By Caitlin Ciceri
The first synthetic plastic was called ‘Bakelite’ and it was produced all the way back in 1907. The rise of the global plastics industry did not take place, however, until the early 1950’s and was enforced as an ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative to paper use. Over the next 65 years, the annual production of plastics increased 200-fold, with over 381 million tonnes produced in 2015 (Ritchie, 2018). Today, plastic production has infiltrated almost every part of our everyday lives. We see it wrapped around food in grocery stores, embedded in our shoes, stitched into our clothes and now; plastic is ending up inside of us.
What’s the damage?
One of the biggest problems with the mass production of plastic, is that they are not biodegradable. Instead, plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming plastic particles called, ‘micro-plastics.’ These tiny, sometimes microscopic plastic pieces are then eaten by animals who occupy the lower levels of the food chain. Some of the animals most affected by plastic consumption are small fish, plankton, crustaceans and mollusks. As these animals remain a primary food source for many species, including humans, the “plastics ingested by (these) invertebrates then have the potential to transfer toxic substances up the food chain” (Nichols, 2015). Namely, these micro plastics move from smaller fish, to bigger fish, to whales, to birds and eventually, end up on our dinner plates. When these micro plastics are taken up into the body, if they are small enough, they can be absorbed from the gut into other body tissues, creating an array of wounds and health problems both internal and external.
This is terrifying to learn as someone who sees massive amounts of plastics in their every-day life. Even more worrisome, is the rate at which the average person ingests plastics without even realizing. A recent study published by the World Wildlife Fund indicates that the average person could ingest “a credit card’s worth of micro plastics every week” (WWF, 2019). This study, along with many others, was published over 2 years ago. Governments and production companies have known that plastics are not biodegradable for years, decades even. They have known that micro plastics are everywhere, threatening our wildlife and ending up in our water, our sea salt, our food; yet, they continue to produce plastics at ever increasing rates.
Who is responsible?
I have heard many times that the single biggest way a person can reduce their plastic waste is by simply refusing to buy single use plastics. But it’s not always that simple. I have walked into my grocery store many times to buy fruits and vegetables, armed with my reusable grocery bag, only to find that most organic foods with a natural protective outer layer are also, unnecessarily, encased in plastic. Picture an orange, for example, with a natural protective peel, wrapped in single use plastic. Are we consumers simply supposed to stop eating oranges? Will this even make a difference? Systemic changes are needed at the production level, not the waste disposal level. The easiest way to remove plastic pollution is to simply, stop making plastic. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support anyone who wants to reduce their plastic waste by doing the “little things." I myself try to carry around reusable water bottles, reduce my plastic bag consumption through reusable bags and grow my own vegetables to avoid the plastic casing on some of my favorite veggies. But as much as these actions can help on a small scale, the real problem lies with the companies and massive transnational corporations who have created millions of tonnes of plastic waste each year and successfully shifted the responsibility for disposing of these products off themselves and onto consumers. Not only is this unethical but it’s also impractical. Too examine this emphasis on ‘consumer responsibility,’ let’s look at what many companies and governments claim to be the ‘perfect solution,’ recycling.
The recycling of plastics has often been portrayed by corporations and governments as the 'perfect solution' to the plastic waste crisis. They have put massive amounts of money and effort into targeted advertisements, preaching to consumers that if they only did ‘their part,’ the world could be plastic free and companies could continue to maximize profits. In reality, only 8.7 percent of plastics manufactured can actually be recycled. This is due to a variety of reasons, including plastics contamination, the mixing of different plastic resins and a lack of economic incentive for companies to actually recycle their waste. Despite the other 91 percent of plastic waste ending up somewhere in our environment, companies have continued to push ‘recycling’ programs, lobbying governments to stick recycling symbols onto every waste container despite the fact that companies are essentially setting up consumers to fail in their quest in disposing of plastics ethically and safely.
Solutions: Redesign and Government Policy.
There are, however, some solutions to our plastic waste crisis. There are different ways of approaching a complex problem like this one, that holds economic incentives in opposition to community health. The first is that governments and policy makers must set targets and standards for companies and transnational corporations in their use and production of plastic. Prime minister Justin Trudeau attempted to limit single use plastic in 2019. He promised a ‘ban’ on all single use plastic by 2021. This announcement had the potential to serve community health and environmental wellbeing, however, it is now 2021 and single use plastic remains in Canadian stores, restaurants and well, just about everywhere.
A promising example of global government action lies in the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals,’ created at the U.N. summit meeting in September of 2015. The 17 goals were developed to address the most pressing global threats and provide a vision for achieving a just and sustainable future. Despite plastic pollution being a “severe threat to natural ecosystems and human health”, only 1 goal out of 17 attempts to address and reduce plastic pollution (Walker, 2021). The attempt is listed under goal 14, which focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of our oceans, seas and marine resources. The goal articulates that “by 2025, (we must) prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution” (Walker, 2021). This is measured using an index of coastal eutrophication and floating plastic debris. Other than this, there is “no specific mention of targets aimed at reducing micro plastics or indicators to measure their reduction,” despite the fact that plastic pollution effects and impedes 12 of the other 17 SDG goals. Additionally, the UN has yet to illustrate a concrete way forward that indicates how companies and manufacturers are to be regulated for their plastic consumption, distribution and mass production.
In order for this crisis to be solved, governments must be specific about limiting or eliminating plastic use and production within their jurisdictions to force companies to look for environmentally friendly and biodegradable alternatives. This brings me to my second solution to the plastics crisis, redesign. All plastic materials are derived from fossil fuels, specifically “petrochemical feedstock naptha and other oil derived from crude oil” (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2021). This is what makes plastics so deadly to humans and the natural world. Therefore, “the development of (plastics) derived from renewable and natural resources” must be encouraged, funded and implemented actively into supply chains. These are known as 'bioplastics.' There are already some bioplastic alternatives that have immense potential to replace fossil fuel plastics, they simply have to be funded and implemented.
There are many re-design alternatives for companies looking to replace specific single use plastic waste. One example is this decliciously edible, cookie-coffee cup pictured above. However, bioplastic alteratives are the most promising option to replace fossil fuel plastics at the global level. One of the most promising bioplastic alternatives has been created from olive pits, which are particularly abundant in countries that produce large quantities of olive oil. “A Turkish startup called BioLive began creating a range of bioplastic granules, created from olive seeds, that result in bio based, partially biodegradable products that decompose in a year” (Welle, 2020). One of the key ingredients found in this alternative is a powerful antioxidant that both extends the life of the bioplastic, while hastening the composting of the material into fertilizer within the span of one year. Additionally, by utilizing the biproduct of olive oil, production costs are reduced by 90 percent in relation to other alternatives (Wells, 2020). A second redesign with potential, was created by a German startup that utilized sunflower seeds to create a biodegradable replacement for plastic that is already being molded into anything from office furniture to recyclable transport (Wells, 2020). Another is unusual but if implemented in the correct way, could dethrone fossil fuel plastics. “A UK initiative called MarinaTex, (has) begun using fish scales and red algae to make a compoundable plastic alternative” (Wells, 2020). The creator, Lucy Hughes, who invented the bioplastic in her final year of graduate school, claims the polymer creates a stronger packaging than the conventional plastic bag, successfully counteracting the narrative that bioplastic alternatives lack strength and durability.
Lucy Hughes holding up her bioplastic alternative!
A solution to this crisis is within our grasp. At our best, people are inventive, creative and ingenious beings who collectively have the power to change the course of environmental distress and the horrors of plastic pollution. I see hope written into the brilliance of these startup companies and their biodegradable plastic alternatives. These redesign options must be implemented, they must be encouraged, they must be funded and companies who have continued to make billions of dollars off of a substance that has become a threat to our natural environment and to humanity itself, must be regulated and held accountable. Without the complete discontinuation of single use, fossil fuel-based plastics, our world cannot hope to see a future free of its pollution.
C. Wabnitz. W. Nichols. (2010). Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency. ResearchGate.
R. Walker. (2021). (Micro)plastics and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Current Opinion and Green and Sustainable Chemistry. Vol 30.
H. Ritchie. M. Roser. (2018). Plastic Pollution. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution?utm_source=newsletter
B. Watson. (2017). The Troubling Evolution of Corporate Greenwashing. Chain Reaction #129.
D. Welle. (2020). 5 Sustainable Alternatives to Plastics. EcoWatch. https://www.ecowatch.com/5-sustainable-alternatives-to-plastics-2645932261.html
WWF. (2019). Could you be eating a credit card a week? https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?348371/Could-you-be-eating-a-credit-card-a-week
J. Oliver. (2021). Plastics: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. LastWeekTonight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fiu9GSOmt8E&t=545s
eia. (2021). How much oil is used to make plastic? U.S. Energy Information Administration. https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=34&t=6