A Polymer Problem: How Plastic Production and Consumption is Polluting our Oceans

This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate, a multi-school online forum run by student editors from the nation’s leading environmental law reviews.

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By Abigail Hogan and Alexander Steinbach, Staff Editors, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law.

I. THE HISTORY OF PLASTIC PRODUCTION

Typically, when a new product comes on the scene, it takes several generations to evaluate its use and environmental impact. However, synthetic plastics really only began to take over around 50 years ago, and we’re already seeing a movement to ban, or at least drastically reduce, the material. Why has plastic made such a splash in so little time?

Plastic was originally developed from cellulose, or plant material. But in 1907, the first fully synthetic plastic was created.[1] The difference between these two materials is that plastics made from plant material can actually break down, whereas synthetic plastic will only ever break into smaller pieces.[2] In fact, “EPA reports that ‘every bit of plastic ever made still exists.’”[3] Today, plastic and rubber are formed by polymers consisting of smaller units known as monomers.[4] A vast majority of monomers are produced from petroleum and is therefore non-renewable.[5] Around 4% of the world’s oil consumption is used as raw material in plastic production, and a similar amount is used as energy in the production process.[6] In addition to the use of petroleum, plastic production requires the use of additives.[7] A few chemical additives are: plasticizers, flame retardants, heat and UV stabilizers, biocides, pigments, and extenders.[8] Several common additives are classified as hazardous according to the E.U. regulations and are classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, harmful for reproductive health, harmful to aquatic life, or having persistent negative impacts on the environment.[9]

This first plastic was used for electrical insulation, but it sparked a revolution in materials. New plastics were continuously developed for a multitude of uses, particularly as World War II necessitated more military uses. Not long after, 1960 was the first-time plastic was noticed as a concern when seen in ocean pollution.[10] Besides polluting the ocean, plastics have negative health impacts on humans and the environment. Plastics harm human health because they release toxic chemicals throughout the life cycle of the product.[11] However, because experimental studies exposing humans to environmental contaminants are not allowed, it is difficult to establish indisputable causal relationships between exposure to the chemicals and adverse effects in humans.[12] In addition, the detrimental effects and disease produced from plastic exposure takes decades to produce adverse effects in human health.[13] In some instances, it may even take generations before disease manifests itself in the human population.[14] This makes pinpointing the exact chemical causing the disease difficult. However, there is overwhelming evidence that exposures to anthropogenic chemicals contribute to adverse effects in animals.[15]

II. RECYCLING TO THE RESCUE

In order to fix this negative publicity revolving around plastic and plastic production recycling emerged as a solution due to pressure of environmental groups and outside forces.[16] Recycling however, in not the only solution that is needed to solve the plastic waste crises that is polluting our oceans. Chemical, trash, and fossil fuel companies took advantage of the call from environmental groups for more efficient resource production and promoted the use of recycling and the use of consumer responsibility.[17] After World War II, environmental groups began to push business groups to promote recycling.[18] The Business sector responded and created and industry that organized around the recycling of paper, glass, metal, and plastic separated out by municipal solid waste.[19] This industry has next to zero impact on resource conservation measured in global sales and delivers only weak results in terms of pollution reduction or energy savings.[20]

It is important to note that not every material is created equal in the world of recycling. Glass, aluminum, glass, and metal can be recycled infinitely.[21] Plastic can range from being unrecyclable, recyclable only once or twice, or at a maximum about 7 times.[22] After this limit, the plastic will end up in a landfill. Furthermore, many do not even allow their plastic to have this long of a life. “Humans buy about 1,000,000 plastic bottles per minute in total. Only about 23% of plastic bottles are recycled within the U.S.”[23] Paper can be recycled 5-7 times.[24] However, it is also important to recognize that recycling any material requires an energy input. Only aluminum and paper take less energy to recycle than to make from scratch.[25] In other words, it takes more energy to transform that piece of plastic into a new use than it does to make more plastic. This is another reason recycling is not a complete solution.

Single use plastic is a particularly damaging part of the industry. Much of the plastic made is designed for only one use and to then be thrown away. One example is that a plastic shopping bag usually serves the consumer for 12 minutes, on average, but takes up to 1,000 years to break down.[26] This includes plastic shopping bags, 4 trillion of which are used annually, plastic straws, cutlery, take away boxes, coffee cups (which often give the appearance of being paper but are usually lined with plastic making them unrecyclable), and packaging.[27] 32% of the plastic packaging goes straight into our oceans, and even if plastic does make it to a landfill (which are poorly designed structures preventing much of anything from breaking down due to a lack of oxygen) it will likely leach chemicals into the groundwater.[28]

National and global environmental burdens from material extraction, manufacturing, and distribution show no signs of abating.[29] In fact, “the fossil fuel industry plans to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade.”[30] However, industry success from recycling is promising. Today, it employs around 1.1 million people, generates an annual payroll of $37 billion, and grosses $236 billion in revenue.[31] The success of the recycling economy is mirrored in the status of recycling as a success story for environmentalism.[32] Recycling is the most thoroughly developed practice for managing waste other than burying it or burning it.[33] Recycling is a flourish practice and it is popular, in fact, more Americans recycle than vote.[34]

III. THE SHORTCOMINGS OF RECYCLING AND THE IMPACT ON OUR OCEANS

Although the upsides of recycling are positive, recycling as we know it addresses at most only one-third of the solid municipal waste produced and leaves untouched other far larger waste fractions.[35] Burying and burning continue to be the most common forms of waste management resulting in hazardous effects for human health the environment.[36] The result is that recycling programs promote pragmatic solutions that are not reducing the effects of plastic waste and the negative impacts on the environment. This has negative impacts on aquatic life and the marine environment.

Typically, large debris, called “macroplastics,” have long been studied to determine their impact on the environment.[37] The presence of macroplastics in the environment create an aesthetic issue, as well as damage boats and cause repercussions for the tourist industry, and finally, macroplastics can cause harm to aquatic life by injuring or killing marine birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles that result from plastic entanglement and ingestion.[38] In recent years, there has been concern regarding microplastics. Microplastics are the tiny plastic granules and small plastics fragments that are derived from the breakdown of macroplastics.[39] The presence of small plastic fragments in the ocean was first noted in the 1970s.[40] By 2017, the amount of plastic in the ocean totaled 165 million tons.[41] By 2050, experts say there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.[42] Renewed scientific discovery in microplastics over the last decade revealed that these contaminants are ubiquitous and widespread within the marine environment, with the potential to cause harm to biota.[43]

Microplastics and microplastics are often confused by fish and eaten as food. If they survive eating this plastic, both the fish and humans are harmed. “Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, which can cause intestinal injury and death and transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish, marine mammals and human seafood eaters.”[44] Plastic is responsible for the deaths of whales, seabirds, sea turtles, and fish.[45] It also takes over many endangered species habitats in the ocean.[46] Preventing more plastic from entering the ocean is vital to the survival of many marine species.

One of the areas that consumers have a lot of power is in the single use plastic world. Plastic bags, cutlery, straws, take away coffee cups, and much more can be completely eliminated by simply bringing your own reusable container. Doing so will even save you money, even with the purchase of the reusable alternative (which is often unnecessary as many use what they already have).[47] This is because many grocery stores now charge for plastic bags, and many coffee shops offer discounts for bringing your own container.[48] Beyond consumer power, industrial consumers of plastic like grocery stores are beginning to take up some responsibility as well. Plastic bans have been initiated in many cities, and that number is growing. Hawaii and California have even initiated state-wide plastic bans.[49] Some cities have banned plastic straws altogether.[50] Others choose to tax single use plastics in hopes to deter consumers.[51]

IV. CONCLUSION: LEGISLATURES AND CONSUMERS NEED TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM

The invention of synthetic plastic has done wonders for modern civilization. However, its convenience comes at a heavy price. The environmental impact of plastic no longer makes single use plastic a viable option for society. Single use plastic is one of the largest contributors to pollution, yet one of the easiest to replace by consumers. While legislation is also needed to correct this problem, when consumers stop demanding single use plastic, producers stop making it. It is imperative that we address the problem of plastic pollution and production immediately.

[1] Conflicts in Chemistry: The Case of Plastics, Science History Institute, https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics (last visited Mar. 11, 2019).

[2] Audrey Holmes, How Many Times Can That Be Recycled?, Earth 911 (June 15, 2017), https://earth911.com/business-policy/how-many-times-recycled/.

[3] Ocean Plastics Pollution: A Global Tragedy for Our Oceans and Sea Life, Center for Biological Diversity, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/ (last visited Mar. 11, 2019).

[4] Markus Klar, David Gunnarsson, Andreas Prevodnik, Cecilia Hedfors, and Ulrika Dahl, Everything you (Don’t) Want to Know About Plastics, 11-24, 15 (2014).

[5] Id. at 16.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Conflicts, supra note 1.

[11] See Everything You Know, supra note 4 at 18.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Samantha MacBride, Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promises of Environmental Action in the U.S., 3 MIT Press (2012).

[17] Id. at 8.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Holmes, supra note 2.

[22] Id.

[23] Fact Sheet: Single Use Plastics, Earth Day, https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/ (last visited Mar. 11, 2019).

[24] Holmes supra note 2.

[25] How Recycling Saves Energy, Harmony Enterprises, Inc., https://harmony1.com/recycling-saves-energy/ (last visited Mar. 11, 2019).

[26] Trevor Nace, Here’s A List Of Every City In The US To Ban Plastic Bags, Will Your City Be Next? (Sept. 20, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2018/09/20/heres-a-list-of-every-city-in-the-us-to-ban-plastic-bags-will-your-city-be-next/#b706d663243c.

[27] Earth Day, supra note 23.

[28] Id.

[29] MacBride, supra note 16, at 8.

[30] Ocean Plastics, supra note 3.

[31] MacBride supra note 16, at 8.

[32] Id. at 9.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Matthew Cole et al., Microplastics as Contaminants in the Marine Environment: A review, 62 Marine Pollution Bull., 2588, 2589 (2011) (discussing microplastic and its impact on the marine environment).

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] Rebecca Harrington, By 2050, the Oceans Could Have More Plastic Than Fish, Business Insider (Jan. 26, 2017), https://www.businessinsider.com/plastic-in-ocean-outweighs-fish-evidence-report-2017-1.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Ocean Plastics, supra note 3.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Clear Barrett, What’s the Return on Investing in a Reusable Coffee Cup?, Financial Times (Feb. 7, 2017), https://www.ft.com/content/edddb47c-0b22-11e8-839d-41ca06376bf2.

[48] Why Do Some Charge for Plastic Bags and Others Don’t? Shoppers Adjusting to Grocery Bag Ban, Crown Poly, http://www.crownpoly.com/charge-plastic-bags-others-dont-shoppers-adjusting-grocery-bag-ban/ (last visited Mar. 11, 2019).

[49] Nace, supra note 26.

[50] Melissa Locker, Here are the U.S. Cities That Have Banned Plastic Straws So Far, Fast Company (June 1, 2018), https://www.fastcompany.com/40580132/here-are-the-u-s-cities-that-have-banned-plastic-straws-so-far.

[51] State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation, NCSL (Feb. 27, 2019), http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx.