The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Our Complicated Relationship With Plastic: 5 Essential Reads
By Martin LaMonica
From its arrival decades ago, plastic has transformed modern life. But in 2018, the alarm over the plastic pollution crisis sounded louder than ever. On Earth Day, the United Nations issued its first State of Plastics report, calling for more recycling and better ways to manufacture and manage the material in its many forms.
At The Conversation, we took a broad view of plastic, working with scholars to explain not only the environmental and health effects but also its cultural contribution and the industries that handle plastic goods—and waste.
1. We Are Guinea Pigs
People now regularly hear reports of sea animals discovered with stomachs full of human-discarded plastic. But much of the plastic pollution in the oceans is microplastics—many times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Environmental epidemiologist John Meeker from the University of Michigan writes that the health effects of these microplastics, which are also found in many consumer products, are largely unknown. He walks through what scientists do know and notes that "given that human exposure to microplastics is widespread, results from animal studies are certainly a cause for concern and an important factor for risk assessment."
2. Rivers and Lakes
Many people probably know about the great Pacific garbage patch, a massive accumulation of trash between Hawaii and California. But plastics are accumulating in lakes and rivers as well, write Matthew J. Hoffman and Christy Tyler from Rochester Institute of Technology. They describe their research that uses computer models to measure how much is piling up in the Great Lakes (about 10,000 tons per year) and to predict where it will go.
They found that because of winds, plastics do not accumulate in a giant patch as they do in the Pacific Ocean, but that introduces the question: Where is it going? "If we can accurately track different types of plastic pollution after they enter the water," they write, "we can focus on the types that end up in sensitive habitats and predict their ultimate fate." Their study found that much of it sinks to the bottom, which sheds light on what species are being affected.
3. Better Materials?
Are plant-based plastics the answer to the plastic trash problem? Biochemist Danny Ducat from Michigan State says it's not that simple. He describes the different types of bio-plastics and how recycling systems will need to change to handle plant-based plastics.
"Bio-based plastics will still languish for decades or centuries if they are thrown in the trash and buried in landfills … By contrast, compostable plastics are largely degraded within three months inside industrial compost facilities, where conditions are managed to promote aeration and temperatures are often substantially higher because of all of the microbial activity," Ducat writes.
4. The Impact of China's 'National Sword' Policy
About 75 percent of the plastics discarded in the U.S. end up in landfills. And in 2018, China threw the plastic recycling industry in disarray by sharply cutting the amount of foreign scrap material it would accept.
This has resulted in stockpiles of unrecycled trash and left municipalities considering changes to their recycling practices. University of California, Berkeley researcher Kate O'Neill sees China's rejection of our contaminated trash as an opportunity to innovate.
"Critiques of recycling are not new, and critiques of recycling plastic are many, but I still believe it makes sense to expand, not abandon, the system. This will require large-scale investment and, in the long term, implementing upstream policies, including product bans," O'Neill writes.
5. In the Hands of Designers
Certainly, there's no shortage of things to worry about when it comes to plastic. But let's also consider some of many conveniences this wonder material has brought.
Marsha Bryant from the University of Florida teaches a course in Tupperware products and their emergence in 1950s America and writes about how it demonstrates "how a compelling, innovative design can have mass appeal." And Kiersten Muenchinger from the University of Oregon tells the story of how silicone—originally conceived as an insulating material—has transformed our kitchens over the past two decades.
Martin LaMonica is the deputy editor of The Conversation.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
- How the Disposable Straw Explains Modern Capitalism - The Atlantic ›
- We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us? ›
- A Brief History of Plastic | The Brooklyn Rail ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The federal government is looking into the details from the longest running oil spill in U.S. history, and it's looking far worse than the oil rig owner let on, as The New York Times reported.
By Tara Lohan
When armed militants with a grudge against the federal government seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon back in the winter of 2016, I remember avoiding the news coverage. Part of me wanted to know what was happening, but each report I read — as the occupation stretched from days to weeks and the destruction grew — made me so angry it was hard to keep reading.
A searing heat wave has begun to spread across Europe, with Germany, France and Belgium experiencing extreme temperatures that are set to continue in the coming days.
In the 1980s, a Greenlandic subsistence hunter shot and killed a whale with bizarre features unlike any he had ever seen before. He knew something was unique about it, so he left its abnormally large skull on top of his toolshed where it rested until a visiting professor happened upon it a few years later.
A UN expert painted a bleak picture Tuesday of how the climate crisis could impact global inequality and human rights, leading to a "climate apartheid" in which the rich pay to flee the consequences while the rest are left behind.