Oceans of Plastic


―Manufacturing plastics requires the use of non-renewable resources. All plastics are derived from organic products and none are energy-efficient to produce. 

Synthesizing too much plastic from petroleum or gas is a waste of non-renewable natural resources. Nowadays, 8% of the global oil production is devoted to the making of so-called conventional plastics: 4% as feedstock and 4% during manufacture. As an example, producing a 1L plastic water bottle requires about a quarter of a liter of oil.

That plastics can now be made from a wide range of renewable feedstocks (corn, sugarcane, soy, canola, etc.) does not change anything. Bioplastics still consume fossil fuels for their making and oftencontain petroleum. Most importantly, they are problematic on a large scale because they take up agricultural land. The yet small production of bioplastics (see chart below) already competes with food crops for arable plots, which means we are clearing woodland to grow plastic, literally. Like with other intensive crop farming, fertilizers and pesticides are used to grow bioplastic feedstock which also poses a long-term threat to the environment.

Neither conventional platics nor bioplastics are sustainable to produce and reducing global plastic production to what is strictly necessary is therefore the only green solution.

―Biodegradable plastics rarely prevent plastic pollution. Only bioplastics, not conventional ones, can be engineered to biodegrade but in practice few of them are. Even if all did, they only represent a slight share of less than 1 million annual tons in the current global plastic production of 300 million annual tons.

If not all bioplastics are biodegradable, it is because the property to biodegrade depends on the molecular structure of a product rather than the nature of its source material (see chart below). Biodegradable bioplastics can be designed to biodegrade under varied yet specific environmental conditions (soil, freshwater, compost, oxygen, light, heat, etc.) and are labelled accordingly by independent organizations like Vincotte in Europe and the Biodegradable Products Institute in the United States (see labels below).

As a result, biodegradable bioplastics can only biodegrade if the right conditions are met, which is rarely the case in practice because adequate structures to manage them once they have become waste are often lacking. Sadly, technology is well ahead of national waste management policies. Compostable bioplastics for instance would require to be collected separately from other plastics to be sent to industrial composting facilities, but such facilities are rare. Selective garbage collection is generally not selective enough at the source to satisfy specific biodegradability conditions. Therefore, many biodegradable bioplastics are indiscriminately tossed into sealed-off landfills where they will never biodegrade.

Vincotte certification - OK Biodegradable-SOIL

Vincotte 2015 Marine biodegradable label

The same problem occurs when such plastics end up in nature. Bioplastics that do not possess the property to biodegrade in seawater for example will indeed linger in the oceans like any other plastics. Very few plastics currently meet the standards of biodegradation in the marine environment defined by the international standards organization ASTM (D7081 standard), e.g. Vincotte’s “Marine OK biodegradable” label. Until more bioplastics meet this standard, those discarded at sea will harm marine ecosystems the same as non-biodegradable plastics. This is why some people have called biodegradable plastics a myth.

BPI Compostable Label

Compostable label by the Biodegradable Products Institute

Furthermore, biodegradable means that “degradation results from naturally-occurring microorganisms (bacteria, fungi or algae) but makes no guarantee that the degradation products are non-toxic or make good compost” (source: Algalita), only compostable does. Therefore, compostable is the only form of biodegradation 100% safe for the environment because it leaves no toxic residue.

―Plastic waste management is overall uneffective and this situation won’t change overnight. Plastic pollution results from improperly managed plastic waste runoff. Past experience shows that most states have been dragging their feet or unable to comply with responsible and sustainable waste management practices for complex, often systemic reasons, including:

  • institutional complexity, e.g. multi-level governments like in the European Union (EU), bureaucracy;
  • market and industry constraints, e.g. strong lobby by plastic and packaging manufacturers who promote single-use products over reusables, refillable vs. disposable bottles (see Part 4 for more details), conflict between environmental protection and free trade;
  • lack of economic incentive, e.g. why recycle when landfill disposal is the cheapest option?
  • ignorance of the potential socio-economic benefits of a shift;
  • lack of interest;
  • lack of resources to develop adequate waste treatment structures;
  • criminal activities obstructing implementation;
  • corruption.

According to the European Environmental Bureau several of these obstacles exists within the EU.

However, beyond these various causes of inaction, there is fundamentally one reason why all states are struggling with recycling, and that is simply the unprecedented amount of waste.

By allowing a system ruled almost exclusively by overproduction and overconsumption, all states are indeed failing the first level of the waste hierarchy—the waste reduction level. In this abberational system, we are conditioned to consume far more than we need and constantly throw away disgraceful quantities of products as a result, which creates overwhelming quantities of plastic trash to manage. Of course, this remark goes for other waste streams, especially food.

Without a change of paradigm, we will keep endlessly buying and discarding, thereby sending tons of plastics to landfills and polluting terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems worldwide. Only a small fraction of this plastic waste will be recycled for the reasons stated above, when most of it should never have been produced at all. The vicious cycle really is too obvious to be missed.

Part 1 I Part 2 I Part 3 I Part 4 (coming soon)

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