plastic waste can be found almost anywhere near civilizations, it can end up in the oceans and damage marine life or it could end up burning in a landfill, releasing harmful carcinogens and pollutants into our air. In conclusion, our past history with plastic packaging has led to a long-term, detrimental effect on our environment due to the use of unsustainable materials and change in consumer culture. It is important to understand that consumer demand drives the market for plastic materials, and consumers need to realize that although plastic packaging products may be convenient and cheap, they can led to unfavorable environmental conditions.

Works Cited:

Freinkel, Susan. (2011, May 29). “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World: Cheap plastic goods have unleashed a flood of consumer goods.” Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-brief-history-of-plastic-world-conquest/

“History of Plastics”. Polymer Plastic Company LC. Retrieved from http://www.polymerplastics.com/history_plastics.shtml

Rogers, Heather. (2005, May 1). “A Brief History of Plastic.” The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics and Culture. Retreived from http://brooklynrail.org/2005/05/express/a-brief-history-of-plastic

Sustainable Materials: A Plastic Ocean

Many plastics ultimately end up in the ocean and can be detrimental to all levels of life. Therefore, we should attempt to reduce our use of plastics in order to reduce the quantity that ends up in the ocean. Packaging is a large source of excessive plastic.

They’re everywhere. They hold the water we drink and the food we eat. They carry our groceries and our trash. They are found in our office supplies, our technological devices, our home decor, and our furniture. Because of their fast and cheap production, plastics have found their way into every crevice of contemporary life. Unsurprisingly, they have also found their way into every corner of the environment, especially our oceans. Plastics are not biodegradable, so they can affect the environment in which they have been left for many years. Since most plastics end up in the ocean when they are disposed, marine life takes on the brunt of the consequences plastics can bring.

On February 3, 2017 a goose-beaked whale was found stranded off of the coast of Norway. The whale, after being determined to be in critical shape, was euthanized. Upon examination, researchers found the whale to have 30 plastic bags in its stomach. Dr. Terje Lislevand, described the whale to have “very little blubber and was emaciated, suggesting the plastic had lead it to become malnourished” (Shavali). This is one of many instances where the negative consequences of using single use plastics have had a detrimental effect on the environment. Plastic pollution is not just affecting Norway but is a global problem. For example, Green Turtles in Australia are also ingesting plastic debris. In severe cases, this can also affect the turtle’s swimming ability. According to Libby Hall, manager of the Taronga Wildlife Hospital, Green Turtles can only reproduce after the age of 30, and only one in 1000 turtles survive to adulthood (Chettle). For this reason, every premature death in the Green Turtle population can seriously impact the species’ survival in the region.

img_6711

Plastics do not just affect large animals like whales and turtles. Although plastics are not biodegradable, they ultimately break down into pieces less than 5mm in length called microplastics. However, their reduced size does not equate to a reduced impact. One of the most obvious challenges that microplastics pose is their difficulty of being contained and removed from the environment. Their presence in the water has shown to negatively impact organisms at lower trophic levels. Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter found that marine lugworms eat less, and therefore show a decrease in energy levels, in environments heavily contaminated with microplastics (University of Exeter). In addition, a study at Plymouth University demonstrated that when lugworms do consume microplastics, the chemicals the plastics contain can be detrimental to their health. It is no secret that a phenomenon in lower trophic levels can affect an entire ecosystem (University of Exeter). For example, a decrease in the population of lugworms due to the effects of microplastics will cause an increase in competition amongst their consumers. Not only that, but bioaccumulation of consumed substances is also a concern. Although the complete impact of microplastics is unknown, a great variety of organisms, including humans, could ultimately end up in microplastics’ line of fire.

img_6712

A law proposed to impose a five cent fee on the use of disposable plastic and paper bags in New York has been delayed. The fee was approved by city council in 2016, but has now been delayed, to be reviewed and possible reformed before it is presented again in 2018 (Nir). For opposers of the fee, a concern is the financial burden shoppers will take on. An issue easily addressed by simply bringing one’s own bags. This eliminates the need to purchase a bag at check-out. Those who support the law see it as an opportunity to reduce the amount of plastic bags that end up in landfills and oceans.

Many states are becoming aware of about the detrimental impacts that plastic bags have on our environment and are looking for ways to reduce the use of plastic bags from retail outlets such as grocery stores. These states are faced the issue of finding strategies to reduce plastic usage, implement effective recycling programs, and enacting laws to prohibit the use of plastic bags.  According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), “in August 2014, California became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores”. This bill also imposed a 10 cent fee on the use of other types of bags such as paper bags. Another state in the U.S. that has imposed a ban on the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags is Hawaii. These two states are the first to successfully implement a ban on plastic bags at checkout, however many more states are now proposing bills to be passed in concern with the regulation of plastic bags. Over the last two years, 23 states have proposed a total of 77 bills that will hopefully be enacted in legislation. The NCSL states that, “only three states—Arizona, Idaho, and Missouri—have enacted legislation this year, all of which preempt local governments from regulating the sale or use of plastic bags, including the imposition of any fees or taxes”. Apart from fees and bans, states are also looking for ways to enforce recycling programs and policies. For example, the states of California and Delaware have passed legislation that requires retail stores to adopt at-store recycling programs (NCSL). These recycling programs have a positive impact of the environment because it allows for customers to return their plastic bags in order for them to be recycled.

In conclusion, plastics have become readily available and are a large component of consumer waste. The disposal of plastics has dangerous environmental threats to both the land and various ecosystems such as the oceans. Various governments have slowly made changes in order to place a tax on the use of plastic bags, which has opened the public eyes to the environmental cost of using disposable plastic bags as opposed to reusable ones. This is a good start to the solution of plastic waste. To what extent does the prevalence of plastics have on the environment? The ocean cannot be the only ecosystem that is damaged by plastic pollution, so what other ecosystems are affected? When did the use of plastics become common and why? Can this problem be reversed and if yes, how? What other alternative sustainable materials could be used in place of their plastic counterparts?

Works Cited

Chettle, Nicole. “Sydney Harbour hidden plastic pollution is killing endangered turtles and marine life.” ABC News, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-12/sydney-harbour-hidden-plastics-threatening-endangered-turtles/8263368. Accessed 12 February 2017.

Nir, Sarah. “State Senate Takes Aim at Plastic Bag Fee in New York City.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/nyregion/plastic-bags-new-york.html?_r=0. Accessed 12 February 2017.

Shavali. “A whale is found dead with more than 30 PLASTIC BAGS in its stomach – and experts say it’s ‘not surprising’.” Dailymail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4185038/A-whale-30-PLASTIC-BAGS-stomach.html. Accessed 10 February 2017.

“State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation: Fees, Taxes and Bans | Recycling and Reuse.” National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx. Accessed 12 February 2017.

“The impact of microplastics on marine life.” University of Exeter, http://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/feature/microplastics/. Accessed 10 February 2017.