[Science Solitaire] Plastic: The problem with 'hello' is 'goodbye'
Like everyone else since the pandemic, the world has had to come to me because I could not go to the world in-person to get things or get things done. And when the world comes to my doorstep, even if it is just a tiny non-fragile item, alas, it comes swathed in several kinds of plastic – at least 3 layers of it.
After that two-meter “spaced encounter” between me and the masked courier, the delivery adventure stretches, as I have to always wade through the bubbly, densely built plastic suspense before I finally behold the thing I ordered. This is always the case regardless of the item – canned food, bottled food, plumbing solutions, electrical tape, toilet paper holder. One would think that the amount of packaging should not be the same for everything. I tried contacting the biggest online store to ask them why they were overzealous in plastic packing. I did not get a reply. But I found out later that many online stores mandate this layered plastic standard packaging for all items. (READ: Sachet away: What's lacking in our plastic laws?)
So now, imagine the augmented load of plastic waste from this pandemic on top of the already serious plastic waste problem all over the world.
Before the pandemic, a 2017 study already gave us the picture of the plastic pandemic. Plastic products that have been produced from “scratch” (or “virgin” as it is labeled in scientific literature) are estimated to be at 8,300 million metric tons. As of 5 years ago, we have generated 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste. Of that, 79% are those we often meet in landfills, oceans, and everywhere else in nature. Only 9% of the 6,300 metric tons have been recycled and 12% have been incinerated. Without the pandemic, following this trend, we will have more than double the plastic wastes we have now by 2050.
This means that now, we have about 5,000 metric tons of plastic wastes everywhere they do not belong and by 2050, about 12,000 metric tons in extended places, wrapping nature in larger swaths. To help you visualize, 5,000 metric tons of plastic is about 3,500 cars and 12,000 metric tons is about 8,000 cars. Now, think of that and all the additional plastic waste wrapping bits of the world that were being delivered to your doorstep during quarantine.
We should all worry AND act to solve it. BUT as with the heath crisis now, it would only matter if we get our facts straight about plastic waste. Foremost of which is not all plastic products are the same.
A very recent review of data used for plastic by many institutions, including governments, for dissemination to the public revealed that they vary so widely about the same plastic items. They found 4 major problems in the data:
The lifespan of certain plastic items set by various institutions WILDLY vary (we are not talking about a few-year difference but by order of magnitude). For example, comparable plastic grocery bags are set to degrade by 20 years by institution and by 500 years by another one;
Infographics are usually the preferred format by the public so infographics put out by institutions were also reviewed. Of the 57 information graphics on plastics by reputable and prestigious institutions that the review worked on, none was based on peer-reviewed literature. This is a problem as “peer review” is not an option in the scientific process but a requirement. So while a picture paints a thousand words, those words would have to have a basis in fact detailed in scientific studies.
The lifetime of a plastic product is often found to be set at the same number of years even by different institutions. The review found for example, that a fishing line (made of nylon or similar plastic material) was set by different institutions to have a lifespan of 600 years and these could all traced to only one study which has never been checked by other studies (again, this is essential in science.)
When we say “lifetime” for plastic, we mean the time that it takes for plastic to degrade. The review found that there was no clear and consistent definition of what “plastic degradation” mean which is crucial when you are talking about how long and in what form plastic will linger in nature. To some, “degradation” meant when it becomes micro-plastic (still plastic but just in very tiny pieces) while to others, it was when it splinters into its chemical components (which begins another set of lifetimes of their own) and to some, when it finally turns to carbon dioxide.
The science is clear that we have produced way too much plastic waste. What is not clear is what we know about the different kinds of plastic when they become waste. What we do with the waste to minimize or even eliminate the health risk (both to human and planetary health as this is essentially linked as we have glaringly experienced in this pandemic) depends on the science we do so we get to understand the different lifetimes of plastic products we make.
Different additives we infuse in our plastic products and where they end up also matter because different environments (wet, dry, sunlit, dark, among many other conditions or combinations) react differently to plastic. Plastic also degrades differently in different environments, as has been shown by studies on the effects of sunlight on the degradation of certain plastic items. (READ: The journey of plastics: From production to our bodies)
I think one of the best ways we can solve this is at the source. Any company who makes a plastic product should not just think of where it can be used but also mandated to concurrently, do a study to track the lifetime of that product. And it does not stop there. That study should be reviewed independently by other scientists so we can have a solid basis to know how to live with the plastic world we have built for ourselves. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at email@example.com.