The immortal plastic

Maria Isabel Garcia

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Why does plastic take so long to decompose when it is also made from fossil fuels which in turn come from once living organisms?

Since plastic is practically immortal, we are pretty much bound to it for countless generations – for at least 18 generations, depending on the kind of plastic. And if we could be defined by our own attachments, we are now more plastic than wise – more Homo plasticus and less sapiens.

Plastic has entered our lives starting in the 50’s so most of us alive today have been born to a world where plastic is an ingredient of our existence. A recent study on plastic consumption dumped the heavy load of facts on us: in 2015, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been manufactured since the 50s and because they are immortal, ALL of that are still with us. Some (9%) are recycled, some are incinerated (12%) but an overwhelming 79% are either on land or on water. The study also found that we have accelerated our love affair with plastic in the last 13 years because half of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic have only been made since 2002.

But what does 8.3 billion metric tons look like? If the average human (babies and adults) weighed 50 kilos, 8.3 billion metric tons would be the equivalent of about 166 billion people. And since we have about 7 billion people living on Earth now, you can think of about 24 earths inhabited by plastic. That is not an exaggeration. Those are what the facts graphically portray if we made sense of the numbers. And the study predicted that if current trends continue, by 2050, the planet would be pregnant with 12 billon tons of plastic for a very long time.

Plastic wastes that end up in the water have also been studied in a landmark publication last year by the same team. They estimated that given the 192 coastal countries in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean and Black seas, and their plastic use and waste management (a lot of it is mismanagement), there are about 4 to 12 million tons of plastic in the water, in various forms and sizes. By 2025, if this rate continues, we would end up with 155 million tons of plastic in our waters.

Plastic in our waters includes microplastics (less than 5mm or about the size of a sesame seed) from small plastic products or broken up plastic. Microplastic end up being eaten by sea life , thus entering the food chain so that the plastics we once used and easily shunned after a few minutes of use, find their way back to our lives, this time more intimately since they enter or bodies without our knowing. So even if you live in a seemingly pristine gated community, plastic will find you.

The ocean garbage patches are literally just the surface of the ocean plastic problem because microplastic end up at the bottom of the seas and oceans. The researchers lamented that with the average depth of water being 14,000 feet, how will we clean up these depths?

And in the study, the Philippines made it again into the list of notoriety. We rank third (after China and Indonesia) in the list of countries with mismanaged disposal of plastic. We sure figured out a self-destructive way to optimize being an archipelago.  

Why does plastic take so long to decompose when it is also made from fossil fuels which in turn come from once living organisms?

Because we humans have grown so tech savvy that we thought of processes that could turn fossils into things that the great decomposers (bacteria) cannot normally recognize as they would when they degrade things like food. This is the reason why plastic is so reliably durable as well as pesky to get rid of.

The heating process that makes plastic turns fossil fuels into polymers – very tight bonds of carbon molecules that are strangers to the kind of bacteria who have been gladly doing their work of decomposition for eons. “Strangers” because nature does not normally make tight bonds of carbon as it takes a lot of energy to do this and this is not efficient. Nature always chooses efficiency in the way it operates. What nature normally makes, bacteria recognizes and has evolved to breakdown as their way of life. Plastic is not what nature normally makes so it does not have a corresponding pathway to break it down to make it synch to nature’s cycle.

While there are some breakthroughs in the discovery of other kinds of bacteria that could break down plastic, we are extremely careful about breeding this kind of bacteria as it may “eat” other things we could not afford to give it other than plastic, if unleashed as pervasively and routinely as the common decomposer bacteria.  

So what do we do now that we are overwhelmingly a plastic planet? The longest use of plastic is in building and construction and machinery where they stay for 20 to 50 years. Plastics for packaging are the ones we so casually consume – that they end up as waste for as quickly as a few minutes and thus, massively.  

Figure out what else you could do with those packaging materials so that they do not end up so easily in the trash or reuse them so that the demand for new packaging materials is less. There is a universe of things you can do to extend the life of the plastic you use and even transform it to other plastic lives. Google will have them so just get on it and act on it. At the level we have reached in terms of plastic waste, we do not have plastic as containers. It is plastic that has us humans contained. –

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