Time to stem the tide of plastic pollution, writes Henrylito D. Tacio, describing what plastics are, how much we use them, their harmful effects and environmental impacts, plus positive industry actions taken to reverse plastic-related problems and pollution.
DAVAO, 27 June 2018. Filipinos, particularly businessmen, seemed to heed the advice that was given to Oscar-nominated Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 thought-provoking movie, “The Graduate.” In the said movie, the tyro actor’s character asked for some advice on career director. “Plastics, my boy. Plastics,” he was told.
By following the advice, plastic is now one of the country’s top pollutants of canals, rivers, and other waterways. Unfortunately, most of these buoyant materials end up in the open seas.
In a report released a few years ago, the Ocean Conservancy singled out the Philippines as one of five countries from where majority of plastics originates. Also on the list were China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
“As rapidly developing economies, these countries are now passing through a typical stage of economic growth as consumer demand for disposable products grows more rapidly than the waste management infrastructure,” the report said.
The word plastic is derived from the Greek plastikos, which means “capable of being shaped or molded.” It refers to their malleability or plasticity during manufacture, which allows them to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes – such as films, fibers, plates, tubes, bottles, boxes, and much more.
What plastics are made of
Various plastics are used in the manufacture of each consumer item. For fibers and textiles, polyester (PES) is used while carbonated drinks bottles, peanut butter jars, plastic film, and microwaveable packaging, the material used is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is used for detergent bottles, milk jugs, and molded plastic cases.
When manufacturing plumbing pipes and guttering, shower curtains, window frames, and flooring, polyvinyl chloride (PCV) is used while it is polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) for food packaging. Outdoor furniture, siding, floor tiles, shower curtains, and clamshell packaging come from low-density polyethylene (LDPE).
Bottle caps, drinking straws, yogurt containers, appliances, car fenders (bumpers), and plastic pressure pipe systems are made of polypropylene (PP). Packaging foam, food containers, plastic tableware, disposable cups, plates, cutlery, and compact discs and cassette boxes come from polystyrene (PS).
High impact polystyrene (HIPS) is made for refrigerator liners, food packaging, and vending cups. Fibers, toothbrush bristles, tubing, fishing line, and low strength machine parts (like under-the-hood car engine parts or gun frames) are made from polyamides (PA) or popularly known as nylons.
If you’re wondering what those electronic equipment cases (e.g., computer monitors, printers, keyboards) and drainage pipe are made of, it’s acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Eyeglasses, riot shields, security windows, traffic lights, and lenses are made of polycarbonate (PC).
Polyurethanes (PU) is currently the sixth most commonly used plastic material. It is used in cars such as cushioning foams, thermal insulation foams, surface coatings, and in printing rollers.
These days, plastics are part of Filipinos’ daily life, according to Juvinia P. Serafin, senior environmental management specialist of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Plastics come in the form of credit cards, food containers and packages, utensils, sachet packs, kitchen wares, toys, and furniture.
But the most popular of them all is plastic bags. “Since they were introduced in the 1970s, plastic bags have infiltrated our lives,” wrote Caroline Williams in New Scientist. “Globally, we carry home between 500 billion and a trillion every year – about 150 bags for every person on earth, or, to put it another way, a million every minute and rising.”
This alarms environmental groups in the Philippines as plastic bags are used only once. Other single-use plastics include straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging materials. The country’s so-called “sachet economy” has also contributed to the proliferation of plastics. Products sold in single-use sachets include instant coffee, shampoo, cooking oil, food seasoning and toothpaste. Once they’re used, they are just thrown away.
In a news dispatch, British Prime Minister Theresa May dubbed the single-use plastic items as one of “the greatest environmental challenges facing the world.” Barry E. DiGregorio wrote in an article that “disposed plastic materials can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years and longer.”
Associated Press quoted Sherri Mason, chair of the geology and environmental sciences department at the State University of New York at Fredonia, as saying: “We have to confront this material and our use of it, because so much of it is single use disposable plastic and this is a material that doesn’t go away. It doesn't return to the planet the way other materials do.”
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu agrees. “Plastic, particularly those for single-use packaging, has greatly contributed to the degradation of the environment,” he points out. “Plastic pollution continues to poison our oceans and injure marine life. When not properly disposed, they clog waterways and cause flooding.”
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, 50% of the plastic the world produces is used once and discarded. “Globally, we discard 500 billion plastic bags,” it reports. “We recycle only 5% of the plastic we produce. Sunshine breaks plastic down into smaller pieces, but it doesn’t go away.”
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Much ado about plastics
The United Nations Environmental Program says between 22% and 43% of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, the material takes up valuable space, and it blights communities.
But why so much ado about plastics? For one, they never go away. Plastic is a material made to last forever, yet 33% of all plastic - water bottles, bags and straws - are used just once and thrown away. “Disposed plastic materials can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years and longer,” said Barry E. DiGregorio.
For another, plastics affect human health. Studies have found that toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of human beings. Two broad classes of plastic-related chemicals are of critical concern for human health: bisphenol-A and additives used in the synthesis of plastics, which are known as phthalates. This was found out by a study conducted by the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute.
Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments, it said.
Another reason: plastics spoil groundwater. Landfills come into mind; buried beneath them are toxic chemicals from plastics which, drain out and seep into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers.
What is alarming is that most of the plastics end up in the oceans. “Over 80% of ocean plastics comes from the land – it is discarded and not well managed, and thus leaks into the ocean,” the Ocean Conservancy reported. “Only 20% is thrown directly or purposefully into the ocean from ships, drilling rigs, etc.”
The Ocean Conservancy study found out that 75% of leakage comes from waste that is uncollected by waste management systems, while 25% of leakage happens from within the system itself.
Unknowingly, plastics attract other pollutants. “The toxic chemicals that leach out of plastics can accumulate on other plastics,” a report stated. “This is a serious concern with increasing amounts of plastic debris accumulating in the world’s oceans. “
Chelsea Rochman, writing for Scientific Reports, said that fish, exposed to a mixture of polyethylene with chemical pollutants absorbed from the marine environment, “bioaccumulate these chemical pollutants and suffer liver toxicity and pathology.”
Plastics likewise threaten wildlife. Wildlife become entangled in plastic, they eat it or mistake it for food and feed it to their young, and it is found littered in even extremely remote areas of the Earth. In the world’s oceans alone, plastic debris outweighs zooplankton by a ratio of 36-to-1, study showed.
Large plastic items can entangle and kill a wide variety of organisms including marine mammals, sea turtles and fishes. Ingested plastic products (cigarette lighters, plastic bags, etc.) can harm seabirds, marine turtles and fishes.
The World Wildlife Fund for Nature claimed that nearly 200 different marine species die due to ingestion and choking from plastic bags.
“Discarded plastic bands encircle mammals, fish, and birds and tighten as their bodies grow,” reminded the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. “Turtles, whales, and other marine mammals have died after eating plastic sheeting.”
Recently, a whale in Thailand was found on the beach dead after swallowing 80 plastic bags (about 8 kilogrammes).
Another concern: microplastics, which are generally less than 5 millimeters in diameter. “(These) can harm juvenile fish which can ultimately harm fish stock,” Serafin said.
In addition, microplastics can provide the medium for the bioaccumulation of potentially toxic pollutants in the food chain. “Plastic particles can absorb industrial and agricultural pollutants causing damage to fish organs,” said Serafin.
Environmentalists caution against burning those plastics to get rid of them completely. Scientists say that chlorine-based plastics, when incinerated, contribute to the formation of dioxins, a poisonous waste that forms when chlorine is exposed to extreme heat.
“Dioxins are considered highly toxic and are implicated in weakening the immune system, affecting fetal development and causing a skin disorder called chloracne,” wrote Chynthia P. Shea, a former staff member of the Worldwatch Institute.
Just some thoughts about Styrofoam. It is made from the plastic polystyrene, which is based on building blocks called styrene monomers. When you drink your steaming cup of coffee or spoon your chicken noodle soup out of a Styrofoam cup, you also take in small doses of chemicals that leach from it.
“Trace amounts of styrene as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrate into food – particularly when liquids are hot,” explains Dr. Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. However, the US Department of Health and Human Services says that the levels released from food containers are very low.
Possible solutions to single use plastic problem
There are several ways of skinning a cat and so there are some solutions to the problem at hand. “Let us go back to basics,” Cimatu urged. “We used to bring a glass bottle to the sari-sari store when we buy cooking oil and vinegar. Let’s do the same now.”
Eligio Ildefonso, the EMB’s national solid waste management commission executive director, supports a ban on single-use plastic items throughout the country. “Single-use plastic is what its name says, for single-use,” he said. “It cannot be recycled and reused; people have no motivation to recover it. It has no further use so it should be discouraged.”
Instead of plastic bags, Ildefonso encourages the use of eco-bags when buying wet and dry goods. “Eco-bags can be reused; you can wash them; they do not contribute to solid waste,” he pinpointed.
Meanwhile, Worldwatch contend that the environmental and social benefits of plastics must be weighed against the problems that the durability and high volume of this material present to the waste stream.
“Plastics help to reduce food waste by keeping products fresh longer, allow for the manufacture of life-saving healthcare equipment, reduce packaging mass compared with other materials, improve transportation efficiency, and have large potential for use in renewable energy technologies,” Worldwatch said in a press statement. “But plastic litter, gyres of plastics in the oceans, and toxic additives in plastic products – including colorants, flame retardants, and plasticizers – are raising awareness of and strengthening consumer demand for more sustainable materials.
Along with reducing unnecessary plastic consumption, Worldwatch says that finding more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives, and improving product and packaging design to use less plastic, many challenges associated with plastics could be addressed by improving management of the material across its life cycle.
“Businesses and consumers could increase their participation in collection in order to move plastic waste toward a recovery supply chain, and companies could switch to greater use of recycled plastics,” Worldwatch suggests. “Governments must regulate the plastic supply chain to encourage and monitor recycling.”
And now, some good news. Some manufacturers have recently introduced biodegradable or compostable plastic bags, made from starches, polymers or polylactic acid, and no polyethylene.
During the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, the organizers were able to collect 76% of the food waste generated at the sports venues and the athletes’ village by using biodegradable food utensils and plastic bags that composted as easily as the food and eliminated the need to separate the garbage.
Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio