Understanding Plastic: The Issues
Updated: Mar 1
Part 3 our Understanding Plastic series highlights some of the growing issues that our society faces when it comes to plastic and its associated waste.
Part 3 of 4: THE BAD.
Though plastic can serve many purposes in our daily life, its disposal and waste has been a worsening issue. With the increase of single-use items and new plastics on the rise, there are some negative aspects of plastic we should all be aware of:
Disposal: As briefly discussed in Part 1 of our Understanding Plastics series, plastic is not the easiest to dispose of. As plastic does not occur naturally in our environment, it means we have to dispose of the material using a process as it will not decompose properly all on its own. Plastics can be disposed of through the following methods:
Reuse - Once rinsed or cleaned, plastic items can be used repeatedly in your daily routine. Cream cheese or peanut butter jars, for example, make great tupperware!
Recycle - Some plastics can be processed and turned into new materials using various forms of technology. Recycling lessens the amount of raw material needed to create new items, but it does require the use of energy.
Incineration - Material is burned, and the energy released during the combustion process is captured for use. (Typically it is cycled back into a plant to power portions of the incineration process, but it can also be used for other applications like providing heating/electricity to houses.)
Landfill - Plastics that are not reused, recycled nor incinerated will be sent to a landfill amongst other garbage to break down.
In a landfill, plastic can take upwards of 450 years to degrade, meaning every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists today in some form.
Biodegradable Plastics: To start, it is important to explain the difference between the terms biodegradable and compostable. If something is compostable, it means that it will eventually degrade into naturally occurring elements. Plants, food waste, bamboo - these are examples of compostable materials. If a product is biodegradable, it means that it can degrade more readily than manmade materials, but does not breakdown fully. Instead, biodegradable materials and biodegradable plastics only degrade into smaller pieces.
The term "biodegradable" is a tricky thing to avoid as it is often used in an effort to greenwash consumers to make a product seem more sustainable than it really is. Other times, "biodegradable" may be used to describe something that is actually fully compostable, but those creating the advertising are unaware of the significant difference the two meanings actually have.
Tip: Look for items that are certified compostable - they will have a designated Composting Symbol. Also be sure to check with your local waste provider to learn what items they accept.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are an exciting technology being developed, but there is definitely improvements to be done for their disposal. There is potential for these materials to replace daily plastic like packaging, but more research is required to improve these products.
Microplastics: You may have heard the term "microplastics" in the news or media recently and thought, okay, small plastics. But just how small are they really? Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic that is less than 5 millimetres in diameter, and have been found to be as small as nano particles.
Experts believe that the naked eye — unaided by tools — can see objects as small as 0.1 millimetres. This means there are microplastics up to 100,000x smaller than we can see with the human eye!
Microplastics can be categorized further:
Primary - Primary microplastics are those created for a specific purpose, meaning they were manufactured intentionally. Plastic pellets and the abrasives found in cosmetic products are a few examples.
Secondary - Secondary microplastics are those that form due to the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastic items.
The difference between primary and secondary microplastics is an important distinction as it can be used for reduction targets, and to determine sources of pollution.
Pollution: Disposal, misconceptions about plastic, as well as microplastics can all be major contributing factors to pollution.
Misconception - Lack of awareness or confusion around plastic can lead to contamination within the various waste streams, meaning plastics are not meeting their diversion potential.
Microplastics - Their extremely small size causes them to slip through drains into our water systems, enter bodies of water, and allow them to be ingested by animals as well as humans.
Lightweight - Plastic's lightweight can also lead to land and water pollution as these items are picked up by wind readily, spreading as litter across our ecosystems.
Single- Use Items - Convenience tends to be a selling feature, which is why single-use items are so successful. These products are used once and then disposed of, which is incredibly wasteful.
It's time to change our mindset from convenience to consciousness! Stay tuned for Part 4, the final blog of this series, to learn more about how these issues can be mitigated and improved!
Information for this blog was sourced from the lecture notes and readings of Dr. Mohammad Arjmand, a Polymer Engineer and Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Additional information was sourced from GESAMP (Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine environmental Protection).