Addicted to plastic, cheap, sturdy, and abundant
Each year we find more plastic ocean pollution during sailing in Barcelona. To better understand the plastic ocean pollution and put it into context of the world economy, I started in 2017, a 6 month study on plastics. The results are summarized in this article.
Plastic replaces natural products
Plastics have replaced traditional materials such as wood, metal, glass, leather, paper and rubber because it is cheaper, lighter, stronger, corrosion resistant, and durable. Plastics influence the way we dress, the way we enjoy ourselves and the way we live. Many plastics have become household names such as nylon, and polyester.
Plastic Production Method
Plastic production method in 4 steps:
- The acquirement of raw materials oil and natural gas
- Separate through synthesizing into basic (plastic) polymer
- Inclusion of additives to alter and improve basic mechanical and chemical properties
- Molding or shaping the plastic
The additives, that are mixed with the plastic during Step 3, are often toxic:
- Antioxidants: for plastic processing and outside application where weathering resistance is needed
- Colorants: for colored plastic parts
- Foaming agents: for expanded polystyrene cups and building board and for polyurethane carpet underlayment
- Plasticizers: used in wire insulation, flooring, gutters, and some films
- Lubricants: used for making fibers
- Anti-stats: to reduce dust collection by static electricity attraction
- Antimicrobials: used for shower curtains and wall coverings
- Flame retardants: to improve the safety of wire and cable coverings and cultured marble
Energy needed to make plastic
The production of plastic (steps 2, 3 and 4 above) is energy intensive. For each kilogram of plastic 25 kWh of energy is required. That is the equivalent of driving your car 30 km!
In comparison, to produce 1 kilogram of steel only 7 kWh is needed. Recycled steel is much energy intensive 3 kWh, and wood requires only 2 kWh. It must be said that steel and wood are heavier than plastics. A comparison with paper only 6 kWh, is interesting however plastic is more durable.
The plastic Market
The plastic market is going to grow for years to come. More and more products will be packaged in plastic. In 2050 more than 50% of all plastics is single use plastic.
The Market forecast for 2020 is optimistically described in the info-graph below. The market for cast shows a slow increase of biodegradable and compostable plastics. The total plastic production is 500 million ton.
Asia is the largest producer of plastics, followed by the Americas, North and South America together, and Europe. Respectively 50%, 22%, 18% and the remainder 10% is produced in the rest of the world.
Increased Plastic production until 2050
Plastic is an important element in our daily lives, that only exists for about 70 years. It feels as if we cannot live without plastic, and it is therefore strange to image that we lived happily without it in the 1950’s.
99% of plastics are made from oil or natural gas, (fossil fuels), and accounts for 8% of the total world wide oil consumption according the EPA in 2017. It is expected that the plastic production will increase and the amount of oil that is needed to make plastic will be 20% of all the oil that is consumed in 2050.
Because plastic is made from fossil fuels, the plastic production is often located near refineries. Therefor the same companies, extracting and refining oil are often making plastic. In other words there is a high degree of vertical integration and oil and gas producers own plastics companies, and major plastics producers own oil and gas companies. DowDuPont, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and China National Petroleum Corporation are all vertically integrated companies.
Plastic production, the chemical business segment, is lucrative with high net profits. It is one of the reasons why oil companies want to increase the demand for plastic. A first step is the usage of more plastic in the car production, from less than 100 kg in 1990 to 350 kg in the near future. Why increasing the plastic demand :
1.) helps keeping the overall the demand for fossil fuels high, when the demand for natural gas and diesel decrease.
2.) the chemical business segment is more lucrative than other downstream activities. Creating a nice added value for shareholders.
To conclude the plastic production will increase from 8% of the total fossil fuel consumption in 2017 to 20% in 2050. No wonder we see each year more plastic ocean pollution during sailing in Barcelona.
Plastic Market Segments
Plastic is a very cheap, easily formed material that we know best from the consumer goods, like you mobile phone, cloths, toys, cars, plastic bottles, straws, cups, but also mattresses and cushions. However plastic is used in all industries, the biggest consumers of plastic is the automobile industry, followed by the packaging industry.
In the 1980 plastic packing demand accelerated because of the global shift from reusable to single-use containers. Packaging has since been the largest consumer of plastic until recently. Due to consumer awareness the demand for these plastics slowed down, and simultaneously the automobile industry increased the usage of plastic to reduce the weight of cars. For example windshield, headlights, interior, all is made out of plastics.
The plastic market segments in numbers:
- Packaging industry 40%
- Construction 20%
- Automotive industry 10%
- Electrical and electronics 7%
- Consumer goods 6%
- Agriculture 4%
- Other 13%
However, the automotive industry is largest consumer of plastics when the plastic used for packaging cars and car parts is included in this segment. More than 25% of all plastic is used for the car industry.
And the automotive industry will use more and more plastic in cars to reduce costs and the weight of cars. Because plastic is lighter than many other car components.
Consumer good segment is has a retaliative small share.
Leaving out the packaging for cars and electric good reduces plastic packaging segment to a 20% of the total plastic demand.
Plastic bottles, and other single use plastic items all are included in the packaging industry.
There are many ways to split up the plastic demand and uses. It is not a clear cut separation but it gives an idea.
So lets say we stop today using all plastic bottles, cups, straws, plastic food packaging, plastic bags, plastic cloths packaging, then we only reduce 20% of all the plastic produced.
But the opposite is also true, automotive, packaging and consumer goods are key growth application segments for the years to come.
Conclusion: automotive is the biggest plastic consumer followed by packaging. If we stopped using plastic bottles, plastic food and cloth packaging today we reduce 20% of the total plastic demand.
How much plastic production per year?
Plastic production increases year over year. Today, in 2018, approximately 400 million metric tons of plastic will be produced. Is that a lot? Sounds like it, but doesn’t give me a feeling. In terms of volume that means an area as large as 420km2 is covered with 1 meter thick plastic*, about 50% of New York City. In case it was a swimming pool with “liquid plastic” a third of the world population could stand in 1 meter of plastic.
*(Assuming 0,95gr/cm3 , data from Bruno Gervet, Luleå University of Technology Luleå, Sweden).
Production of plastics started in the 1950. After 39 years, in 1989, yearly plastic production reached 100 million metric tons. In 2002, only 13 years later, production doubled to 200 million tons. Nine years later in 2013, the milestone of 300 million tons was reached and now in 2018, mankind produces 400 million tons of plastic.
Plastic waste, where does it go?
Each year, 4oo metric ton of plastic is produced, and each year the same amount is disposed of. Where does it go? A lot is written about plastic waste, plastic ocean pollution, and it is hard to make up a single answer. I took numbers from UN environmental program, World Watch, Greenpeace, EuroStat, EPA and a study, published in Science Advances.
Roughly 80% of all produced plastic since 1950 has become plastic waste. The majority is accumulating in mostly open landfills in China and Africa. Obviously the wind and elements bring much of the plastic to the oceans, the final sink. Plastic recycling started in the late 1980’s, but it was until 2009 that serious inroads in recycling really took off.
The plastic destinations for the year 2018 are given below:
- 17% recycled
- 40% land fills
- 30% burning plastic
- 3% oceans
The 17% recycling is very optimistic and includes the shipment of western plastic waste to Asian and African countries. These countries do not have the infrastructure to proper recycle plastic. Local companies purchase western plastic waste and manually pick the most valueable plastic (HDPE type 2 plastic) for recycling and reselling to the west. The remainder, the low value plastic is discarded or dumped in nature.
- Many open landfills lose plastic due winds and rain washing plastic away.
- Incineration of plastic waste in the open field is common in African countries to remove the plastic cover from more valuable trash. For example burning of copper cables.
Today 36% of plastic waste is used to generate heat and electricity in the European Union. This is good for reducing plastic landfills, but it does create more CO2 and potential other toxic fumes. It appears that plastic incineration, while still under debate, will increase in the near future.
Approximately 10 million ton of plastic reach the seas and oceans each year. This the combined influx from people dropping plastic on the street, open landfills losing plastic through wind and rain, and dumping plastic at sea. It is debated but I feel it is correct to state that 80% of the plastic waste comes from the land via rivers into the ocean. Ten rivers have been identified as supplying the majority of all the ocean plastic waste.
This land debris that enters the ocean is basically into two shapes:
- Whole pieces of plastic, plastic bottles, cans and cups etc.
- Micro plastic pieces from tires, clothing, skincare products and toothpaste. Cloth made out of nylon contain plastic, as the cloths wear down the plastic micro fibers let go and enter into the air and are blown into the ocean.
Apparently a newly discovered enzyme can break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic in a few days. PET has the highest recycling rate of all plastics and represents 7% of the total plastic produced.
Plastic health hazard to humans
Most plastics contain bisphenol-A (BPA) and bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP). Exposure to BPA and DEHP (a phthalate found in many plastic household items) has now been linked to reduced thyroid hormones, which every cell in your body depends on*.
BPA is linked to interfering with proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
DEHP is an endocrine that mimics the female hormone estrogen. It has been linked to asthma and allergies in children. It may cause certain types of cancer and it has been linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation, and body weight.
In Europe, DEHP has been banned since 1999 from use in plastic toys for children under the age of three.
The Dangers of Outgassing
The danger from chemicals in plastic is not limited to leaching from bottles and food wraps. Another significant source of concern is from outgassing (also known as offgassing). That new-car smell, or the odor from a new synthetic-fiber carpet or new plastic toy is actually called outgassing.
What is chemically happening is that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are evaporating into the air around us. These gases are, in many cases, hazardous to human health.
Summarizing, plastic emits at various staging of it life time toxic gasses:
- During the production of plastic, toxic chemicals release into the air.
- Plastics are benign in itself however many plastics release toxic gases, some carcinogenic and some hormone-disruptive, in their in-place curing.
- Occupational exposure during installation, such as inhalation of dust while cutting plastic pipe or off-gassing vapors of curing products, is concern for human health and the environment.
- The additives BPA and BSN leatch into our food when it is packaged with certain plastic. This to me is the most trouble some learning this months.
*Study in PLOS one : Plastics Derived Endocrine Disruptors (BPA, DEHP and DBP) Induce Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Obesity, Reproductive Disease and Sperm Epimutations
Plastic types, number 1 to 7
Plastic is categorized observing the resin identification code, which ranges from number 1 to 7. Here are the most common plastics, by number, and safety hazards they present. You can find the plastic identification number on the bottom of your plastic bottle. This system of coding was developed in 1988 by the U.S.-based Society of the Plastics Industry to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics.
Number 1 : PET: polyethylene terephthalate
Most water bottles, soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles and condiment bottles (like ketchup) are made from PET. PET represent 7% of the total production of plastic.
PET is considered a “safe” plastic, and does not contain bisphenol-A (BPA). However in the presence of heat it can leach bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) ) into food and beverages. This can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. The longer the bottle is on the shelf or exposed to heat or sunshine, the more antimony is likely to have leached into the product.
2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene
HDPE represent 15% of the total plastic production and is used in milk, juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners. It is considered a safer plastic than PET. Studies on leaching of estrogenic chemicals is ongoing.
3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride
PVC represents 16% of the total plastic production and can be flexible or rigid and is probably the most hazardous plastic because it leaches DEHP easily. It is used in construction for plumbing pipes, but also for clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children’s toys, tablecloths, vinyl flooring, children’s play mats.
4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene
LDPE is used for grocery store bags, bread bags, newspaper bags, produce bags, and garbage bags, as well as “paper” milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. It does not contain BPA and is used for 17% of the total plastic production.
LDPE is considered a safer plastic than PET. Studies on leaching of estrogenic chemicals is ongoing.
5. PP: polypropylene
PP is most used plastic type, 23% of all plastic are of this type. Used to make yogurt containers, deli food containers and winter clothing insulation.
PP actually has a high heat tolerance and as such, does not seem to leach many of the chemicals other plastics do.
6. PS: polystyrene
PS, also known as Styrofoam, is used in 7% of all plastics. It is used for cups, plates, take-out containers, supermarket meat trays, and packing peanuts.
Polystyrene can leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen, especially in the presence of heat (which makes hot coffee in a Styrofoam container an unwise choice).
7. Everything else
Plastic not made from the above six plastics is lumped together as a number 7 plastic. This group include Polycarbonate which is used in plastic baby bottles, clear plastic sippy cups, sports water bottles, large water storage containers, metal food can liners, some juice and ketchup containers, compact discs, cell phones, computers.
Polycarbonate belongs is this group and leaches bisphenol-A (BPA) and BPS both potent endocrine disruptors linked to interfering with proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Most types of plastic can be recycled today. The real challenge with recycling plastic is that often the recycle costs are higher than production of the new plastic.
In 2019 at best 15% of all plastics are recycled. The recycle process is limited because of the the degradation of the recycled product and the infrastructure to process plastic.
Which plastic can be recycled?
The most commonly recycled is PET-1, used to make water bottles, and HDPE-2 found in shampoo bottles, grocery bags.
Type 7 plastic, such as acrylic, fiberglass, nylon and other plastic polymers are most difficult to recycle.
The plastic types 3 to 6 (PVC-3, LDPE-4, PP-5, PS-6) are recycled but need more energy and as result are incinerated and found on the landfill.
Plastic recycling process
- Plastic types cannot be mixed and recycled, therefor the recycling starts, after collection, with near infrared separating the plastics types.
- After separation, plastic are mechanically cleaned and broken in snippets.
- Thereafter the plastic snippets heated of and pressure molded in a shape.
Recycling plastic bottles are mostly not turned into more plastic bottles, but into products with lower demanding characteristics, so called down cycling. For example the degradation in the material makes LDPE useful in other applications, such as treating carpet or manufacturing clothing.
Plastic ocean pollution – environmental impact
Ocean life suffers the most from plastic pollution, the harmful effects of plastic on aquatic life are devastating, and accelerating. Sea birds and larger marine creatures like turtles, dolphins and seals, mistaking plastic for food and suffocate as a result.
Turtles cannot distinguish between plastic bags and jellyfish, which can be part of their diet. Plastic bags, once consumed, cause internal blockages and usually result in death.
The ocean is a our life line and the future effect of plastic litter to humans are unknown. Plastic waste affects the ocean life in two ways:
- Suffocation and ingestion cause death in larger birds, fish, turtles and mammals. Some 267 species have been adversely affected by plastic marine debris.
- As the plastic breaks down in small particles the plastic is ingested by smaller and smaller creatures and bio accumulates in greater and greater concentrations up the food chain—with humans at the top.
Bio accumulation is plastic’s propensity to act as a magnet and sponge for persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticide DDT. So, in addition to ingesting the physically and chemically damaging plastic compounds, aquatic life is also ingesting concentrated quantities of highly bio accumulative compounds that are some of the most potent toxins found on the planet.
The cost of keeping plastic bag waste out of waterways and the ocean.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Californians pay $11 per capita each year to keep plastic bags from ending up in oceans as marine pollution.
The cost of cleaning the ocean and financial loss for fishing industry,
The cost of cleaning the ocean and financial loss for the fishing industry is estimated at 12 billion dollar. That is a lot of money but compared with other disasters very little.
Stop Single use plastics
Four billion plastic bottles…drinks bottles are one the most common types of plastic waste in the ocean. Some 480bn plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 – that’s a million bottles per minute. Of these, 110bn were made by soft drink giant Coca Cola.
Just say no to plastic bottles.
Plastic and the Environment
These amounts of plastic obviously have a great environmental impact when it is trashed. Many websites inform you about the plastic waste impacts on the environment. But before listing these environmental atrocities, it is good to think for a moment if we can replace plastic with other products. And if we can, have these materials other but similar negative effects on the environment?
The reason BarcelonaSail organizes free plastic fishing events is because we found an embarrassing amount of plastic pollution during sailing in Barcelona. It is clear that the majority of this plastic waste is locally generated, flushed and blown into the Mediterranean.
It is disgrace that Spain is not able to reduce the amount of trash that is left on the beach every day. This can be done easily through policing and ticketing, ask the people in Singapore. At this moment we, BarcelonaSail, Zero waste Barcelona, Surfriders Barcelona, and many other beach cleaning organizations, remove plastic pollution from others because Spain is too lazy to enforce normal behavior.
I do not know if we can replace plastic with better more environmentally friendly materials, but I do know that we can change our behavior. Single use plastic, bottles, cups, straws, plastic bags, food packaging can all easily be eliminated and replaced with more durable materials. It is therefor disturbing to read that a magazine like The Economist still promotes the benefits of single-use plastic bags in two recent articles this year. The same people that use their leather bag for a lifetime to work, find it difficult to use a cotton bag for 3 months.
The biggest problem with plastic is that it is so cheap that we only use it once and then dispose of it. Plastic used in construction, in a situation where it has a long lasting function seems to me a good alternative.
How to reduce plastic ocean pollution:
1.) Just bring your own multi use drink bottle instead of buying single use plastic water bottles all the time.
2.) Separate your plastic and dispose of it in the plastic trash containers.
3.) Start a hype to make it cool to walk with your own water bottle.
4.) Try to avoid plastic packed food. In general it is less fresh that unpacked food.
5.) Use a cotton or bag pack when shopping.
6.) Drink soft drinks out of aluminum instead of plastic bottles.
7.) come to our plastic fishing awareness events.
Alternatives for plastic
Are there economic alternatives for all plastics at this moment? No. Plastic has replaced, wood, metal, aluminum and glass because is light, strong, and affordable. Many products we consume, clothing, watches, phones, shoes, are affordable because plastic is very economical.
We overuse and depose plastic too easy. Most single use plastics can easily be replaced with more durable solutions.
What about Bio-degradable plastic?
“We cannot make all the plastic, bio based and bio degradable”.
The term “Biodegradable plastic” is extremely misleading because biodegradable plastic is an unprotected label that you can stick on all plastics. Biodegradable plastics are often made from crude oil.
The name Compostable plastics give the feeling buying the good plastics. The promise of compostable plastic is the same as that of Marlboro light promise, but in reality they just do not solve the problem it states it does.
Most, if not all, compostable plastics contain elements classified as typical contaminating heavy metals.
Bio based plastics (compostable plastics are partially biobased) are made from renewable bio-based feedstock. In other words bio based plastics are made from food. Not all the feedstock is eatable for humans, but certainly for animals.
In case all the forcasted 500 million ton of plastic was biobased produced, the same amount of feedstock (food) is required. That is the equivalent of 125 pounds per person per year. About 50% of what you eat in a year.