Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why Is Plastic Pollution Bad For All Of Us?
Plastic pollution has sadly become a matter of reality not just for many marine species, but for human populations as well.
In this blog, we're going to take a look at why the improper disposal of waste, resulting in plastic pollution, is dangerous for everyone.
As plastic production is increasing on a global scale, we need to assess what evidence there is for the health risks posed by plastic. Not just for non-human species, but for us as well.
After assessing the damage that plastic pollution is causing, we will look at the alternatives being presented by developing technologies. We will also give a case study on plastic free alternatives with our Pampering Gift Sets.
What Is plastic pollution?
Plastic pollution is the mass build up of plastic waste, now on a global scale, resulting from not disposing of plastic properly.
Plastic pollution is most destructive to marine species who mistake plastic for food. This results in deaths from plastic ingestion, and dwindling marine population numbers.
The reason for plastic building up over time is it's inability to biodegrade. To clarify, when we are talking about 'plastic', we mean 'conventional plastic'. Conventional plastic, such as PET, is produced from fossil fuels such as petroleum. There are other alternatives to conventional plastic, which we will touch on later.
If we take PET as an example, it does not biodegrade. This results in PET staying in the natural environment for potentially hundreds of years.
The most common example of this is a plastic disposable water bottle, which could remain in the environment for roughly 450 years.
With over eight million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year, the threat to wildlife is increasing.
Exporting Plastic Waste
As well as in marine environments, plastic pollution on land is increasing as well. The reason as to why we don't see plastic waste building up in the UK (that's where we are based), is because a huge amount of plastic waste is exported every year.
Up until recently, the country of choice was China. Because China exports manufactured goods on a global scale, vast numbers of shipping containers are travelling to and from China.
A problem with this, is that if you send a shipping container to a destination full of goods, it also has to make the return trip. If nothing is on the return shipping container, effectively costs are doubling.
To solve this problem, China began to import plastic waste from other countries to recycle.
This means that the shipping container is full with both the exported goods on the way to other countries, and full on the way back to China with cheap plastic to be recycled.
From 1992 to 2016, 45% of the world's waste was imported by China.
For China, the plastic imported from other countries was usually higher quality compared to domestically produced Chinese plastic. For countries exporting their plastic waste to china, it is beneficial also. It's cheaper to send your plastic waste to be recycled, than it is to recycle it domestically.
This out of sight, out of mind mentality for western countries worked well. Populations were happy with the thought that if they put their plastic waste into a recycling bin, it would magically turn into something else 100% of the time.
Plastic waste is not guaranteed to be recycled in China, even if that's what western populations want to believe. There are numerous reports of plastic waste being sent to landfill, or just left in the natural environment, in poorer countries that have accepted the plastic waste.
In 2016, an american recycling company tracked some of the plastic waste they had exported to China. The fear of exported plastic being disposed of improperly was confirmed.
"And what we found confirms some of our worst nightmares: dumping in the local canyon of materials they couldn't recycle, plastic in the farmland incorporated into the soil of the cornfields nearby".
This all changed when China imposed their National Sword Programme in 2018. The ban meant that China would cease to import any plastic that was less than 99.5% in purity.
This has created a huge problem for western countries. Previously, they could just ship all of their waste to China with no second thoughts, and be happy with the result. Now, these countries have to develop solutions to dealing with plastic waste, and fast.
In the US, recycling centres have simply stopped taking plastic waste. It is now estimated that between now and 2030, there will be 111 million tonnes of plastic that need to be processed, that previously would have been exported to China.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in dimension. They can either be formed in production (primary), or be formed from larger pieces of plastic breaking down (secondary). As plastic doesn't biodegrade, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.
In the marine environment, this is a huge problem. Through the process known as the 'trophic transfer of microplastics', microplastics accumulate each step up in the marine food chain. Eventually reaching larger fish such as cod, and then into humans as well.
With various plastics being potentially dangerous to human health, this process poses a large safety hazard.
Why Does Plastic Pollution Impact Marine Wildlife?
Scientists have recently discovered that marine wildlife mistake plastic for food, because plastic smells like food to them. Predators including seabirds have been found dead with their stomachs filled with plastic waste. Up until now, no one was really sure why this was the case.
Seabirds and other marine wildlife hunt krill. Krill ingest algae. When algae breaks down naturally in the ocean, it releases a smelly gas. This gas is called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS.
It turns out that floating plastic debris is the perfect place to encourage growth of algae.
As there is an abundance of algae near plastic debris, there is also a large number of krill present as well. Seabirds have learned to recognise that this smells means there will be an abundance of krill, and they are correct. Unfortunately, this means that the seabirds are now hunting what they think is krill, but it's actually plastic debris.
Once marine animals, or any animal for that matter, ingests plastic, they could face severe injury or death. Common ways to die from ingesting plastic are suffocation, internal bleeding and starvation.
Internal bleeding can be as a result of the plastic piercing the wall of the intestinal tract. Starvation can be due to the animals stomach being filled with plastic, when they think it's filled with food. This sadly means they are effectively starving to death without knowing it.
As a result of all the ways plastic can kill marine creatures, population numbers are being severely affected. Turtles have a 22% chance of dying when ingesting one piece of plastic, and this number sharply rises to 50% when they ingest 14 pieces of plastic.
Pampering Gift Sets: Sustainable Case Study
Our range of Eco-Friendly Gifts is designed around providing plastic free alternatives to luxury gifts, with our Pampering Gift Sets being just one of them.
Pampering Gift Sets typically can contain a lot of plastic, in both the cosmetics themselves and the packaging they come in.
By using sustainably produced cosmetics with plastic free, or minimal plastic content, our Pampering Gift Sets show that relaxation doesn't have to come at the cost of the environment.
Plastic Pollution On Land
As well as ending up in the ocean, plastic can also be found on land, degrading in soil.
An estimate puts the total amount of plastic ending up in soil, or in freshwater, makes up a third of all plastic waste. This number is staggering, considering 7.8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since its invention in the 1950s.
Terrestrial plastic, that is plastic that ends up in soil as opposed to freshwater, is estimated to be at least four times higher in volume.
It is not just the plastic polymers themselves that are degrading into the soil, it is the additives as well.
Plastic is often produced with various additives to generate certain characteristics, such as antioxidants (preventing the plastic reacting with oxygen) and fillers (to increase the strength of plastic).
As much as they do good to progress plastic, they cause damage when they end up in the natural environment.
Phthalates are added to plastic for a variety of reasons, but primarily as plasticisers to make the plastic more flexible. Because they are only physically linked to the plastic, and not chemically bonded, they can leach out of the material.
A common route for phthalates to enter the natural environment, is through soil surrounding manufacturing facilities.
From the soil, these phthalates can enter water courses, and from then into drinking water and freshwater environments. The main concern around phthalates is that they are considered carcinogenic potentially.
Alternatives To Plastic
As the damage caused by global plastic pollution is spreading, alternatives to conventional plastics are being developed. Let's take a look at what bioplastics have to offer.
Bioplastics are similar to conventional plastics in that they can have similar properties, but different in terms of production sources and biodegradability.
According to EUBP, bioplastics are plastics that are biobased, biodegradable, or have elements of both.
If something is biobased, it means it has been derived from biomass, or plants. This is opposed to conventional plastics which are derived from non renewable resources such as petroleum. This main benefit of using renewable materials such as cornstarch, is just that; renewable materials are sustainable, and can be used theoretically forever.
The next characteristic of a bioplastic is biodegradability. Biodegradability is the ability of a material to:
"Break down into water, biomass and CO2 with the aid of microorganisms."
This may seem good on the outset, but being biodegradable in itself is not necessarily a solution to the plastic pollution problem.
This is because there is no legal time limit on a material being biodegradable. For example, a biodegradable cup could biodegrade in 1,000 years, and it would still be classed as biodegradable.
What's more, unless specified otherwise, current biodegradable items will be very unlikely to biodegrade in the ocean, or in landfill.
This is due to the necessary microorganisms not being present.
In order to be a viable material to replace conventional plastic, the material must be compostable as well.
If a material is compostable, it will:
"Biodegrade in set conditions, in a set time frame, to form compost".
Let's take our PLA cups for example. They are compostable, as well as being biodegradable.
But there's one more step that needs to happen before they can be composted. There are two types of composting: industrial and home.
Home composting is what you consider as your compost bin in the garden. If you were to put 'compostable' cups into a home compost bin, they would not be guaranteed to break down to form compost within a reasonable time frame.
The other type of composting is industrial composting. If you see an advert for a cup or any other item claiming to be compostable, it is likely to be industrially compostable. In order for industrially compostable items to break down, they need higher temperatures and other required conditions, that are found in industrial composting plants.
In order to access these plants, simply use our free post back scheme, LFHP Zero. We have partnered up with an industrial composting partner, to ensure any compostable goods waste will be fully composted.
This means zero waste goes to landfill, and the compost can be used in gardens and farms to grow the next generation of crops.
If you are considering buying anything for the basis that it's compostable, make sure to check if it's home compostable, or industrially compostable. If it's industrially compostable, then a responsible seller should provide a route to an industrial composting plant.
Below, we've created an infographic to show the main differences between home composting and industrial composting.
Want To Move Away From Plastic?
Through this blog, we hope you now have a better understanding of what plastic pollution is.
More importantly, we hope you have an idea about viable solutions to plastic pollution, as well as understanding false claims that are being made to combat the plastic epidemic as well.
There's developments being made all the time in the field of bioplastics and renewable sources, so it's an exciting time to be in the field of plastic alternatives.
About Our Sustainable Gifts
When creating our range of sustainable gifts, we wanted to reduce waste sent to landfill (with the aim of zero waste going to landfill).
By reducing the amount of single use plastic in product and packaging, we are striving to achieve the goal of sending zero waste to landfill. Sustainable gifts aren't just about the creation process of each product, but about the entire life cycle.
You can read more about developments to fight plastic pollution by subscribing to our email list at the bottom of the page.