ENVIRONOTES: Boon or bane, plastic is everywhere

As useful as it is, plastic’s damaging effects on the environment can’t be ignored

Plastics are everywhere in our modern world.

They are in what we use to carry or contain things, in our cosmetics, electronic devices, tools, in what we wear and what we use to store and package food. Plastics have become truly ubiquitous.

The first synthetic plastic was developed in New York in 1869 as a substitute for elephant ivory. Called “celluloid,” it was made from cellulose, blended pigments, fibre and alcohol. The earliest commercial product in widespread use was “Bakelite” in 1907. Since then, the story has been one of continuing improvement, sophistication and use. The problem is that many plastics don’t degrade or dissolve, but can remain in our environment for decades or longer as pollutants or toxins.

Almost all of our modern plastics (about 90 per cent) are made by distillation of crude oil. They also occur naturally in cellulose, coal, natural gas and salt. Their durability, so useful a feature, is also their curse. Macro-plastic waste is greater the 5 millimetres; smaller particles are called micro-plastics. We’ve all seen graphic pictures of whales entangled in abandoned fishing gear, just one example of the threat to wildlife from macro-plastics.

A dead whale on a beach in the Philippines was found to have 40 kilograms of undigested plastic in its abdomen, an indication of the threat posed by plastic waste to the health of our oceans. The effects of micro-plastics in our waters and oceans are more complex and less understood, but they are frequently harmful and damaging, some causing sterility or reduced birthrate.

Investigations of the effects on human health are not yet well-advanced, but carcinogens and toxins are known to be in plastics. They have been shown to harm the endocrine system – the system of glands which secrete hormones governing growth, development and bodily functioning. What’s to be done? The simple and obvious answer is to minimize, or at least reduce, the personal use, and thence the manufacture and use of everyday plastics – bags, containers, cups, utensils and so on. We should all use the available glass and metal alternatives. Many widely used cosmetics contain dangerous plastic micro beads, used as exfoliating agents, and some governments are moving to ban them. Commercial uses are generally more difficult for the individual to avoid, but requiring merchants and manufacturers to disclose the plastic content of garments would enable buyers to avoid them.

Because of their durability, getting rid of waste or discarded plastics is not easy. Recycling, reforming the waste into alternative articles, is perhaps the optimal disposal, since it keeps the waste material out of watercourses and, eventually, the oceans.

Unfortunately, only about 11 per cent of B.C.’s plastic waste is recycled. There’s obviously room for improvement here. Incineration, at high temperature, is an acceptable alternative disposal technique, providing it does not emit toxic fumes. Dumping plastic wastes into landfills may get them out of sight, but it does not get rid of them. Increasingly, industry is developing new, biodegradable plastic formulations – a development to be applauded and encouraged. Progress is being made towards developing strains of plastic-eating bacteria – differing bacteria for different plastics. These studies merit encouragement.

Perhaps the watchwords should be, “Use with caution, discard thoughtfully.”

Ideally, every plastic container sold would be collected and recycled; a closed loop, with a ban on single usage.

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News.

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