Photo: Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste, 2018.
We’ve all heard the stats – every piece of plastic that has ever been created still remains today. Plastics are designed to have a long life span. Many of the advantageous properties of plastics, such as their toughness and durability, present challenges when they are released into the environment. So what happens to them when our use for them ends? Can they be recycled? And are any plastics truly biodegradable?
Plastics contain a complex mix of stabilisers that prevent them from degrading too rapidly (1). While this is great for some things – think of dear Liza and the hole in her bucket – it’s not so great when we are finished with them and want to dispose of them. These stabilisers mean that many common plastics including polypropylene (denoted as PP – found in bottle caps, straws, fabrics) polyethylene (PE – bottles, food wrap, toys), polystyrene (PS – takeaway food containers, disposable cups) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET – water and soft drink bottles, jars) are extremely persistent in the environment (1). They undergo very slow fragmentation where they break down into ever smaller particles eventually becoming microplastics that never go away. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
So now we know what plastics are and why they are grade-A clingers to the Earth, what can we do about it? And are biodegradable plastics the way to go?
Degradable or biodegradable?
In recent years, the word “biodegradable” has become a powerful and appealing marketing term that is very misleading. While biodegradability refers to any organic substance that can be broken down by living microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi into carbon dioxide, water and biomass (2), in most cases, product biodegradability is tested under very specific conditions (2,3). Although suggesting that products break down in this natural and environmentally friendly way, these materials in fact may take far longer to fully break down and still generate large quantities of potentially harmful small particles (4). What’s more, these little micro powerhouses are powerless against many conventional plastics which are resistant against complete microbial attack (5). Add to that the fact that many biodegradable plastics contain metal salts that speed up the break-down process resulting in micro-fragments of plastics AND metals which remain in the environment (2) and we realise that maybe these plastics aren’t so eco-friendly. While some of these products are in fact biodegradable under natural conditions, be wary that this may not be the case for all.
Now, a tip for young players – biodegradable is not to be confused with degradable products. While the addition of bio- to the front of this word seems like an insignificant detail, the two are actually very different. Degradability refers to any physical or chemical change in a polymer’s properties. It relates to compounds that break down into simpler compounds by stages. That is, a large piece of degradable plastic can breakdown into ever smaller pieces of plastic.
But what is bioplastic? And is it any better?
Research has been focusing on the development of novel plastics that are derived from biological or renewable resources, rather than petroleum (6), that can be biodegraded (are compostable) in the environment (4). These are known as bio-plastics. Two of the most common materials used to create bioplastics are starch and cellulose which are derived from either corn or sugar cane. While bio-plastics may be the way of the future, we still have a way to go. Some companies will market their products as bioplastics made from plant-based materials however also state that these can only be composed in a commercial facility. Some are also heat sensitive and must be stored out of direct sun and away from heat sources. And contrary to popular belief, while bioplastics may be composed (*see previous sentence regarding this), they cannot be recycled. Those that can be are done so chemically and the method at this stage is not yet commercially viable. Know those clear disposable cups and packaging that look and feel like plastic but have eco-friendly logos? Just sayin’.
Confused yet? So are we!
But don’t fear! Put simply, compostable is the way to go. This refers to any organic material that can truly biodegrade, disintegrate and is non eco-toxic. That is, it can break down into the goodness of carbon dioxide, water and biomass, it does so rapidly so that after three months of composting no more than 10% remains, the breakdown process does not produce any toxic material and the compost can sustain plant growth (2). Just think, if natural goodies are going in, natural goodies will come out. But remember, if you decide to go compostable, ensure you follow through on your good intentions and dispose of correctly. Your compost bin and garden will love you. And so will the world.
What you can do:
Photograph by Jonathan Alcorn, Bloomberg/Getty
It's no surprise, we are living in the age of plastic. From toys to packaging, cosmetics to clothing, we are surrounded by plastic. Global production of plastics currently exceeds 320 million tonnes each year, with over 40% of this being used for single-use packaging (1). Much of this ends up in our environment and eventually makes its way into the marine world. Recently we have seen images and heard stories of turtles, birds and even whales either becoming entangled in or ingesting plastic debris. Many of us have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a giant swirling mass of floating rubbish in the middle of the Pacific Ocean described as larger than Texas (2). But fewer of us are aware of the effects of those tiny pieces of plastic covertly lurking in our waters, or that of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that make up this patch, 94% of these are microplastics (3). So what exactly are microplastics?
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are plastic particles < 5mm. Considered most abundant and most hazardous to marine organisms, microplastics are ubiquitous, reported in our oceans from the poles (4,5) to the Equator (6). The vast majority of these are fibrous particles resulting from either the breakdown of larger items or input in sewerage and wastewater from coastal areas (4). They have been found to be consumed by many marine organisms from mussels (7,8) and crabs (9) to large predatory fish (10) and whales (11). Scarily, nanoplastics (plastic particles <100nm) have been found inside zooplankton (12), the tiny organisms at the base of the foodweb upon which all animals diets are built upon. As larger animals feed on the smaller ones, microplastics are transferred, accumulating with each step in the food chain (13,14). But microplastics aren’t only present in our oceans. They are all around us and are even inside us.
Microplastics and humans
Many studies have shown that humans are exposed to microplastics through multiple sources. They are present in our diet in foods such as seafood (15,16), sugar (17), sea salt (18,19,20), bottled (21) and tap (20) water – even beer! (20,22), they float around in our atmosphere in the forms of fibres released through the wearing of tyres and road surfaces (23), and are in contact with our skin as microfibers from synthetic fabrics (24) and cosmetics (25,26). In a recent study conducted by the Medical University of Vienna and Environment Agency Austria, human stool samples from participants from Europe, Japan and Russia were tested for a variety of plastics. On average, 20 particles of microplastic were found in each 10g of waste. Although a small scale study, the authors estimate that more than 50% of the world’s population might have microplastics in their stool. What’s more, other studies have found that microplastics are capable of translocating across cells and entering into the bloodstream, lymphatic system and accumulating in organs such as the liver (27,28,29). As Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto says, “For me, it shows were are eating our waste – mismanagement has come back to us on our dinner plates.” Well said.
What can you do about microplastics?
1 Wright, S.L., Kelly, F.J. 2017. Plastic and human health: a micro issue? Environmental Science and Technology. 51(2).
2 Parker, L. 2018. Planet or Plastic? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t what it think it is. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/
3 Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sainte-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., Hajbane, S., Cunsolo, S., Schwars, A., Levivier, A., Noble, K., Debeljak, P., Maral, H., Schoeneich-Argent, R., Brambini, R., Reisser, J. 2018. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Nature, Scientific Reports 8(4666).
4 Lusher, A.L., Tirelli, V., O’Connor, I., Officer, R. 2015. Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and subsurface samples. Sci Rep. 5: 14947.
5 Obbard, R.W., Sadri, S, Wong, Y.Q., Khitun, A., Baker, I., Thompson, R.C. 2014. Global warming releases microplastic legacy in Arctic Sea ice. Earth’s Future. 315-320.
6 Ivar do Sul, J.A., Costa, M.F., Barletta, M., Cysneiros, F.J.A. 2013. Pelagic microplastics around an archipelago of the Equatorial Atlantic. Mar Poll Bull. 75, 305-309.
7 Browne, M.A., Dissananyake, A., Galloway, T.S., Lowe, D.M., Thompson, R.C. 2008. Ingested microplastic translocation to the circulatory system of the mussel, Mytilus edulis (L..) Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 5026-5031.
8 Van Cauwenberghe, L., Claessens, M., Vandegehuchte, M.B., Janssen, C.R. 2015. Microplastics are taken up by mussels (Mytilus edulis) and lugworms (Arenicola marina) living in natural habitats. Enviro. Poll. 199, 10-7.
9 Farrell, P., Nelson, K. 2013. Trophic level transfer of microplastic: Mytilus edulis (L.) to Carcinus maenas (L.). Environ. Poll. 177, 1-3.
10 Romeo, T., Pietro, B., Pedà, C., Consoli, P., Andaloro, F., Fossi, M.C. 2015. First evidence of presence of plastic debris in stomach of large pelagic fish in the Mediterranean Sea. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 95, 358-361.
11 Fossi, M.C., Panti, C., Guerranti, C., Coppola, D., Giannetti, M., Marsili, L., Minutoli, R. 2012. Are baleen whales exposed to the threat of microplastics? A case study of the Mediterranean fin whale Balaenoptera physalus. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 64, 2374-2379.
12 Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C., Goodhead, R., Moger, J., Galloway, T.S. 2013. Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 6646-6655.
13 Mattsson, K., Ekvall, M.T., Hansson, L.A., Linse, S., Malmendal, A., Cedervall, T. 2015. Altered behaviour, physiology, and metabolism in fish exposed to polystyrene nanoparticles. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 553-561.
14 Nelms, S.E., Galloway, T.S>, Godley, B.J., Jarvis, D.S>, Lindeque, P.K. 2018. Investigating microplastic trophic transfer in marine top predators. Environ. Poll. 238, 999-1007.
15 Santillo, D., Miller, K., Johnston, P. 2017. Microplastics as contaminants in commercially important seafood species. Intergr. Environ. Assess. Manag. 13, 516-521.
16 Boerger, C.M., Lattin, G.L., Moore, S.L., Moore, C.J. 2010. Plastic ingestion by planktivorous fishes in the North Pacific Central Gyre. Mar. Poll. Bull. 60, 2275-2278.
17 Liebezeit, G., Liebezeit, E. 2013. Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar. Food Addit. Contam. Part A Chem. Anal. Control Expo. Risk Assess. 30, 2136-2140.
18 Yang, D., Shi, H., Li, L., Li, J., Jabeen, K., Kolandhasamy, P. 2015. Microplastic pollution in table salts from China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 13622-13627.
19 Karami, A., Golieskardi, A., Choo, C.K., Larat, V., Galloway, T.S., Salamatinia, B. 2017. The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries. Sci. Rep. 7, 1-9.
20 Kosuth, M., Mason, S.A., Wattenberg, E.V. 2018. Anthropogenic contamination of tap water, beer, and sea salt. PLoS ONE 13, 1-18.
21 Schymanski, D., Goldbeck, C., Humpf, H.U., Fürst, P. 2018. Analysis of microplastics in water by micro_Raman spectroscopy: release of plastic particles from different packaging into mineral water. Water Research. 12, 154-162.
22 Liebezeit, G., Liebezeit, E. 2014. Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers. Food Addit. Contam., Part A. 31, 1574-1578.
23 Kole, P.J., Löhr, A.J., Van Belleghem, F.G.A.J., Ragas, A.M.J. 2017. Wear and tear of tyres: a stealthy source of microplastics in the environment. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 14, 1-31.
24 Carney Almroth, B.M., Åström, L., Roslund, S., Petersson, H., Johansson, M., Persson, N.K. 2018. Quantifying shedding of synthetic fibres from textiles; a source of microplastics released into the environment. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. 25, 1191-1199.
25 Gouin, T., Avalos, J., Brunning, I., Brzuska, K., de Graaf, J., Kaumanns, J., Toning, T., Meyberg, M., Rettinger, K., Schlatter, H., Thomas, J., van Welie, R., Wolf, T. 2015. Use of microplastic beads in cosmetic products in Europe and their estimated emissions to the North Sea environment. SOFW-Journal. 141, 40-46.
26 Napper, I.E., Bakir, A., Rowland, S.J., Thompson, R.C. 2015. Characterisation, quantity and sorptive properties of microplastics extracted from cosmetics. Mar. Poll. Bull. 99, 178-185.
27 Hodges, G.M., Carr, E.A., Hazzard, R.A., Carr, K.E. 1995. Uptake and translocation of microparticles in small intestine. Morphology and quantification of particle distribution. Dig. Dis. Sci. 40, 967-975.
28 Rieux, A.D., Ragnarsson, E.G.E., Gullberg, E., Préat, V., Schneider, Y.J., Artursson, P. 2005. Transport of nanoparticles across an in vitro model of the human intestinal follicle associated epithelium. Eur. J. Pharm. Sci. 25, 455-465.
29 Volkheimer, G. 1975. Hematogenous dissemination of ingested polyvinyl chloride particles. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 31, 164-171.
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