Plastics Yet Again

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen

 

plastics_not_foreverThe New York Times has treated us to another episode of the Great Plastics-Last-Forever  Urban Legend in their recent article “The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics” by the incredible Tatiana Schlossberg (here and here).

The New York Times’ article breathlessly reports:

“From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004. And since plastic does not naturally degrade, the billions of tons sitting in landfills, floating in the oceans or piling up on city streets will provide a marker if later civilizations ever want to classify our era. Perhaps they will call this time on Earth the Plastocene Epoch.”

“Their findings suggest that staggering amounts of near-eternal litter is present in the environment — the oceans, landfills and freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems — and the numbers are quite likely to increase, with 12 billion metric tons accumulating in landfills or in the environment by 2050.”

“Scientists estimate that five million to 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, according to previous studies. New data suggests contamination in rivers and streams, as well as on land, is increasingly common, with most of the pollution in the form of microscopic pieces of synthetic fibers, largely from clothing.”

Concluding with:

“Dr. Geyer said there was not enough information on what the long-term consequences of all this plastic and its disposal would be. “It accumulates so quickly now and it doesn’t biodegrade, so it just gets added to what’s already there.”

“Once we start looking” Dr. Geyer said, ”I think we’ll find all sorts of unintended consequences. I’d be very surprised to find out that it is a purely aesthetic problem.”

The bolded phrases (my bold) are the Scientific Urban Legend.  It simply is not true that “plastics are eternal” or that “plastics don’t bio-degrade”.

This Urban Legend is even less true than the entirely fallacious “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”  created whole-cloth, apparently, in 1997  the imagination of Charles J Moore, which he described as “I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”  Of course, there were no photographs.

Slate magazine says “Moore’s Garbage Patch would grow in size and fame in the years that followed. The plastic-plankton soup he’d first discovered in 1997—which oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer dubbed the “Eastern Garbage Patch” or the “Pacific Garbage Patch”—gained notoriety in a 2006 series for the Los Angeles Times that won a Pulitzer Prize. Its area had doubled: Now the patch was “twice the size of Texas.” (Some reports went even bigger.) As coverage intensified—the patch’s media profile peaked between 2007 and 2009—the soup coalesced into a garbage landmass with a more official name: the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle called the patch “a massive, eternal, slowly swirling vortex of noxious garbage the size of a continent and the shape of death itself, just floating out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, mocking life, humanity, God.”

Typical of Scientific Urban Legends, the Garbage Patch grew and grew, in size, nature and villainy, each re-telling adding to the size and content and magnifying the horror of it all.

Key to the Legend is the falsehood  repeated by Tatiana Schlossberg in her NY Times piece — that plastics are somehow magically eternal, that they do not degrade in the environment, and incineration is the only way to destroy them.  A falsehood oddly supported by Dr. Roland Geyer — who ought to know better.

The simple fact is that plastics do degrade in the environment, especially in the ocean (and lakes, streams, rivers).

When real scientists went out to investigate the marvelous Pacific Garbage Patch imaginatively described by Charles Moore, they found — well, almost nothing.  They found this:

ocean

That’s what I found in the supposed mirror- image Atlantic Garbage Patch…basically nothing showing, nothing to see.

In a previous essay here on this subject, An Ocean of Plastic, I related an email conversation with Dr. Jenna R. Jambeck,  one of the world’s leading experts on oceanic plastics and ocean debris, in which she shared with me that on a recent voyage from Lanzarote (in the Canary Islands off the shore of Africa) to Martinique (one of the Windward Islands of the Caribbean), a trip of 3,200 miles, they recorded sighting 15 floating items – “mostly buckets and buoys, with at least one bottle too”.  A far cry from Charles Moore’s wholly imagined garbage patch.

The missing garbage patch was such a surprise (outside of portion of society taken in by all things environmental no matter how unlikely to be true) that  we began to see some real science on the topic, such as National Geographic’s  piece “Ocean Garbage Patch Not Growing—Where’s “Missing” Plastic?”  which tells us “It’s possible some of the trash is just too small for researchers to catalog, study leader Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts said: “Our net only captures pieces larger than [a third of a millimeter] in size, and it’s certain that the plastic breaks down into pieces smaller than that.”   [That was in 2010, Kara Lavender Law is still a leading researcher and advocate in the field of oceanic plastics and oceanic debris.]

Smaller than a third of a millimeter?…..how small is that when the sun comes up in the morning?  That’s about 1/4th the thickness of a US dime (10 cent piece) or three sheets of 20 lb. inkjet printer paper.  That is really small, in other words. If one was snorkeling in the water with these suffused with particles of this size, with the tropical sunlight shining down through the water, they would appear as little flecks of something — just like all the other little flecks and bits and incredible little plants and animals that live the floating life in the sea.

This aspect is a real problem actually.  To sea life food is often identified by size — moving objects in a certain size range are food and are eaten without further thought or inspection.  This is why fishing lures pulled through the water catch fish — right size, right shape (even just sort of), colored to attract attention and right movement equals food.  As a result, lots of these little bits are being ingested by fishes and other denizens of the deep.  Luckily, most animal life forms are built on the same topology as a tube — what goes in the front (eating) end generally is capable of coming out the other (pooping) end.  Things that don’t come out the other end have ways of getting back out the eating end (think cats and hairballs).

There are unfortunate exceptions, like the vanishing small percentage of albatross chicks whose mothers bring them too many shiny bits of colored plastic, as I explained in a previous essay: “Just to clarify, I’ve counted about a dozen different pictures of dead albatross chicks from Midway on the internet, some of them look to be several seasons old. Midway Atoll is the winter home of nearly a million nesting albatrosses. Roughly 450,000 pairs wedge their way into a scant 2½ square miles of land surface. Not very many albatross chicks are dying from being fed plastic. In a Darwinian sense, mother albatrosses who feed chicks too much plastic don’t get to pass on their genes, thus improving the species.”

Some biologists are concerned because some plastics have a tendency to absorb other chemicals from the environment and that organisms ingesting the plastic pieces might be adversely effected by these chemicals.  There is as yet no reliable science on this point — it may just be an unfounded fear or it may have some validity.

So, with the studies we have,  we can be fairly sure that much more plastic inadvertently ends up in the ocean than can be found and accounted for.  The Geyer paper discussed by the NY Times basically is adding up all the plastic produced, subtracting the amounts estimated to be incinerated, recycled and landfilled giving a very broad estimation of how much plastic goes missing and might eventually end up in the ocean.  When that plastic is searched for — and believe me, if you review the literature, they have searched and searched for it, there is plenty of research money for this topic — they do not find it.  Thus the question remains:  Where is that missing plastic?

The studies that search for oceanic plastics, these  sea-sifting projects,  I believe are ride-alongs, one of many projects being done from a research vessel on its various voyages for various purposes, and consist generally of net-tows (towing sieves with differing sized-holes) through the water for set distances. The contents of the net are then washed, sifted, and sorted by picking through the captured material with long pointed needles and tweezers.

Here is what two different studies find:Isobe_Fig3

Compare that image with this from an earlier study:

graph

The thing to notice in both of these images is the shape of the curve.  There are very few big pieces — above 15 mm (about ½ in) (see the bottom scale of the bottom graph) — Isobe finds more of these ½ to 1 inch (15 to 30 mm) pieces in his areas closer to the shores of  Japan.  The number of pieces rapidly grows as size decreases, as we would expect if items are breaking into 2 or more bits, then those bits breaking in two, etc.  Until…..the size hits a seemingly magical point of 1.5 to 1 mm.  Then the absolute number of pieces decreases rapidly until we find very few pieces under 0.3 mm (1/3 mm).    With our understanding that these bits of plastic are breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces, we would have expected the graphs to show increasing numbers as size decreased.  The finding is not a fluke; two independent voyages find the same general pattern.

What can we know from this?  It is obvious that the floating plastic items in the sea rapidly break apart into smaller and smaller pieces — objects big enough to be seen from a distance are very rare and seldom turn up in net-tows.  But something strange happens when the pieces are reduced to sizes below about 1mm — they start rapidly disappearing.  What happens to them?  Where do they go?

The potential fate of plastics that have escaped into the wild or landfilled were studied by Swift in 2015, focusing on ways to improve their breakdown in landfills.  The potentials fates are shown in this little tree diagram:

fate-of-polymers

Micro-organisms living on the surface of plastics contribute to the degradation of plastics in two ways, as explained in the 2015 paper by Graham Swift  (2015):

“It should be recognized that  testing of the degradation of plastics and polymers relates to physical and molecular  property changes that may be promoted by physical, chemical, and biological  processes. The latter is where oxidation is promoted exo-cellularly by certain enzymes with the products generally consumed by the bacteria present,  but not necessarily. Biodegradation is distinctly different and is considered to be biological consumption of the plastic or polymer and is measured by the rate and amount of gases, carbon dioxide in aerobic conditions and carbon dioxide together with methane in anaerobic conditions, evolved during metabolic processes.”

In short, one pathway is when the activity of bacteria and other microorganisms aid oxidative degradation which leads to physical degradation which exposes more area to oxidative degradation.  In this pathway, the bacteria may or may not consume the products of the breakdown.  The second pathway is when the bacteria actually consume the plastic itself.

Ultimately, some plastic may remain unchanged.  The common, ubiquitous building material, PVC – polyvinyl chloride, has been found to be almost impervious to breakdown.  This is, of course, a good thing and the very reason that it is used for modern plumbing, siding for houses, window frames and as a replacement for lumber in some cases.

PVC is pretty good at standing up to the Sun’s UV — I used some PVC moulding as a replacement rubbing strake on my sailboat about ten years ago and it has performed well despite the tropical sun.

Most other plastics breakdown faster or slower depending on their environment.  In landfills, plastic degrades and biodegrades faster when there is plentiful oxygen, and slower where there is not — but, in the end,  most common types degrade — they are NOT eternal, they are NOT forever.

As we have seen, floating plastic in the sea rapidly breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces — being exposed to sunlight and the motion of the waves.  When the size of the pieces reach a seemingly critical points, smaller than 1 mm, the plastic disappears.

Simply put, it has been known for the last ten years of  or so that the missing oceanic plastic is eaten.  Not just by fishes, although certainly some is ingested and re-excreted by fishes, but actually consumed as food by microorganisms.

Swift refers to this as bio degradation  (“ Bio-degradation is distinctly different and is considered to be biological consumption of the plastic”).

Here’s what they have found is happening:

bacteria_eating_plastic_img

microbes_eat_plastic

The tiny animals actually consume the plastic itself, much in the same way that they ate the oil from the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.   (Scientific American magazine ran this piece:  “Meet the Microbes Eating the Gulf Oil Spill”. )

The same principle involved in the melting of crushed ice vs. cubed ice operates here:  the smaller bits have a greater surface area compared to their total volume, and at a critical size, the microorganisms eating away at the surfaces just eat it all up.

The natural pathways for the degradation and biodegradation of plastics have been know since 2008-09 or so, splashed about in the major journals.  This is not secret information.

It does not surprise me that that the NY Times author, Tatiana Schlossberg, does not know this — she is not a science journalist.  It does not surprise me that the NY Times environmental desk editor does not know this (or chooses not to know) — the NY Times has long been a bastion of environmental pseudo-science propaganda, and seldom publishes straight science.  It does surprise me that Roland Geyer, at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, would say something as foolish as “It accumulates so quickly now and it doesn’t biodegrade, so it just gets added to what’s already there.”  — this is his specialty.

 

Bottom Line:

It is a Scientific Urban Legend that “plastics are forever”.  Most plastics both degrade and biodegrade in the environment — whether in the oceans or in landfills.

Some plastics — such as PVC — resist degradation and thus are useful as building materials replacing such things as metals in plumbing and lumber in siding and building.

The “floating rafts of plastic garbage”-version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a pernicious myth that needs to be dispelled at every opportunity.

The “missing 99% of the plastic in the oceans” has been eaten, mostly by bacteria and other microbes.   These little critters will continue to eat the plastic and if we reduce the amount of plastic going into the oceans, they may eventually eat it all up.  Microbes are also eating up the plastic in landfills — albeit, much more slowly.

 

Take Home Message:

Kindergarten rules apply at all stages and areas of life:

Pick up after yourself — clean up your own messes:

We need to do all we can to keep every sort of trash, including plastics,  contained and disposed of in a responsible manner – this keeps it out of the oceans and the rest of the natural environment.

Plastics are valuable and should be recycled whenever possible into useful and valuable commodities, such as replacements for lumber in decking, shipping pallets, etc.

Volunteerism to clean up beaches and reefs is effective and worthwhile.

Responsible outdoor recreation, including boating,  includes keeping your trash (and especially plastics) under control and disposed of properly ashore.

Tell the truth — it is always better in the long run.

The modern mass media’s abandonment of journalistic ethics is disturbing and dangerous for our society.  The replacement of news with propaganda promoting “correct thinking” threatens to turn us into a society of ignorant,  mis-educated and misinformed citizens.  We all need to do our part to correctly and truthfully portray important issues.

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Author’s Comment Policy:

I’ll be happy to answer your questions and give more references if anyone wants them. I have worked on this issue off-and-on for the last year to satisfy my own curiosity and I find the work of Nature to be truly fascinating.

I wrote about his here at WUWT a couple of years ago in An Ocean of PlasticLarry Kummer followed up with a piece debunking Charles Moore’s “floating island of plastic” eco-myth.

All this said, plastics need to be recycled or disposed of properly, like all other trash — just because it’s the right thing to do.

Thank you for reading here.

# # # # #

 

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Robert of Texas

Besides basic chemistry of water, dissolved chemicals, temperature, and UV light acting up plastics, there are likely to be little organisms that love the stuff. If it contains energy and can be “enzymed” to give it up, then something is going to eat it. So you have mechanical wearing, chemical degradation, and likely bio-activity to remove plastic from the environment.
I have several different types of plastics out in my back yard, and some are in good shape (PVC pipes), some are in bad shape (plastic tarp), and some are so rotten you can’t pick them up without turning them into tiny fragments. My own laboratory, and its telling me plastics degrade (especially the ones in my cars that I wish would stop degrading).
That doesn’t mean I want to go dumping plastic into the environment, it just means it isn’t a permanent problem.
I am all for better recycling of materials including plastics.
If you are a green activist and want to do something about all that plastic, stop buying bottled water – talk about a complete waste of resources.

beng135

As you say, documentaries show marine wildlife using floating plastic as a hiding/breeding spot. Such “debris” is rare in open oceans and much valued by marine-life.

Kalifornia Kook

Robert – thanks for including UV light with the list of things that degrade plastic. You also mentioned a plastic tarp degrading – in the sun, I presume, since you mentioned back yard. However, I was recently dismayed when the plastic tarp in my attached garage mild Orange County, CA., disintegrated. No sun, relatively mild temperatures, yet when I pulled it downed, it started shattering into pieces. The large ones I could put into the trash can, but most it went there via a dust pan. I didn’t even try to unfold it – it just shattered.
Plastic (not necessarily including PVC) has a pretty short life span, which explains why auto manufacturers almost all include UV protection in windshields – to protect the dash.
And just try to leave a grocery bag outside for a bit. Won’t hold its own weight.
Don’t try to tell me plastic lasts forever. These were just a few examples, but plastic left outside breaks down very quickly. Anyone who says differently is woefully unobservant.
But PVC… now there is a product I like! Constant replacement not required.

Pop Piasa

ABS holds up better than PVC which gets brittle.

Pop Piasa
george e. smith

Ozone is also a god degrader of plastics. The open cell foam; often grey or black used in things like fancy camera cases, that you fit to your equipment, will quickly turn to powder and mess up everything, including your optics, if you keep it in any place where you can get ozone. Any sort of DC motor with brushes is an excellent source of ozone.
The pink (or white) closed cell foam used for packing materials, is much better for lining camera cases. It’s also excellent for trout fishing with “power bait”. A tiny piece of CCF no bigger than 3 mm^3 will float a #8 gold hook, and when you smear it with power bait it will stay afloat until the last of it dissolves, instead of sinking to the bottom, where the trout will never find it.
I have two three gallon bottles that I carry across the street to a strip mall where a local water vendor fills them for me for 40c per gallon. It used to be 25c per gallon, and then the politicians raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour so now water costs me 40c.
The get it by reverse osmosis, and it is the best tasting water I have ever had. I can easily drink eight glasses a day if I wanted to; specially if I add lemon juice to it.
My wife will buy water in 4 ounce plastic bottles and throw them away; she’s a school teacher, so you know what the kids are learning.
G

george e. smith

There IS one plastic that DOES last forever.
The Federal Government’s CREDIT CARD !
Indestructible and it NEVER runs dry.
G

Most credit cards are made of PVC…

Gregory

Ferdinand’s comment piqued my curiosity.
“The polymer used in credit cards is called polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA) and is made by combining vinyl acetate and vinyl chloride and then adding some special chemical plasticizers for flexibility. The result is a plastic that’s dense, water resistant and durable. Sheets of PVCA are made and sent to special manufacturing facilities to be turned into individual cards.”
How Are Physical Credit Cards Made?: http://www.cardrates.com/advice/how-are-physical-credit-cards-made/
The Chemistry of Credit Cards: http://www.elementsdatabase.com/the_chemistry_of_credit_cards.php

Thanks Gregory,
Learned something new, thought that it was pure PVC + some softener, but they blend in VA monomer with the VC monomer for some reason (may work as plasticizer itself in the endproduct)…
My knowledge was based on actions of Greenpeace, which could convince one UK bank to use “99% PVC-free” cards, Greenpeace and the bank were convicted by the Advertising Standards Authority for false claims:
http://home.scarlet.be/~ping5859/en/cases/en_gp_asa.html

Here at 2500m in the Front Range most plastics degrade rapidly if exposed . Otherwise they effectively just become part of the somewhat rocky soil .

Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7

Interesting and informative article, but I can’t resist adding this:

The common, ubiquitous building material, PVC – polyvinyl chloride, has been found to be almost impervious to breakdown. This is, of course, a good thing and the very reason that it is used for modern plumbing, siding for houses, window frames and as a replacement for lumber in some cases.

The best way yet discovered to degrade PVC is for the state Transportation department to store large amounts of it in the fenced areas under highway overpasses, then allow vagrants to set fire to pieces of furniture stuffed in shopping carts. That completely degrades the PVC, along with a sizeable chunk of the highway above it.

Latitude

LOL…are you from Hotlanta? 😉

Bartemis

Kudos to GADOT for getting it fixed in record time, though. I was amazed when I heard they had fixed it in just over a month.

Brett Keane

Must be ctm dealing with trolls. Well done!

LOL! Don’t you just love Atlanta? 🙂 Living in Gwinnett…

markl

But, but it’s such a good meme that ‘plastics last forever’. It proves how much irreversible damage man is doing to earth. Add CAGW and plastics last forever to overpopulation and you have the trifecta of man’s evilness.

NW sage

I am SOooo disappointed. When I read that plastics NEVER degrade my first thought was that “Here is a material we can replace the pyramid’s with” It will be a monument to the existence of man forever!. Much better than mere rock! And we know this must be true because the Times said it was so.

PaulH

That’s what I found in the supposed mirror- image Atlantic Garbage Patch…basically nothing showing, nothing to see.
Nothing to see? Man, I see beautiful rolling waves stretching to a glowing horizon. I doubt I’d grow tired of that view. 🙂

Latitude

total BS…..everything I need to work..that’s made of of plastic…..cracks when I need it the most

Resourceguy

It doesn’t biodegrade eh (?). Well then send Tatiana on a journey to the center of a large Waste Management landfill site that is producing biogas. Let’s just see how much bio degradation there is on plastics there and on Tatiana from her trip. And let’s also have a reality photojournalism trip to rivers in third word countries to see what’s flowing into the oceans. That would be a good use of ex-EPA employees as well.

Joel Snider

Just a few decades ago, activists helped destroy the timber industry in my state, encouraging the use of plastics.
Today, the mission is to destroy the plastic industry (among others).
They always have to be attacking or destroying something – usually because of some tripe-based paranoia.
And this is what gives them the warm fuzzy – the self-defined moral high-ground.

Very insightful article. Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges of our civilisation and tackling it is perhaps no less important than climate change.

DonM

“… and tackling it is perhaps no less important than climate change.”
Technically, you got it half right.
Had you said, “… and tackling it is perhaps no less important than trimming my toenails”, your statement would have been just as accurate.

Don’t you acept the threat of pollution?

Akatsukami

Rod L: We don’t accept your definition of what pollution is.

David Chappell

RodL, it’s the “climate change” bit you got wrong. Do keep up.

David A

Yet you did read the article correct? The main jist is there is no great ocean garbage patch and the plastics dissolve until gone.

MarkW

Since neither is a problem, why bother.

Thinking that climate change and plastic pollution are not very serious problems is stupid. Good luck in life

Joel Snider

To describe plastic pollution as one of the ‘greatest challenges of our civilization’ is beyond stupid, but a good insight into the moronic mentality that opposes the progress and ultimate survival of the human race.

I live within spitting distance of a major private science university,
Were I to speak of this article in public I will be outcast..
Science and the educational system have failed to take us beyond our propensity to trade in tales of monsters.

Bartemis

They probably do last a very long time buried in landfills. But, so what? They’re buried. If they broke down rapidly and the byproducts leached into groundwaters, that would be a problem.

The absence of oceanic garbage island is astonishing – not only tsunamis are practically an annual event –
only 6 years have passed since Tōhoku tsunami, which reached a total height of 40.5 metres (133 ft). And only 13 years after the massive Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed about 230,000 people. The amount of material they have swiped into the ocean is unimaginable.

D. J. Hawkins

An excellent point.

noaaprogrammer

No wonder sea levels are rising! /sarc

Menicholas

Most plastics are heavier than water.
Throw some plastic stuff in a pool or bathtub, and observe how much of it floats.

Menicholas

comment image

Gary

There’s a effort underway on UK beaches to count plastic litter fragments using drone technology.
https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/theplastictide/the-plastic-tide/about/research

george e. smith

Why not close the loop and have the little dronies pick up the litter they find on the beaches. What god is diagnosing it if you don’t fix it; to plagiarise a TV ad campaign.
g

NW sage

This would be really funny if someone pointed out that the drones are, themselves, made of plastic!

Mitch H.

When I found myself arguing this with someone on social media, I got back the argument that the micro-fragments were poisoning the food chain via the critters consuming the petrochemicals locked up in them. IE, an extension of the frog ‘environmental chemicals’ thing. I don’t know how you prove or disprove this argument if researchers are determined to p-hack until they find a population or two which is crashing in the environment under ‘stress’.

M Courtney

Counter argument is that petrochemicals are carbon hydrogen and some oxygen… and traces of sulphur.
After digestion that’s indistinguishable from an apple.

D. J. Hawkins

Kip;
Have you tried contacting Dr. Geyer to see if he would clarify his remarks? It is, I suppose, barely possible his remarks were taken out of context.

Nice followup article, Kip. More NYT fake news. In Fort Lauderdale, all the beach trach container holdersare made of recycled plastic ‘lumber’. With the strong UV, they last 10-15 years before having to be replaced as they fall apart.

Menicholas

About as long as pressure treated lumber then? Or maybe not even as long.
The mem should be “Creosote is forever”. Now that crap will kill you.
At least the stuff they pressure treat retail lumber with is not so bad as it used to be, chromated copper arsenate.
But they still use CCA for marine applications, agricultural buildings (like plant nursery shadehouses) and the like.

jhborn

[P]lastics need to be recycled or disposed of properly.

Perhaps. My wife and I dutifully take our plastics to the recycling center. But I have a gnawing suspicion that for most “recyclables,” including plastics, the recycling effort has the net effect of making society poorer, i.e., that time and money dedicated to that would do more for human welfare if they were otherwise allocated–and the plastics were just thrown in the regular trash and disposed of at a landfill.
Does anyone have any reliable information on that?

Yes. Looked into this rather intensively while finishing Gaia’s Limits back in 2012 . Answers: aluminum cans always make sense to recycle, since smelting aluminum from alumina is so electricity intensive. Remelting is ~5% of smelting. Steel cans ditto, but partly because so easy to sort out of waste streams, compact, and ship to the now very common electric arc scrap furnaces like Nucor. Paper depends. Large volume pure cardboard and such (think stores), always pays to recycle. For consumer paper, depends on the waste stream because the sorting may or may not be worthwhile ( and paper composts in landfills). For plastics, depends on the type. Here in South Florida, they do not recycle styrofoam (poor volume/weight ratio) but do all the other common types. The surprise is glass. In theory, recycling makes sense because making glass from old glass cullet uses 1/4 the heat energy of a new glass melt from raw materials. But glass is heavy, so the cost of moving color sorted crushed glass usually means there is no economically viable glass plant within an economic range. So glass is location dependent. (And since glass melting is almost always gas fired, in the US with low nat gas prices the problem is just compounded). Here in South Florida (no glass plants) it is crushed into ‘sand’ and used in concrete and asphalt–not because Florida lacks sand, but because it conserves landfill volume in a region where almost everything is either built, rock mines, or Everglades.
A complicated horses for courses big picture.

Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7

A note on Aluminum can recycling: there is no truth to the urban myth that the tabs are separately worth more than the rest of the can, or that turning them in will get someone free time on a dialysis machine. My wife and I for years had been dutifully separating the tabs and turning them in to someone at our kids’ school. A kitchen remodeling project caused me to examine this behavior and discover it is completely wasted. Reference here.
So I guess for folks in Florida, the time spent separating glass by color for recycling is totally wasted.

AW, very perspicatious. So my understanding down here in South Florida about how recycleables are sorted (our building has two chutes, refuse (including styrofoam) and recyclables) is as follows, since We drive by the huge landfill sorting complex west of Florida Turnpike in Palm Beach County on our way to the North Georgia mountain cabin), Moving belt low pressure air blast to sort paper. We see trucks loaded with paper bales leaving. Then magnets for tin cans. Then more higher pressure air blasts/hand sorting for plastics/aluminum. What’s left is glass. That we don’t sort by color, we just crush to make artificial construction sand. Now where glass recycling might make local sense, dunno what is done. In Canada ( my former fishing vacation cabin) and Wisconsin (my dairy farm) they make you sort into clear (white), brown, and green glass prior to going to the recycling dump. So I, not the recycling center, does the glass color sorting. For my hunting gang on the farm it is simple: clear means bourbon or Irish or Scotch whiskey, brown means beer, and green means usually wine. I make the guys and gals sort it out the next day rather than charging hunting fees. They also buy the groceries. Fair trade.

Rhoda R

That isn’t the only objection to recycling glass. Different glasses have different expansion coefficients and if you aren’t careful, the recycled glass will disintegrate at the first sign of stress.

Gary Pearse

Rud, if marketers and customers didn’t care what color their mayonnaise jars were, there would be nothing wrong with mixing them. Also, in Canada, beer bottles are returned to the beer store for a 5 to 10cent return fee. They are reused by breweries. In Quebec, there is a broad range of beverage bottles returnable for cash. This generates a cottage industry of poor folks from Quebec coming to eastern Ontario on garbage days on bicycles with homemade trailers to pick out tons of bottles for return cash.
Mixed color can be be browned with addition of iron if you are near a glass container plant that makes dark bottles.
Interestingly in Canada, at least, for beer bottles for Western Canada, the bottles are made darker because of abundance of sunshine. Glass is also used in asphalt as noted for Florida.
BTW, for those who’ve noted I’ve called myself a geologist in other threads, I am a geologist, mining engineer, and metallurgist.

MrGrimNasty

On the BBC’s Country File program (which these days is just a vehicle for pushing climate change, anti-Brexit propaganda, and other PC thought adjustment programming), they had a ‘scare’ about the fibres released into the sewerage system from washing synyhetic fleece clothing. The tiny fibres get into the sewage, the sewage gets made into land fertilizer, the fibres build up on the farmland, and the chemicals from the ‘microplastics’ contaminate the crops.
There was no actual proof as far as I could tell, but they were ‘worried’ it might happen.
It seems scientists and greens have lost all touch with reality and the ability to actually quantify risk, and no longer bother building up any actual evidence before demanding action, they just act on and exploit emotion.

michael hart

Excellent article.
It has been known for a long time, by those who want to know, that all plastics will ultimately degrade in an atmosphere with oxygen and UV light from the sun. All. Some will degrade faster than others, but they will all go.
They may certainly be unsightly in large amounts, but there is generally no evidence that they are any more harmful than indigestible pieces of wood or rock. People know this instinctively: We eat food out of plastic containers that are always breaking down into smaller fragments which cause us no harm.
The only merit in the latest plastics obsession of the environmentalists is that it
a) distracts them from their love of sabotaging the worlds energy supplies based on fossil fuels, and
b) gives me an excuse to post this famous movie clip again about something that serves mankind so well in so many ways:

I Came I Saw I Left

I would have considered such advice blasphemous when I was in college, but in retrospect, as much as I’ve grown to love plastics, I think that plastics engineering would be a fascinating field.

I hate to admit it but years ago I wrote a long blog article about massive islands of plastic in Earth’s oceans. Obviously, I was duped, and I just deleted that article, after it probably has been misleading people further all these years.
Plastic cloths pins definitely degrade in sunlight, I’ve noticed. Also, plastic film that I use to solarize my garden soil always seems to degrade in the sunlight after some time. AND plastic cable ties that I use to secure wiring to my raised-garden-bed fences degrade in sunlight, … so much so that I will no longer use them, but rather change over to stiff wire, which takes a lot longer to secure, but I hate the plastic zip ties snapping off after a year or so, on a structure that I want to last for many years with little re-building.
If I am not mistaken, I believe that there are today a variety of plastic products designed to degrade more rapidly than traditional plastics.

I Came I Saw I Left

Zip/cable ties are made of nylon which doesn’t last long in sunlight. Why some are not made from something more resistant to UV, I don’t know. Seems like they would be very popular.

I Came I Saw I Left

Well shut my mouth…

I Came I Saw I Left

I had to look up the origin of this saying after I used it

Usually there is humor in our expressions as demonstrated by Bugs Bunny in an episode called “Southern Fried Rabbit.” When Bugs crosses the border from the desolate North into the verdant South, he exclaims, “Well shut my mouth and call me corn pone!” As comedian Larry the Cable Guy says, “I don’t care who you are, that’s funny!”

Clay Sanborn

George Carlin on why we have plastics: https://youtu.be/NBRquiS1pis

Mumbles McGuirck

“It does surprise me that Roland Geyer, at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, would say something as foolish as “It accumulates so quickly now and it doesn’t biodegrade, so it just gets added to what’s already there.” — this is his specialty.”
You may wish to ask Dr. Geyer directly what he told the NYT. As you say, jounalistic ethics is at a nadir. It would not surprise me to find he has been misquoted or had remarks taken out of context. A colleague recently spoke extensively to a Popular Science writer casting all sorts of shade on the notion of Global Warming making hurricanes more numerous. The final article, full of warmunitst propaganda, contained a ‘pull quote’ from him but absolutely NONE of his GW skepticism.
SOP for the MSM.

Mumbles McGuirck

Sorry. Once I posted my remarks the page refreshed and I see someone has already made this point above. I just *knew* that would happen.

the “staggering amounts of near-eternal litter” is Ms Schlossberg and her ilk.
There seems to be a large element of what I call “temperate climate syndrome” in this. Here in the tropics, nearly all plastics degrade very rapidly. Supermarket singlet-type bag is gone in a few hours, 3 days max. Blue “UV protected” tarp lasts 1 month maximum. “Full UV protected” silver finish tarp will not last more than a year.

MarkW

Doesn’t PVC sink?

Good point. It passes through Gaia’s intestines and exits clean. As such a renewable resource.

commieBob

There is the old adage, “If it bleeds it leads”. The more horrific the event, the more likely it is to make the front page with a big headline.
The media has no reason to publish a boring old story that there is no garbage patch. Nobody’s going to read that.
The other old adage is, “Sex sells”. If you want the media to cover a relatively boring science story, make sure you have a bikini clad lab assistant hauling up the sample bottles.

NW sage

cb — Regarding you observation that ‘sex sells’. It is obviously true therefore the media editors need to be sure that the size (in square inches) of the bikini’s worn by the lab assistant(s) is directly proportional to the amount of garbage found.

Another Ian

And inversely proportional to the amount of garbage in the article?

Goldrider

Amen, CB! The other day I was driving downtown on a busy 2-lane, alongside of which was strip of wild green perhaps 50 feet wide–sandwiched between this road and the Connecticut Turnpike. Happily browsing alongside of zipping traffic were a 6-point buck and a Great Egret who was patiently waiting for his browsing to flush something juicy. Now I was 15 or 16 years old before I EVER saw either a deer or an egret, let alone perfectly adapted to a barely suburban area (almost urban, for sure). There is more amazing wildlife you can see from the windows of Metro-North than you could find in a Roger Tory Peterson book, and yet; you will NEVER HEAR GOOD NEWS ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT, EVER! Which is why I’m on sites like WUWT, doing my own research.

Gunga Din

Simply put, it has been known for the last ten years of so that the missing oceanic plastic is eaten.

King of the Typos here.
I think you meant, “Simply put, it has been known for the last ten years or so that the missing oceanic plastic is eaten.”

Crispin in Waterloo

Some plastics sink. So ‘most’ plastic may not be available to surface bacteria and UV insolation. Anything that sinks will eventually be transformed by crustal recycling over eons.
Thermoplastic materials should always be recycled. Put a price on it and it will all come back, just like glass.
It is likely that most plastic in the ocean is eaten at a constant rate of surface ablation. Thus, as the size reduces, the amount disappearing per day as a % of mass increases. It is a surface area to volume function.
The reason the particles smaller than 1mm (or other) size are not found may be entirely explained by their rapid consumption. A 1 sq m sheet of plastic 20 microns thick has 2 sq m of surface. The same sheet broken into 2.5 billion 20 micron cubes has a huge surface. In short, the rate of disappearance of the small particles increases logarithmically.

Menicholas

Exactly right.
Degradation accelerates, it does not slow.
As usual, the people who claim to be scientists quoted by the MSM are either liars or fools who know nothing about even basic scientific principles.

rangerike1363

Nature is pretty amazing, like when my parents bought the property for their current house, we had a lot of clean-up to do because it used to be part of a larger farm and included a garage/barn of some sort (only the foundation was left) and was obviously used for target practice for a bow since there was this huge piece of styrofoam that we found. That wasn’t the cool part, it was the fact that there were paths running through the whole chunk (~4’x4’x2′ piece of styrofoam)! This meant that worms were going through it, eating it, processing it, and returning it back to dirt! That was pretty awesome and shows just how catastrophists are overly worried when plastic may outlast us for a bit, but nature will reclaim it all in the end.

Menicholas

Something, likely many somethings, will evolve to eat any material with energy in it.
There are many oil eating microbes…my guess is that some of these will find plastics a very nice desert menu item.

usurbrain

And isn’t all of this going to get sucked down it the subduction zone, thus being recycled by the 4 billion year old recycler called Earth?

I Came I Saw I Left

I have read that mealworms will eat and completely destroy styrofoam.

Just did a quick reseach. Yup, mealworms eat strofoem. Aee as healthy as when fed bran. Mutiple peer reviewed papers. Has to do with their gut microbes.

Mice do eat EPS too: they make warm nests for their young with EPS, even if that probably doesn’t digest and just leaves their body unchanged…

Gunga Din

It would seem that if these “continent-size” masses of floating plastic were ground down to tiny pieces but were not eaten then there’d be a rather thick layer of it floating on the surface.
Many large ocean going vessels draw in water to cool the engines. Wouldn’t the heat exchangers develop a plastic coating over time?

Goldrider

And then we can feed the mealworms to Greens . . . 😉

Gary Pearse

Regarding truth in journalism, journalists are fervent at reciting the first amendment – freedom of the press- especially when Trump calls them the enemy of the American people or, the opposition. I’ve often asked, do today’s journalists ever think to ask themselves “freedom to do what?” Clearly, the NYT and a frightening percentage of these organizations seem oblivious to the awesome responsibility that is placed on their shoulders by the very first amendment of the constitution. They show no understanding that theirs is a very high calling indeed.
Even without such enshrinement, they must be aware that thousands of brave journalists around the world have been incarcerated and executed in places where they are not protected by the law for standing up to the truth. The negligent American journalists shouldn’t feel akin to these ones.

Clyde Spencer

Gary,
It seems that the professional know-nothing wordsmiths, which are sometimes called journalists, are usually progressives that don’t share the same values you and I have. They are short-sighted and believe that the end justifies any means. The country has become very polarized because it is split between two different groups that have different value systems.

Rich Lambert

Glass persists many times longer in the environment than plastic.

michael hart

Exactly. And so do very many other things beside. Derived from rocks and organic matter. Very, very many other things.
It’s what forms soil, or oceanic sediments. Dirt. Dust. Small particles in the air and the water. We live with them all day every day, and so does the rest of creation. Howard Hughes was reportedly unable to deal with thinking about such things, and became obsessed with the size of green peas, a favorite food of his. Some Greenpeace supporters clearly have similar obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Menicholas

And yet look at what wave action does to glass on the beach…wears it down to smooth pieces in no time, and likely just keeps breaking it up until it is the sand it started out being.
Plastic, being softer, likely abrades away to nearly nothing far faster than most natural materials.
Everything gets ground down and/or dissolved or otherwise degraded.
Beaches are mostly silica in most places because silica…usually quartz… is the most resistant constituent of the rocks which make up the bulk of our continents.

effinayright

OK, I go to Bing Images and enter “Pacific Garbage Patch” , and get dozens of images purporting to show it.
What am I really seeing?

The main ‘famous image’ is Manila Bay in the Philippines. Plastic Effluent traped in the bay after monsoon runoff. Totally third world BS.

Gunga Din

Images out of context but with the “context” supplied by the narrative rather than reality.

Crispin in Waterloo

Often what you are seeing are photos garbage floating in Manilla Bay.

Mike Rossander

Maybe I missed it in the article but I think there is another possible pathway for plastics to leave the tested environment – encapsulation.
Basically, the small bits of plastic get eaten, aggregated within the eating organism’s digestive tract, encapsulated by other post-digestive matter (poop), then excreted where it settles to the ocean bottom, removing itself from the water column (and therefore, from the scope of the researchers’ studies).

StandupPhilosopher

The irony is that if plastic were perpetual in the environment, it could only last that long because it was totally non-reactive with everything ( like glass ) and therefore safe to have around.

plastics made from marijuana are biodegradable and wont last long at all in nature before breaking down

Menicholas

Because in nature all the stoners will break them down into pieces small enough to fit in a bong?

Crispin in Waterloo

Especially if you smoke them.

DCA

About 7 years ago on a local newspaper blog a guy said he had seen a “huge island of plastic floating in the ocean” from a cruse vessel but he never produced any pictures. I just now tried to find photographic evidence and was amazed that all I could find were rather small floating piles some on land and many very deceptive. The scale was distorted and some pictures showed piles of plastic on rocks making it look like the plastic was piled up to 20 feet high. Others pictures of these “islands” had trees growing on them. There were plenty of animated drawings showing them “larger than Texas” though.
Where’s the photographic evidence of the “huge island of plastic?

The smaller the particle, the larger its surface are to volume is, and so the more bouyant it is. So the smallest particles will be expected to be in the top few mm of the surface. If the drag net is a meter down, it cannot pick them up.

…surface area to volume…

Menicholas

Buoyancy is a function of density. Why would small particles of substance which is heavier than water be buoyant?
Name some other materials for which this is true.
Sometimes things float due to iny air bubbles clinging to them, but this is a temporary effect.

Louis

“Typical of Scientific Urban Legends, the Garbage Patch grew and grew, in size, nature and villainy…”
If the Garbage Patch is still growing, why does Wiki say the following:
“The patch is not easily visible, because it consists of tiny pieces almost invisible to the naked eye. Most of its contents are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean, and the relatively low density of the plastic debris is, according to one scientific study, 5.1 kilograms per square kilometer of ocean area (5.1 mg/m2).”
How did the plastic garbage become “tiny pieces” that are “almost invisible” if plastic does not degrade? And how did Charles J. Moore and others see this great garbage patch if the pieces are so tiny that they are almost invisible? Something doesn’t add up.
But, as far as being an urban legend, someone needs to tell Wiki and Google. If you google it, you will still find things like the following that are being reported as “facts”:
Question: “How deep is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?”
Answer: “Here are the basic facts about the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch; 7 million tons of weight. Twice the size of Texas. Up to 9 feet deep.”
Who measured and weighed the garbage patch, and where are the photos?

Amber

Plastic is natures way of keeping the continents from sinking .
How much ink from the product NY Times has leached into the earth ?
How many forests has the NY Times wiped out over their history ?
NY Times is the world’s largest flier rapper and it’s pointing fingers .
Maybe the Russians can be blamed for the existence of the NY TImes .

Michael S. Kelly

This is a great article on the plastic that winds up in the ocean. I agree, we need to limit that. But I’m continually baffled by the people who complain that plastic will “remain in landfills for 500 years.” The plastic in question was made from petroleum, which had been under ground for 500 million years. Why is it bad that something that had been under ground for 500 million years is mined, used for some human purpose, then returned under ground for 500 more years?

Mark Luhman

Burying garbage is the dumbest thin the human race ever did. It a king size recipe for disaster, Denying oxygen to waste insures it will not degrade. The metals we find are oxides to the most part a stable form, we refine them and use them and them bury them, and when we bury the unstable form somehow we are surprised they unstable element migrates, ditto for the oil and plastics we bury.

Menicholas

It some point someone will dig up these old landfills and mine them for metals and burnables and compostables.
And the old half eaten hot dogs will be given to the homeless.

Mark Luhman:: Burying garbage is the dumbest thin the human race ever did.
>>so, what else should we have done? Should we just dump in the open air, in tips or middens?
It a king size recipe for disaster, Denying oxygen to waste insures it will not degrade.
>> wanna splain why dead bodies in coffins decay? Why is it important that all buried wastes degrade?
The metals we find are oxides to the most part a stable form, we refine them and use them and them bury them, and when we bury the unstable form
>>please tell us why refined metals are “unstable”? Generally that term is used for talking about short-lived isotopes, not metals. If a metal returns to its oxidized state, it’s not unstable. It’s just the opposite. Sometimes oxidation is purposeful, such as Corten steel first used in the 60’s to build corrosion-resistant bridges.
somehow we are surprised they unstable element migrates, ditto for the oil and plastics we bury.
>>you’re more incoherent here than at the beginning of your comment. But not by much.

Mark Luhman

“PVC – polyvinyl chloride, has been found to be almost impervious to breakdown.” if you lived in Arizona you know that to be false, I was hiking through the desert and came across a discarded PVC elbow, the sun had eliminated half of it by then the sun facing side was gone. The heat also destroys PVC over the years left out in the sun and heat it gets brittle. The heat also kills most plastic over time, they simple get brittle and often crumble with a touch.

Menicholas

Yes, the brittleness is a sign of the breaking of enough polymeric bonds to weaken the bulk material.
And as I had commented above, the surface is also constantly losing dust sized particles.
But it seems I was being far too conservative regarding how long it might take for nothing to be left.

Crispin in Waterloo

What you described is caused by sunlight (UV) and the name is ‘actinic degradation’. The white colouring in PVC is a UV inhibitor but as you attested, is not perfect. Straight PVC is highly susceptible to UV destruction. It chops up the long chain polymers into shorter ones. Short enough, and they are a gas.

toorightmate

Dr Geyer is a fair dinkum plastic bag.


George Carlin: The Earth plus Plastic

Dean Caldwell

Ron L Don’t you acept the threat of pollution?
Didn’t you read the posting?

good article

Alexander Vissers

http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlepdf/2015/em/c5em00207a even PVC is not safe for UV radiation. Problem of course is that it has a density superior to ocean water so if no air is trapped, it will sink. Good thing is that as it does not float in fresh water either, it has a harder job making it to the ocean in the first place.

Ro

“Plastic not eternal”, but how long does it take to decompose? Please respond with answer for plastic bag and plastic milk jug.

William

Probably somebody has already mentioned this, but there are already too many postings for me to read through; plus it is Saturday night here in Oz, and I sure as you know what I didn’t do what that poor unfortunate up thread did with his whiskey supply. (And not only did he marry her, but she is not even buried in the back yard????? My God! Where are his you know whats!!!)
But,I ramble and digresss………
If the brilliant “environmental scientists” we are encumbered with had any of that non plastic matter referred to as “a brain”, they would know that all this waste plastic is actually a valuable resource.
After our heroine Gwyneth Paltrow has finished with her moonbeam charged jade eggs, and amazingly therapeutic steaming (I am not going to explain all that, look it up. And be stunned and amazed at the fact she is richer than all of us put together.) she could burn all that plastic to create the electricity needed to manufacture her pink napkins. Now selling for only $75 each. Steaming extra.

Gunga Din

In case it hasn’t been mentioned yet, we are talking about plastics floating in a vast amount of “the universal solvent”, water. It will dissolve a little bit of just about everything it contacts. Even plastics.
An excerpt from here ( http://www.genengnews.com/gen-articles/basic-considerations-for-laboratory-water/1942 )
Click Image To Enlarge +
Figure 2
High purity water has a high affinity for chemicals in its surroundings. It can absorb chemicals readily from storage containers and pipes as well as chemical vapors from the laboratory air.
The polyethylene carboys and wash bottles commonly used to store water in laboratories can leach organic molecules into ultrapure water. Figure 2 illustrates how the HPLC baseline quality degrades quickly with time when ultrapure water is stored in a polyethylene container. Trace enrichment was performed by running 60 mL of each sample on a C18 column, followed by a linear gradient run (95% water to 100% acetonitrile in 30 min).
Glass bottles also may leach inorganic compounds. Therefore, it is recommended to use ultrapure water immediately after production. One benefit of a purification system is the ability to get ultrapure water on demand.

Avoid Storing Purified Water
Click Image To Enlarge +
Figure 2
High purity water has a high affinity for chemicals in its surroundings. It can absorb chemicals readily from storage containers and pipes as well as chemical vapors from the laboratory air.
The polyethylene carboys and wash bottles commonly used to store water in laboratories can leach organic molecules into ultrapure water. Figure 2 illustrates how the HPLC baseline quality degrades quickly with time when ultrapure water is stored in a polyethylene container. Trace enrichment was performed by running 60 mL of each sample on a C18 column, followed by a linear gradient run (95% water to 100% acetonitrile in 30 min).
Glass bottles also may leach inorganic compounds. Therefore, it is recommended to use ultrapure water immediately after production. One benefit of a purification system is the ability to get ultrapure water on demand.
Gunga Din

(Looks like I messed up the “pre /pre” formatting. Sorry.)