Plastic in the ocean for years to come
In 2020, 3 million people work in the plastic industry producing 400 million ton of plastic with a global turnover of 1500 billion US$. Plastic recycling infrastructure investments are close to zero therefore, plastic in the ocean will only increase.
Plastic production is energy intensive, almost 10% of the total yearly oil production is consumed for plastics. Plastic contributes significantly to the global warming and CO2.
It is estimated that plastic killed 1 million jobs, because plastic replaced materials such as glass, wood, metal, paper, and aluminum.
Roughly 40% of all the plastic produced is for single use, that means 160 million ton of plastic is produced to be thrown away after it have been used once. About 4% of the world’s oil energy is consumed for a product that is used only once, staggering.
Best solution at this moment
Step 1: The best plastic solution at this moment is to reduce your plastic consumption! Get aware of the amount of plastic you consume and try to reduce that. Buy multi use mugs, water bottles and bags!
Step2: Become aware and share knowledge about the plastic ocean pollution. Play the plastic game with others at sea or at the office. Playfully become aware how to reduce plastic at home and at the work place.
Step 3: Next use reusable containers when shopping. Avoid buying produce in plastic.
Good plastics are not that good
Oil based plastics are considered the bad plastics because:
- Oil is not a renewable product, because there is only so much oil in the ground.
- Burning oil is bad for the environment creating global warming and increasing CO2 levels.
Bio-based or compostable plastics are considered the “good” plastics because:
- Bio-based plastic is made from renewable bio-based feedstock. Renewable because plants that you use for production grow back again.
- It is an all-natural product that disappears in nature.
What is conveniently omitted is that bio-based feedstock is our food. Bio based feedstock are corn, glucose, wood, plants etc. Basically, feedstock is the stuff that feeds all living beings, animals and humans.
So, the more bio-based plastic, the less food there is. Soon you can buy the plastic packaging without the food. At this moment less than 1% of plastics is produced with biobased feedstock.
We are told that Biobased plastics (another word for compostable plastics) are the solution to our plastic ocean pollution. Because biobased and compostable plastics will decompose and magically disappear overnight.
The 3 Bio-based compostable plastics problems:
- Most bio based compostable plastics do not really decay in nature fast. Give or take 5 years in the oceans. Enough to be eaten by krill, fish, birds, turtles and be absorbed into our body. Yes, we have plastics in your body and increasing. The plastic concentration in water increases year over year. So why are we told bio based plastic decays very fast and in reality is does not? That has to do with the definition of composting:
- The dictionary explains Composting as the process of organic substances decomposing (rot) naturally under oxygen-rich conditions.
- In the plastic age the term Composting means: “Enhanced biodegradation under managed conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and microorganisms present.
“It is clearly not the same composting process and the biobased compostable plastics do not really rot as well and as naturally as we are told they do.”
- Biobased plastics compete with food, for land, energy and water. There is only so much land, energy and water available. If the today all the 400-million-ton plastic is produced with bio-feedstock, then there would be 30% less food available. Food prices would double or triple. Poor countries could not afford to buy food because the land is used for plastic feedstock.*
- Many biobased compostable (degradable) plastics include additives, designed to make the product less durable. At the moment, the various additives and fillers are leading to contamination of waste streams.
*A simple calculation 400 million ton is 800 billion pounds. In order to create 800 billion pounds of plastic at least 800 billion pound of feedstock is required. I you make a 2-pound cake, you need at least 2 pounds of ingredients. There are almost 8 billion people on this world, that is 100 pounds per person per year.
Single Plastic Economics
If all single use plastic is derived from bio based compostable plastics than about 15% of all world food supply is eaten by plastic. It is beyond imagination that the very plastic we use once, such as your plastic water bottle, our plastic takeaway coffee cup, the plastic cutlery, is taking 15% percent of the world’s food resources.
Now for those who do not care about the environment and others, fair enough, you have no time and cannot afford living without plastic, think about the financial impact plastic has on your live.
On September 15, 2019 three drones hit the world’s largest oil refinery in Saudi Arabia. As a result, oil prices spiked by 10%. Oil price is nothing else than a tax on products. Because all materials are indirectly made of oil. Oil goes up, food prices go up. Oil goes down, transportation get cheaper.
An increase production of oil-based plastics put pressure on the oil demand and the oil price goes up. Let’s say loosely that because of plastic you pay 5% more on all you purchase.
Soon plastics will be consuming 20% of the global oil production, what do you think that does with the oil price and all it derived products?
Plastic recycling not ready to reduce plastic in the ocean
Plastic recycling is the is the process of recovering plastic waste into useful products. Each time plastic is recycled, additional virgin materials must be added to help improve the integrity of the material.
Plastic recycling is a nightmare because:
- Most plastics products are built out of different plastic layers, that require different recycling techniques. So that plastic cannot be recycled. Most plastics could be recycled if it came in pure and consistent form. The problem is that you have chunks, foils, foam, composites of all varieties and various additives to alter its properties. A consumer cannot be asked to split his waste streams and his consumed products into hundreds of parts. At the same time, the plastic stream becomes almost inseparable. Besides this, you need to develop a recycling method for almost every single product nowadays. That is impossible to do financially and impossible to do it in a sensible way.
- Black plastics (black plastic food boxes for example) cannot be recognized by the infrared lasers and need manually sorted.
- Plastic is so cheap we don’t care for it, and there for finds its way in the nature.
- Discovering which plastic is suitable is a labor intense activity and therefore we the West don’t want to do it. We prefer sending our plastic waste oversees.
How this the plastic recycle market operate?
Let’s say a company in Indonesia purchases plastic waste on the https://www.plasticsmarkets.org/ . This is an online global plastic-recycle-market. The plastic providers come from Europe and the United States the buyers are in Asia, Africa and Turkey.
There are regulations on the plastic content, in terms of how clean, quality and how homogeneous it must be, and the plastic scrap must be nicely balled on pallets 120 by 60 cm. Today on 19 September 2019 the government of Indonesia refused 500 containers with plastic scrap that did not comply.
For companies in third world countries buying used plastic for recycling is very beneficial, because the plastic almost arrives for free, and the value of the recycled plastic bottles is relatively high. That means it is too cheap for western standards to process, it is not a viable business, but very interesting I other countries given the much lower wages there.
Upon arrival in Indonesia the buyer hand picks the best, most value plastics, and discards of the rest. There is no infrastructure to deal with the plastic scrap and it finds its way via rivers into the ocean. The local government and the local people in Indonesia are paying for this way of “recycling”. Their beaches destroyed, tourism down, and fish gone.
Sending used plastic to third world countries for “recycling” is counted as recycling in the European statistics.
There is so much plastic, the demand low, therefor the value of recycled plastic is very low. It is not economical viable for western countries to transport, sort and recycling. As a result, there is insufficient infrastructure to properly recycle plastic in Europe. We prefer to sell it oversees, burn it or landfill it.
Biobased compostable plastics are designed to solve the recycling problem but in real life create more problems than they solve.
- Bio based plastic consumes feedstock meant for food.
- Bio based plastic doesn’t compost in real life situations
- Bio based plastic include toxic additives, colorants for example.
What are sensible solutions to reduce plastic in the ocean?
As we stated before reduce you plastic consumption! Get aware of the amount of plastic you consume and try to reduce that. Buy multi use mugs, water bottles and bags! It is that simple.
For recycling to kick off the industry must focus on a set of rules and codes that would reduce the massive diversity in plastic products. Minimum plastic thickness, uniform layers, limited colorants, reduce composites. This will greatly improve the recycling cycle.
Governments must enter the economics of plastics setting a framework and legislation. For example, tax cheaper petroleum plastics more than bio-based plant-based plastics, or paper and glass alternatives. can be used for food sales. Thick glass was re-used for decades and it does require twice the work but both consumers and government can get involved to support more re-used glass, creating more jobs.
Maybe edible plastic is a solution. Edible plastics are plastics made from various natural products such as milk, beans and algae. The product apples for example are drowned into a bath of edible plastic liquid. The consumer purchases the apple and eats the hardly visible plastic layer.
Obviously the since you eat that apple with plastic it needs another plastic cover to protect the plasticized apple for dust, etc. More information on edible plastic here: https://www.instructables.com/id/Edible-Plastic-Pouches/