News Brief by Kip Hansen
Plastics are as much in the news as climate change, and hold the same honored place as a universal scapegoat — an item so odious that all are welcome to blame it for a host of ills environmental and social, real or imagined.
The media has recently highlighted a few stories that shed some light on the question of plastics as a dilemma of modern societies.
Before turning your wrath and scorn on this well-meaning author, please review my personal stance on the question of plastics in the environment in my previous essays: Plastics Yet Again; An Ocean of Plastic; Contrary to the NY Times, The DR Has Lots of Clean Beautiful Beaches.
A good summary of my position on plastics is: “We each need to do all we can to keep every sort of trash and plastic contained and disposed of in a responsible manner – this keeps it out of the oceans (and the rest of the natural environment).”
Plastic is a controversial issue for the very reasons that so many modern goods (and their packaging) are made from plastic: it is malleable, it is moldable, it can be both stiff and strong and flexible and bendable, most plastics stand up well to sunshine, it is impervious to water and many strong bases and acids, it can be clear as pure water or totally opaque and can be made in every color imaginable. In short, it is a miracle class of materials. One side effect is that it tends to persist when allowed to enter the environment.
It is not, however, “forever”: despite reams and reels of propaganda aimed mostly at school-children, especially in the United States. You can see the incredible mass of sheer nonsense using any internet search engine on the phrase “Plastic is Forever”.
One latest bits of news is that plastics degrade both in open air exposed to sunlight and in water. Of course, given that plastics are bad, even their natural degradation must be served up as a bad thing.
In contrast to actual science, the propaganda meme “Plastic is forever” is simply not true. Anyone, like myself, who has lived at sea in the tropics knows that plastic containers of almost all types rapidly degrade in the sunlight. Plastic coolers, plastic bottles, plastic handles on boat hooks, plastic clothespins and plastic clamps and even plastic zippers and plastic buttons on your favorite swimsuit.
In An Ocean of Plastic I detailed how pelagic plastic (plastic floating in the oceans) is broken down by exposure to sunlight and the motion of the water, into smaller and smaller pieces. At the same time, microbes of all types make their homes on the surface of the plastic pieces and begin to eat the plastic, wearing away at the surface, opening cracks, and contributing to the breaking of the pieces into smaller and tinier pieces. Eventually, like small chips of ice in glass of ice water, the surface area becomes so large in relation to the volume that the pieces simply disappear, having been eaten entirely by the microbes on the surface.
Although the study highlighted by ScienceDaily was produced by researchers at the Daniel K. Inouye Center for Microbial Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, Hawaii, nothing in the paper “Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment” has anything to do with microbes and does not even mention the fact that microbes are busy eating all that environmental plastic.
What it does do is attempt to raise the alarm that when plastics (which are not “forever”) degrade in the open air exposed to sunlight or in water, the plastics, like all hydrocarbon compounds, break down into simpler hydrocarbons, particularly the gases methane (CH4) and ethylene (C2H4 or H2C=CH2).
Methane, they point out, is a greenhouse gas. It is fairly short-lived in the atmosphere, with a half-life of about seven years, readily oxidizing to CO2 and water – the same result seen when it is burned as natural gas. Ethylene (or ethene) is a naturally produced plant hormone that promotes ripening of many fruits. Hydrated ethylene is alcohol — grain alcohol — and is naturally produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeasts. Both gases are extremely abundant in the natural world and are important products of biological chemistry.
Tip to Homemakers: Ethylene is the gas emitted by ripening fruit. Apples, for instance, can be used in the kitchen to hasten the ripening of fruits by placing an apple along with the unripe fruit in a brown paper bag where the ethylene from the apple will collect and chemically signal ripening of the other fruit.
The researchers in Hawaii draw the following conclusions:
“While serving many applications because of their durability, stability and low cost, plastics have deleterious effects on the environment. Plastic is known to release a variety of chemicals during degradation, which has a negative impact on biota. …. Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.”
The claimed “deleterious effects” of plastics “on the environment” — besides the obvious negatives of litter and erroneous ingestion by birds and animals — are all in the category of “might” and “could” — and almost all concerns about degradation products of plastics deal not with the plastic itself, but with additives in the particular plastic product. As for being a “source of climate-relevant trace gases”, I am afraid the authors have the arrow of cause backwards. The plastics that they are worried about have been manufactured mostly from petrochemicals in the first instance….petrochemicals that are not being immediately burned to produce GHGs, but rather sequestering those potential GHGs in solid materials for slow release at some time in the future, rather like the growing of trees sequesters CO2 for release when the wood eventually decomposes.
The misguided authors have missed the boat on this one — they had a:
Good News Story: Plastic is Not Forever! It naturally degrades into common, every day, generally-considered-safe biological gases — gases produced by plants and animals in the normal processes of life.
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IN MUSEUMS, WHERE OBJECTS ARE MEANT TO LAST FOREVER, PLASTICS ARE FAILING THE TEST OF TIME
If you are not yet convinced that plastic is not forever, consider the story from the New York Times “These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart.”
“The custodians of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit at the National Air and Space Museum saw it coming. A marvel of human engineering, the suit is made of 21 layers of various plastics: nylon, neoprene, Mylar, Dacron, Kapton and Teflon.
The rubbery neoprene layer would pose the biggest problem. Although invisible, buried deep between the other layers, the suit’s caretakers knew the neoprene would harden and become brittle with age, eventually making the suit stiff as a board. In January 2006, the Armstrong suit, a national treasure, was taken off display and stored to slow the degradation.”
It is not just technological marvels that have a degrading problem — Art is also in trouble. Over at Harvard:
“Claes Oldenburg’s False Food Selection (1966) consists of a wooden box containing readymade plastic food items, such as a banana and a tomato. Made of isoprene rubber, the objects were originally rather realistic in appearance; today, they look deflated and somewhat unappetizing. …. Their altered appearance, which was not the artist’s intent, provides a startling lesson that plastic isn’t nearly as stable an artistic material as wood, metal, or clay, for example”
“A lot of people think plastic is going to last forever, when, in fact, it may be one of the most fragile materials you can use,” said Georgina Rayner, an associate conservation scientist in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. “Plastics degrade more quickly than probably anything in a museum collection, and by the time you start to notice the degradation, it’s almost too late. You can really only slow it down.”
Plastic is so not forever that even in a near perfect conservation environment – a modern climate-controlled museum — plastic items degrade faster than paints, canvas, stone, glass, wood, metal, or even clay.
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In the rush not to be left out of the rising concern over plastic in the environment, research presented at the American Chemical Society’s August meeting in Boston revealed the shocking news that 20% of all disposable plastic contact lenses were “flushed … down the toilet or washed … down the sink, rather than [being] put…in the garbage.”
“When the lenses make their way to a wastewater treatment facility, they do not biodegrade easily, the researchers report, and they may fragment and make their way into surface water. There, they can cause environmental damage and may add to the growing problem of microplastic pollution.”
“Filters keep some nonbiological waste out of wastewater treatment plants, said Rolf Halden, the director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, and Charles Rolsky, a graduate student and the study’s lead author. … But contacts are so flexible that they can fold up and make their way through. The researchers interviewed workers at such facilities, who confirmed that they had spotted lenses in the waste.”
“Then, going through about nine pounds of treated waste, Mr. Rolsky and a colleague found two fragments of contact lens, implying that while microorganisms might not make much of a mark, physical processing might break them into pieces.”
“After processing, treated waste is often spread on fields. If fragments of contacts are in the mixture, they or the substances they’ve picked up may be washed by rain into surface water, the researchers conjecture.”
Contact lenses are made to be worn on the human eye — and thus have a requirement to be sterile and not prone to degradation by light, warmth, body fluids (such as tears) and have surfaces that are not convenient microbial habitat.
In my area, treated waste from waste water plants is not spread on fields — things may be different in Arizona. The researchers conjecture (gotta love the science value of that verb) that if waste water treated solids are spread on fields, and if the waste contains as many as two fragments of contact lenses per nine pounds of waste material, then those two fragments or the substances that the fragments may have picked up in your toilet water or at the waste water treatment plant may be washed into surface water…. May the gods of conjecture have pity on us all!
This all seems way too much like the epidemiologist’s nightmare that if infinitesimal quantities of something exist on a per person basis, then, since there are billions of people, then there exists a lot of that something [infinitesimal times billions = a lot — epidemiological arithmetic] therefore it must be a huge risk to human health.
That said — Throw your disposable contacts in the trash, please. Don’t flush them (or any other rubber and plastic personal products).
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One last item:
The obvious solution to the problem of feral plastic (plastic that has gotten loose in the wild environment) is to manufacture plastic that conveniently decomposes into simpler organic compounds that can easily be dealt with by the natural process that is biological entropy — the processes that turn dead animals and plants into soil and gases like CO2.
There has been news on this front as well.
Designing the Death of a Plastic appeared also in the venerable New York Times which announces that:
“The latest villains in environmental campaigns are disposable plastic products formed from synthetic polymers — straws, cigarette filters, coffee cup lids, etc. Over the past few decades, this mismatch between material and product life span has built up plastic waste in landfills and natural environments, some drifting in oceans until mounds and mounds have reached the ends of the world and bits have been ingested by marine life.”
A bit of truth with a throw-away false talking point — “mounds and mounds have reached the ends of the world” — attached at the end. The “mounds and mounds” of plastic being spoken of originate at the ends of the world where waste management is still something to be achieved in the distant future. It is true that bits of plastic have been ingested by marine life…score one for accuracy in reporting.
Plastics are, for the most part, polymers: long chains of identical (or very similar) organic chemicals (hydrocarbons). To turn a plastic into goo or dust, it is only necessary to get the chains to spontaneously break apart. There have been some advances along the lines of using starches as part of the polymer chains. The starches, when exposed to moisture and microbes, dissolve and the plastic breaks into tiny, molecular-sized pieces. Other sorts of solutions have been used to make “compostable” plastic bags — which in reality means that if you send them to a commercial municipal composting plant, it will break down into component parts — but it will not do so in your home compost pile.
There have been advances in designing “death” into plastics — but don’t hold your breath waiting for these new plastics to show up in your homeowner products or packaging materials.
“Economically speaking, replacing the most widely used polymers like polyethylene (grocery bags), polypropylene (fishing nets) or polyterephthalate (single-use bottles) with unzipping polymers is not feasible.”
For most of the developing world, simply collecting and landfilling municipal waste, including the plastic, would be a major improvement. In the developed world, if we want to keep plastic out of the environment and the oceans, we need real recycling programs that actually do something other than landfill the used plastic. Even burning it to make electricity or produce heat would be preferable to landfilling — but this must be done in a properly designed high-temperature clean-coal-type plant or a municipal waste fueled power plant. Again, most of the problems with burning plastic is not the plastic itself, but additives in the plastic products. High-temperature incineration coupled with flue gas treatments to reduce pollutants is a reasonable and efficient approach.
Turning recycled plastic soda and water bottles into plastic lumber for outdoor use is also an approach that is comparatively inexpensive and sensible. In the United States, outdoor decks are all the rage, being almost a requirement for modern living and must be fitted with an outdoor gas grill and outdoor furniture. The outdoor furniture too can be made out of recycled plastic bottles of all types.
The Bottom Line:
We each need to do all we can to keep every sort of trash and plastic contained and disposed of in a responsible manner – this keeps it out of the oceans and the rest of the natural environment.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
I was interested to find that all the articles on plastics contained nearly identical wordage along the lines of “A majority of the world’s plastic waste ends up in the sea, where, because of currents, it often becomes concentrated in subtropical gyres or ‘ocean garbage patches.’ This pollution is often ingested by marine life and can find its way into the human food chain.” [ quote source: New York Times] This is blatantly false. When journalists repeat these obvious falsehoods, it is a sign that Editorial Narratives are at work and that mandated propaganda has outshouted reason and truth.
Self-destructing plastic — the Magical Plastic of today’s title — is not going to arrive in time to obviate the need for proper handling of mankind’s trash. We have to see that our own communities and nations adhere to basic kindergarten rules: Pick up after yourself — don’t litter — put your trash in the trash bin.
I’d love to hear your local stories about how your community is (or isn’t) doing its part.
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