Time to abandon single-use plastics

Time to abandon single-use plastics

I have written about plastics before, most recently about how our Great Lakes are now full of microplastics. Mistakenly, many people believe plastics in general are inert or nonreactive substances, and many know very little about how plastics are made.

This is troubling during a time when it is hard to look anywhere without seeing plastic, whether it is your cell phone or your fast food meal.

If you think life without plastics is impossible, you are wrong. Ask someone born pre-1950 when glass bottles, wax paper, tinfoil and cardboard were the materials we used to package food.

Today our fast-paced lifestyles have made us so dependent on throw-away materials that we have forgotten there was life before plastics. How did we get ourselves into this plastic mess?

The first plastic-like material was presented at the Great London Exposition in 1862 and was made from alcohol and cellulose (plant fiber). It took a few decades to produce a material that was completely derived from petroleum-based materials.

In 1907 Bakelite, the first true plastic, was produced from petroleum wastes and toxic substances like phenol and formaldehyde. It was used for many products including insulation on electric cables on navy ships during WWII.

By 1930 polyethylene was being produced, and polypropylene followed in the 1950s. It was at that time plastics production started to ramp up in the world, especially in the U.S.

Plastic is a polymer. This means it is made of similar carbon units hooked together in a chain much like trains cars. The main ingredient of any plastic is a hydrocarbon, meaning it is derived from oil or gas (ethane).

The source of virgin plastic is an ethane cracker plant. These industrial facilities are found in the gulf region of the U.S. and especially in Texas and Louisiana. Currently the Shell Corporation is constructing one in Monaca, Pennsylvania with the help of a $1.6 billion tax break.

These plants are usually built close to an abundant supply of oil or ethane gas. They use extreme quantities of energy to “crack” carbon atoms. In the process tons of toxic pollutants are created, as well as 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is equivalent to emissions from 480,000 cars.

After cracking, the individual units of carbon are hooked together or polymerized to form various types of polymers. Depending on the number of carbon atoms in the chain, the types of linkages and additional elements used in the process, these plastics can be hard or soft, flexible or rigid, or transparent or opaque.

For example, polyvinyl chloride, PVC, is made from the polymerization of vinyl chloride, a two-carbon chain molecule with two chlorine atoms spliced onto each side. Toxins are produced when PVC is manufactured and harmful air pollutants are released when it is burned.

Plastic additives can include plasticizers, metals, fire-retardants (fluorinated compounds) and dyes. Many of the compounds used such as phthalates and bis-phenol have been found to cause health effects including cancer and endocrine disruption.

In a report titled “Plastic Atlas,” researchers found blood from pregnant Americans had an average of “56 different industrial chemicals, many of them originating from plastic products or the processes used to make them.”

These toxic compounds can be released when a plastic surface is exposed to foods, during recycling, while reheating food in plastic in a microwave or when plastics fragment in the environment.

Since the 1950s the world has made more than 9 billion tons of plastics. There is enough plastic garbage on our planet to give every person 1 ton. Only 10 percent of all plastic wastes has been recycled.

Over 56 percent of all the plastic made has been produced since 2000. Given the increased rate of plastic production, by 2025 there could be 600 million tons of plastic made annually.

As I mentioned before, 99 percent of plastics begin life as a fossil fuel. When you carelessly pitch that sandwich clam-shell into the waste bin or worse along a road, you are pitching away a nonrenewable resource that has taken millions of years to create and will take thousands more to degrade. In addition the entire plastic manufacturing process, from cradle to grave, is loaded with externalities.

The recent increase in high-pressure hydraulic fracking has been in part to access ethane and oil used for plastics manufacturing. Cheap fracked gas prices along with the increased exportation of plastics to foreign countries in Southern Asia feeds the plastic monster we have created.

As we buy and dispose of single-use plastics, we are in essence guilty of wasting precious resources like oil and groundwater. We are guilty of contaminating the air, water and land of our planet. We are responsible for the construction of hundreds of miles of pipelines.

Our use of throw-away plastics leads to the creation of millions of gallons of radioactive fracking wastes. We also cause the destruction of ecosystems in other states, like Wisconsin, where sand mining has boomed, creating huge scars on the land and causing silicosis in workers.

It only takes a brief Google search of “plastic pollution” to realize plastic has permeated every corner of our planet. Peer-reviewed studies now show plastics can be found in the air, in rainwater and in over 90 percent of all global tap water supplies. Plastic fibers have even been found in the deepest trenches of our oceans.

Plastic packaging, which accounts for over 50 percent of the world’s plastic wastes, is washing up on ocean shorelines or littering riverbanks.

The top contributors to plastic pollution are in decreasing order: cigarette butts, drinking bottles, caps from bottles, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other plastic bags, and foam takeout containers.

These items all have one thing in common: they are single-use plastics. In most cases they are used to package fast food items or premade foods; they are used once and discarded.

In the end we ourselves through our total ignorance and disregard of the externalities of plastics are taking part in our own demise.

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