Water bottles. Milk jugs. That microwavable eggroll from last night. Plastic can be found just about anywhere. While it’s convenient to have and useful for producing a huge variety of objects, it’s not so great for the planet and its inhabitants (yes, that means us, too). Plastic production made it big around 1950 and manufacturing has been growing ever since. The shelf life of plastic, however, is in decline. While many of the older plastics are still in use, items today are geared for convenience and disposal. So, what happens with all that waste?
According to the EPA’s most recent statistics from 2014, out of 258 million tons of garbage, about 13% was plastics. That may not sound like a lot, but that works out to about 335,400 tons of slow-degrading crap. Globally, the numbers are staggering. China’s Yangtze River carries nearly 1.7 tons out to sea. And it’s not out of sight, out of mind.
Degradation of something as seemingly trivial as a plastic bag can take a year in the warm ocean and, depending on the type of plastic and disposal method, hundreds to a thousand years on land. Compound that with market research on packaging provided by Euromonitor showing that growth in PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle manufacturing is expected to increase over the next few years and we have a serious problem.
But … what can we do about it?
Recycling’s a great idea, but recent figures show only a small proportion of people are actually doing it, and the numbers are declining, despite consumption growth. According to a 2017 study, the US only recycles about 9% of plastics, whereas China and Europe recycle 25% and 30% of their plastic waste, respectively.
On top of that, not all plastics are recyclable. Many countries have adopted resin codes – those little triangles with a number inside – to indicate what type of polymer has been used in a plastic, but they don’t necessarily tell you what is recyclable and what isn’t. The truth about recycling is that we aren’t solving a problem, just delaying it.
Now, wait … don’t get me wrong, recycling is something everyone should do, but our planet and wildlife deserve more. The longer lifespan we can give plastic, the less we need to use new (virgin) materials. Companies like Coca Cola have said they intend to increase the amount of recycled PET (rPET) in their UK bottles to 40% by the year 2020. Nestlé is working toward 25% rPET globally, and just announced the release of a 100% rPET bottle for their Pure Life water. PepsiCo’s already brought a 100% rPET soft drink bottle to Canada.
This is all good news. What isn’t good news is what is not being recycled. What do we do with that? A fungus that eats plastic? Robots that skim the ocean? Waste to Energy power plants? Pyrolysis? None of those things, alone, is going to solve the problem.
The hero we need, and deserve
A 2016 study on bacteria found in Japanese landfills that could consume low grade plastic within six weeks, by producing a specialized enzyme. According to Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, UK, the scientists were able to “tweak” the enzyme and, in doing so made a huge discovery. They gave the mutant enzyme an even larger appetite for PET, and it now begins to consume it in a matter of days. DAYS! McGeehan and his team hope to speed the process up and further and make it viable on a large scale.
More information is to come and the sooner, the better. In the meantime, let’s all continue to reduce, reuse and recycle; and, perhaps, find a soft spot in your heart to extend some sympathy to Plastic Man. It’s not a stretch to say that he may not stand a chance against this adversary.