Many of us are guilty of ordering take-out food and buying plastic-bottled water too often.
In fact, you may even be munching on your lunch with plastic utensils at this very moment!
Not judging, but have you ever thought of how those one-timed tools affect the environment?
Now more than ever, the issue of plastic pollution has come under the spotlight of global concern. It started with a bang, with the Chinese government banning most of the plastic waste imports from developed countries, namely the US, UK, and the majority of Europe (1,2).
The ripples travel far- soon enough, several developing countries that took in the rejected wastes, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, followed China’s footsteps.
The rejections from these nations left most exporting countries, including the Czech Republic, shocked, as trash is now piling up in their backyards (3).
A large amount of plastic waste is sent back by imposing countries (photo by pasja1000 from Pixabay)
A jaw-dropping act indeed, but it is understandable for these developing countries to take such drastic action.
Although profitable, the plastic waste recycling and disposal business have been very hazardous to the environment.
Plastic waste crisis: we reap what we sow
Over 50% of plastic produced annually are “single-use plastic,” such as takeout containers and utensils, as well as shopping bags and package wrappers (4).
Invented at the end of the 19th century, plastic was once praised as the “miracle material”- they are easy to manufacture and cheap to buy, with no guilt in dunking them in the bin after only one-time use! Therefore, we over-indulge in the “Throwaway Life”- of all plastic products produced since the 1950s, and over 75% of these products quickly ended up as trash (5).
Such a convenience lifestyle has been a blessing to many in the developed world, and it has conversely put a strain on our environment.
For some of us who have been conscientiously recycling their rubbish, the following fact may seem especially horrible- just under 10% of plastic waste can be recycled. The rest of them, although put into the recycling bin, are mostly left to landfills or burned on fields and beaches in more impoverished countries (6).
Children in Bangladesh picking up recyclable plastic (photo by Francisco Magallon, from Wikimedia)
Since most plastics are non-biodegradable, it can take them up to 1000 years to completely decompose!
To make matters worse, toxins and microplastic (plastic particles smaller than 5mm) are released during the decomposition, seeping into surrounding soil and groundwater, thus endangering the soil, animals, livestock, and us eventually (7,8).
Besides lands, our oceans have also been heavily contaminated.
Marine animals are choking on plastic at this point: seabirds are getting sick from mistakenly eating plastics, and sea turtles and seals are trapped and killed by trash such as fishing nets and six-pack rings (9,10).
However, this affects not only the wildlife: when our seafood is fed microplastics on a regular base, guess who eventually consumes all of that plastic? We do (8).
Seal trapped in plastic waste (photo by Nels Israelson, from Flickr)
Perhaps, incineration is the most dangerous out of all disposal methods. The toxic chemicals released into the air, such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, have been proven to raise the risks of asthma and cancers (11).
Out with the old, in with the new
Plastic straws VS reusable stainless straws (photo from Quote Catalog)
As the clock ticks down, this “Plastic Pollution Crisis” is getting increasingly threatening, and nations worldwide have been implementing policies for counteraction.
At the beginning of 2018, EU members agree to aim at reaching over 50% of the plastic recycling rate by 2030 (3) ; and the UN made it official that consent must be given before plastic wastes are dumped in less developed countries (12).
However, as much as we can all try to use less plastic, we also have to admit that single-use plastic has become a necessity of the modern lifestyle.
Plastic products contribute to our modern fast-paced lifestyle, which is both desirable and unavoidable.
Therefore, instead of solely reducing the amount of plastic consumed, scientists agree that it is time to also look into the potentials of possible alternative materials.
Since plastic is problematic mainly because it is non-biodegradable, all eyes turn to biodegradable plastic, made from nature-found substances (13).
Lucky for us, mother nature is packed with these materials. Some of them are in use already!
Who knows what we eat can also be used as tools?
Bioplastic means plant-based plastic. They are often made from waste or by-products of agriculture, such as corn, corn oil, and orange peels. When broken down by natural bacteria, these vegetables turn into polylactic acid (PLA), which is then manufactured into drink bottles and food-grade containers.
Innocent, for example, is one of several companies that have adapted bottles partially made with bioplastic (14,15).
Besides keeping us healthy, the protein in milk called casein had been used to make plastic long before.
But since the products are less sturdy compared to modern-day plastic, casein-based plastics have fallen out of favor.
That is until researchers started to mix casein with clay and glyceraldehyde, giving the plastic a stronger structure, while remaining environmentally friendly (15).
Milk is good for both our health and our environment (photo from Pexels)
If you want eco-friendly plastic, what better way than to grow them straight from the earth?
Ecovative Design demonstrates that mushroom roots, AKA mycelium, can be grown if given agricultural wastes as fuels (e.g., rice hulls and wheat chaff).
This results in a foam that can be built into plastic packaging (15,16).
Start-up company Evoware is known for its sandwich wraps and soap packaging made out of seaweed.
The packaging is not only dissolvable but also edible, thus reducing waste mass to a total of zero (17,18).
Seaweed can be made into an edible package (photo by Andrew Buchanan)
The businesses for eco-friendly materials are booming.
But that alone will not be enough to turn the tide, which is the current trajectory for the fate of the earth.
Before we ultimately turn this planet, that is our home, into an enormous lump of plastic, the urgency of the issue needs to be registered in all our minds.
And most importantly, we as a species need to re-learn how to use sustainably.
Written by Sophia Man
Edited and reviewed by Somsuvro Basu and Markus Dettenhofer