Written by: Natalia Brown

With the rapid spread of sensational images and heart-wrenching video clips capturing the physical impacts of marine debris, most of us have been faced with the reality that plastic is the least favorable material for environmental health and longevity.

This message has spread rapidly, notably following growing concern for the impacts of deforestation driven by demand for paper products.

What makes this conveniently durable, widespread material more harmful than its natural alternatives?

The answer lies in the process– in this case, the plastic life cycle.

To understand the far-reaching impacts of plastics and work towards more sustainable production and consumption, it’s critical to acknowledge the dynamics of the plastic production, distribution, and waste management chain.

What are plastics and where do they come from?

Plastics are a category of synthetic polymers, designed by chemists in search of a strong, lightweight, and flexible material for consumer products. Polymers abound in nature. Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is a very common natural polymer.

Synthetic, man-made polymers may be derived from natural substances like cellulose but are most often made using the plentiful carbon atoms in fossil fuels (aka oil). Such inputs allow for especially long branching in polymerization that optimizes the useful characteristics of plastics.

Since humans learned how to create and manipulate synthetic plastics nearly 150 years ago, plastics have become an essential part of our lives. Most consumer products on the shelves today are made of some plastic polymer if not surrounded by plastic packaging.

Extraction

The first step in creating a plastic product is the extraction of crude oil or natural gas. There are two main methods for such large-scale operations: mining and drilling.

Mining is used to extract solid fossil fuels by digging, scraping, or otherwise exposing buried resources. In the short-term, these large-scale operations often result in the huge volumes of excess rock and soil being dumped into adjacent valleys and streams, altering their ecosystems and water flow. In the long term, coal removal sites are left with poor soil and increased risk for mudslides, landslides, flashfloods, and toxic water pollution in adjacent communities.

A Harvard University study, which assessed the life cycle costs and public health effects of coal from 1997 to 2005, found a link to lung, cardiovascular, and kidney diseases—such as diabetes and hypertension—and an elevated occurrence of low birth rate and preterm births associated with surface mining practices. The total cost? An estimated $74.6 billion every year, equivalent to 4.36 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced—about one-third of the average electricity rate for a typical US home [Source].

The impacts of unconventional extraction methods, such as natural gas hydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking) have received a great deal attention, but all methods of oil and gas extraction carry hidden costs. Environmental effects of fracking include, but are not limited to, methane and toxic aerosol emissions, resource depletion, harmful wastewater contamination, and increased potential for oil spills and earthquakes.

Refinement and Cracking

After fossil fuel extraction, these raw materials are shipped to a refinery. The goals of refinement are to derive the building blocks of plastics; ethane from crude oil and propane from natural gas.

At a cracking plant, ethane and propane are then chemically broken down into ethylene and propylene.

Processing and Manufacturing

Chemical modification of ethylene and polyethylene through catalyzed polymerization produces resins.

Resins are the core ingredient used to produce the durable, flexible plastics we’ve all grown dependent upon. This chemical processing can be carried out in several different ways, leading to a variety of plastic products. That’s what those numbers on the bottom of many plastic products are used to indicate!

Resins are subject to high temperature and pressue, then cooled in order to make pre-production plastic pellets called “nurdles.” These plastic nurdles are the input used by manufacturers to mold and form the plastic products used by consumer arcoss the globe, every day.

For example, polyethylene plastics are used to make supermarket bags and water bottles. Meanwhile, polystyrene is best known in its brittle form marketed as Styrofoam, but the same chemical building blocks are used to create toy figurines and CD cases.

These differences stem from the use of chemical additives that may enhance or suppress qualities to produce the desired result. As a consequence of plastic waste accumulation and fragmentation in our oceans, non-chemically bound plastic additives represent an increasing eco-toxicological risk for marine species and humans [Source].

Distribution and Consumption

Since 1950, approximately 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been produced— 40% of which comes from single-use products such as shopping bags, cutlery, and take-out-ware [Source].

Individuals have the power to change dominance of plastic in the consumer products industry. Although they are superficially versatile and convenient, that sentiment arguably stems from the complacency of following a familiar process. Through our purchasing priorities, we can urge companies to explore the challenge of something different, simply because it may benefit all of us in the long-run.

The first and arguably most impactful change you can make is to reduce your demand of single-use plastics. This can be as simple as opting for the ‘naked’ bell peppers rather than the ones triple wrapped in plastic at the grocery store, keeping a reusable shopping bag in your glove compartment for unplanned purchases, carrying a stainless steel water bottle or travel mug on-the-go, or packing your own homemade lunch instead of ordering take-out in a disposable container. When you must use packaging or single use products, opt for alternatives that are biodegradable (such as plant fiber, wheat straw, or FSC-certified paper) and whenever possible, locally-sourced.

Waste Management

Given all the resources and energy used to produce each plastic product, responsible disposal of any plastics you already own is essential.

Strive to reuse, repurpose, and/or upcycle the plastics you have to fully exhaust their utility before discarding them. This could be as simple as storing sewing supplies in an old hummus container, organizing batteries in an upcycled take-out box, or using a frayed toothbrush to clean hard to reach crevices in your coffee maker or fish tank. Get creative!

In Miami Dade and Broward County, hard plastic narrow-neck bottles may be recycled in municipal single-stream recycling bins. Plastic grocery bags, toothbrushes, clamshell containers and food packaging are only recyclable through third-party entities such as Terracycle or your local grocery store – not in your curbside recycling.

When plastics are separated for recycling, they are transported to a materials recovery facility for sorting and, subsequently, to a reclaiming plant where the material is flaked, washed, and formed into new resin “nurdles” for manufacturing.

This simple action ultimately extends the life of plastic in circulation, conserves energy and resources, and supports transitioning to a more circular economy.

Although it is the best way to dispose of plastics that can no longer be reused, it’s important to understand that recycling is not suitable long-term solution. This logistically challenging and energy intensive process doesn’t reprocess the virgin plastics flawlessly and can be counterproductive by reinforcing plastic consumption.

There’s more— plastics are not infinitely recyclable. Each time the material is flaked and reprocessed into nurdles; it produces a lower quality plastic that will ultimately lose its ability to be recycled.

The threats posed by the entire life-cycle of plastics will best addressed by a combination of (1) increased consumer education motivating reduction in plastic purchases and (2) engagement in the “reuse culture” so that what we do recycle can be used to more significantly supply the decreasing demand for plastics.

Questions about plastic production, responsible waste management, alternatives to the plastic products we’ve all grown dependent upon? Suggestions for future Trash Talk topics? Send them my way natalia@debrisfreeoceans.org!