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.
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World leaders and businesses are not putting enough money into adapting to dangerous changes in the climate and must "urgently step up action," according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Adaptation Has a Long Way to Go<p>The Adaptation Gap Report, now in its 5th year, finds "huge gaps" between what world leaders agreed to do under the 2015 <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-years-paris-climate-agreement/a-55901139" target="_blank">Paris Agreement</a> and what they need to do to keep their citizens safe from climate change.</p><p>A review by the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative of almost 1,700 examples of climate adaptation found that a third were in the early stages of implementation — and only 3% had reached the point of reducing risks.</p><p>Disasters like storms and droughts have grown stronger than they should be because people have warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. The world has heated by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to warm by about 3°C by the end of the century.</p><p>If world leaders <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-performance-index-how-far-have-we-come/a-55846406" target="_blank">deliver on recent pledges</a> to bring emissions to <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/joe-bidens-climate-pledges-are-they-realistic/a-56173821" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">net-zero</a> by the middle of the century, they could almost limit warming to 2°C. The target of the Paris Agreement, however, is to reach a target well below that — ideally 1.5°C. </p><p>There are two ways, scientists say, to lessen the pain that warming will bring: mitigating climate change by cutting carbon pollution and adapting to the hotter, less stable world it brings.</p>
The Cost of Climate Adaptation<p>About three-quarters of the world's countries have national plans to adapt to climate change, according to the report, but most lack the regulations, incentives and funding to make them work.</p><p>More than a decade ago, rich countries most responsible for climate change pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poorer countries. UNEP says it is "impossible to answer" whether that goal has been met, while an OECD study published in November found that between 2013 and 2018, the target sum had not once been achieved. Even in 2018, which recorded the highest level of contributions, rich countries were still $20 billion short.</p><p>The yearly adaptation costs for developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion. This figure is expected to at least double by the end of the decade as temperatures rise, and will hit $280-500 billion by 2050, according to the report.</p><p>But failing to adapt is even more expensive.</p><p>When powerful storms like cyclones Fani and Bulbul struck South Asia, early-warning systems allowed governments to move millions of people out of danger at short notice. Storms of similar strength that have hit East Africa, like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/zimbabwe-after-cyclone-idai-building-climate-friendly-practices/a-54251885" target="_blank">cyclones Idai</a> and Kenneth, have proved more deadly because fewer people were evacuated before disaster struck.</p><p>The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment in early warning systems, buildings, agriculture, mangroves and water resources could reap $7.1 trillion in benefits from economic activity and avoided costs when disasters strike.</p>
Exploring Nature-Based Solutions<p>The report also highlights how restoring nature can protect people from climate change while benefiting local communities and ecology.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-fires-risk-climate-change-bushfires-australia-california-extreme-weather-firefighters/a-54817927" target="_blank">Wildfires</a>, for instance, could be made less punishing by restoring grasslands and regularly burning the land in controlled settings. Indigenous communities from Australia to Canada have done this for millennia in a way that encourages plant growth while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Reforestation, meanwhile, can stop soil erosion and flooding during heavy rainfall while trapping carbon and protecting wildlife.</p><p>In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, governments could better protect coastal homes from floods and storms by restoring <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mudflats-mangroves-and-marshes-the-great-coastal-protectors/a-50628747" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mangroves</a> — tangled trees that grow in tropical swamps. As well as anchoring sediments and absorbing the crash of waves, mangroves can store carbon, help fish populations grow and boost local economies through tourism. </p><p>While nature-based solutions are often cheaper than building hard infrastructure, their funding makes up a "tiny fraction" of adaptation finance, the report authors wrote. An analysis of four global climate funds that spent $94 billion on adaptation projects found that just $12 billion went to nature-based solutions and little of this was spent implementing projects on the ground.</p><p>But little is known about their long-term effectiveness. At higher temperatures, the effects of climate change may be so great that they overwhelm natural defenses like mangroves.</p><p>By 2050, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/rising-sea-levels-should-we-let-the-ocean-in-a-50704953/a-50704953" target="_blank">coastal floods</a> that used to hit once a century will strike many cities every year, according to a 2019 report on oceans by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on climate science. This could force dense cities on low-lying coasts to build higher sea walls, like in Indonesia and South Korea, or evacuate entire communities from sinking islands, like in Fiji.</p><p>It's not a case of replacing infrastructure, said Matthias Garschagen, a geographer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and IPCC author, who was not involved in the UNEP report. "The case for nature-based solutions is often misinterpreted as a battle... but they're part of a toolkit that we've ignored for too long."</p>
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