During my lifetime, the use of plastics has expanded exponentially. When I was young, shampoo bottles were glass, trash bags were wax coated paper, wax paper were used to wrap food and drinks from milk to soda came in glass bottles. Plastic is a wonder, but is also one of the most commonly littered items in the world.
Plastics that we use once and discard, or single-use plastics, are a growing problem of critical global proportion. Plastic is to be found littering beaches and landscapes and clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet.
Scientists studied the amount of plastics that have been manufactured since 1950’s and determined it’s fate and found that virtually all the plastic we ever made is non-degradable and is still with us. Much of the plastic ends up in landfills, or worn into smaller particles in the soil, in the ocean, or in our rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries, even in the air we breath.
The scientists estimated that more than 9,000 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced since the dawn of the age of plastics and found that around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. The amount of plastic waste keeps growing.
Plastic bottles cannot be recycled into new plastic bottles- the fibers cannot be used to make food quality plastic and have to be used for fleece, carpeting or other product. In addition, the one bin recycling which for a time was used everywhere in the U.S. became a mixed and dirty waste bin. When China adopted it National Sword policy in 2018 which essentially halted plastic and mixed waste imports that practice stopped. China once imported about half of the world’s recyclable waste. No more.
In May of last year the parties to the Basel Convention voted to amend the treaty to include waste plastic. Effective January 1, 2021 the export of import of plastic waste is prohibited by Basel parties. This will close all ports to U.S. plastic waste exports and we will have to address our problem. The Basel Convention regulates the movements around the globe of hazardous and other wastes including; toxic, poisonous, explosive, corrosive, flammable, ecologically toxic and infectious wastes. The goal of the Basel Convention is to ensure that wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.
In the U.S. plastic manufacturing is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, plastic waste is mostly managed by the states under the Solid Waste Disposal Act. This is beginning to change with the U.S. EPA EPA’s the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015
and the EPA’s Trash Free Waters program
. I have not generally, been in favor of regulations directed to change consumer behavior, but the ubiquity of plastic waste requires a coordinated action.
The most recent attempt is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020
which stalled out after introduction in the house. The bill makes producers of products (e.g., packaging, paper, single-use products, beverage containers, or food service products) fiscally responsible for collecting, managing, and recycling or composting the products after consumer use. In addition, the bill tries to increase the percentage of recycled content in beverage containers.
The need for some action is obvious when I’m standing in the grocery store and see shopper after shopper with carts full of single serving soda and water bottles many of the type I see again at our river cleanups. However, I do not see a way to make corporations responsible for what includes a large portion of consumer behavior. Even during the recent Covid-19 lockdown when we were all at home near the glasses we could fill with water from the sink (or our filter pitchers or refrigerator filters). Single serve, single use bottles continued to be cleared off the shelves. This is not good decision making. According to Consumer Reports (June 2020 CR.org) the U.S. our plastic recycling rates are pathetic (though better than the global averages) 76% of plastic garbage goes to landfills, 16% is incinerated, 1% is littered, and the rest recycled. This data is from a time when China was taking everything we put in the recycle bin. What we really need to do is eliminate the use of traditional plastic in many short life applications.
On solution is refillable water bottles. Another is biodegradable plastics. Chitin
can be used as a substitute for plastics in food packaging or bottles and for foam products, microbeads and other application that have made plastics so ubiquitous. Found in the exoskeletons of arthropods (shrimp, crab, lobster, insects), chitin is the second most abundant organic polymer in nature, cellulose is the most abundant. The chitin and its derivative chitosan, offers many of plastic’s desirable properties and takes only weeks or months to biodegrade, rather than centuries that petroleum based polymers take to degrade.