Plastics in the Environment

Sunnuntai 14.4.2019 klo 14:51 - Mikko Nikinmaa

When one thinks about durable, light, easy-to-use and mouldable material, plastics certainly come to mind. It is hard to image that the plastic age is only 50-60 years old. One can hardly image life without plastic containers, plastic-insulated wires, plastic parts in household appliances and cars, and artificial fibres in clothing. This plastics era has produced and is producing so much of the useful materials that the world is choking to them. A very useful, detailed review about plastics, their use and environmental problems generated is written by CJ Rhodes in Scientific Progress 101: 207-260 (https://journals.sagepub.com/toc/scia/101/3).

In a way, lumping many different materials under one common name, plastics is wrong, because the foam used in insulation, fibres of clothing, and plastic packaging of food are very different. However, two things are common: First, most of the plastics are oil-based – more than 90 % of plastics are made of oil. In addition to oil-based products, plastic-like materials can be tree- or other plant material-based. However, these materials are exactly as problematic as oil-based ones except for not being fossil fuel-based. Second, the materials degrade slowly. The average life length of plastics is tens to hundreds of years. This means that virtually all plastics ever produced can still be present. The persistence is the major reason for the environmental problems generated by plastics.

Of the different plastics only less than ten percent are recycled, a little more than ten percent are burned and 80 % are currently ending up in the environment or in garbage dumps. This distribution of the fate of used plastics is the second major reason for the environmental problems. The most visible plastic pollution is that of the oceans, especially the Pacific Garbage Gyre in North Pacific, but virtually all major seas and beaches have significant amounts of trash. The waste problem is most pronounced in Asia, as all of the countries with most environmental plastic waste are there: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. These countries contribute more than 55 % of world’s total waste. Because recycling is so limited, factories, which would use recycled plastics in their production, have an eternal material supply problem.

About 40 % of all the plastics is used in packaging. This has also the shortest half-life of use, less than a year. Thus, packaging is by far the most extreme case of single-use attitude. The second most important plastics user is building and construction industry with about 20 % proportion. However, the material is turned over in 35 years, decreasing the yearly amount of waste. A much bigger problem is textile industry, as the proportion is 20 %, and the turnover time is less than 5 years. Much of the rest is used in machines and electronics, and the material is turned over in 5-20 years.

The plastic waste can be macro-, micro- or nanosized. The macro-sized, visible material slowly degrades, but can disturb animal life up to hundreds of years. The materials are especially problematic, when they cause strangulation of animals or block their intestine thus inhibiting normal digestion. In addition, animals may feed on plastic materials, which naturally cannot be digested. Also, plastic trash affects the visibility of water. Micro-sized plastic is characterized as material of less than 5 mm but more than 100 nm in any dimension. Next to nothing is known about its appearance in soils, but an increasing number of studies has demonstrated its presence in water. It is notable that much more than 95 % of micro-sized plastic is removed in wastewater treatment plants. Much of the microplastics is ingested by animals. The lack of digestibility is a problem, and can cause starvation, when the alimentary canal is filled with material that cannot be digested. However, very little is actually known about if and how microplastic particles affect organisms. One of the possibilities is that it is not the particles themselves, but dissolved toxic chemicals initially adsorbed on microplastic particles that cause problems. The role of microplastics would in this case be increasing the surface area whereby all the toxic chemicals adsorbed to plastics can diffuse or otherwise be absorbed into the cells. However, the actual mechanisms by which microplastics affect animal functions are poorly known. In fact, one reviewer recently pointed out that the ingestion and egestion of microplastics have been extensively studied, but next to nothing is known about their toxic effects if any. The same is true for nanoplastics, materials with at the most one dimension 100 nm. Their cellular uptake and effects at environmental level are virtually unknown. This is a general problem in nanotoxicology: one has repeatedly shown that nanomaterials can be toxic at high concentrations, but their effects at environmental or predicted environmental level are unknown. One possibility is that they cause inflammation in any tissue they come in contact with.

Since the most important proportion of plastic waste is packaging, and single-use products largely associated with food and drink, it is were nice to know that the amount of trash can easily be decreased immensely by reducing overpackaging and by recycling. Effective plastic collection would be cheap and could be implemented anywhere in the world. Virtually all plastic material used in packaging needs to be recyclable and most of the plastics can minimally be burned. This would be equivalent to burning the same amount of oil. One can say that the major way of combatting plastic waste is to increase the effectiveness of plastic collection. At the moment, out of all trash found in the environment, more than 3/4 is plastics. Finally, replacing plastics by less “eternal” material where possible is needed. This, as reducing packaging, would be something that the production side needs to do. However, the consumers can affect, what is produced, by choosing the products so that overpackaging does not sell any more. The consumers can, on the other hand, do much on the recycling side.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: recycling, waste collection, trash, plastic pollution

Solutions to plastics problem - 1 & 2

Sunnuntai 16.9.2018 klo 11:18 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Anything done to the plastics is better than that they litter the environment, so the primary problem is their presently poor collection especially in some countries. That could be very easily solved by giving a small token for any plastic taken to waste collecting units. If they don't exist, their generation could be a primary target of developmental aid. The collected plastic could then be used:

1. Plastics use for energy production. Since plastics are made of oil, they could be used for producing energy instead usiage of oil. In the simplest case, this would just mean burning plastic waste to produce energy for heating instead of burning oil. In a more advanced case, plastic waste is processed so that its molecules can be used as part of car fuels. Such processing is already done by some oil refineries.

2. Use of plastics as part of road paving. If the durable waste plastic is ground, it can be mixed to asphalt and used for paving of roads. The asphalt containing plastic particles can be even more durable than asphalt without them.

Naturally these choices do not decrease the carbon dioxide formed by the use of fossil fuels or the formation of microplastic particles from the wear of asphalt or tyres, but it does not increase it either, since microplastic particles are similarly produced from asphalt without added waste plastics. These problems will be resolved only after complete stop of fossil fuel use for energy production and replacement of asphalt in road paving.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: plastic pollution, road paving, energy production

Plastics - use as fuel component

Tiistai 24.7.2018 klo 19:57 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Plastics are made of oil. Thus, they could be utilized as components of fuel instead of generating massive garbage gyres in the oceans. And let's face it -since getting rid of the use of fossil fuels takes time, plastics should be used in energy production rather than just be destroyed by burning (without using the energy generated) which increases our carbon dioxide production.

This simple conclusion has now been advocated by the Finnish national oil company Neste. The company will start collecting plastic, and break it down to fuel components. The aim is to have 10-20 % of all petrol made of plastic garbage. This will mean savings in oil import, reduction in carbon dioxide generation and decrease in plastic garbage.

Although the solution does not make us fossil energy-free, it is a step in right direction. And at the present state of affairs anything done in right direction should be done as soon as possible, because it is getting hot in here, and a dop in the ocean must be done in the middle of plastic trash

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: fossil fuels, plastic pollution, recycling

The plastics problem - are there any solutions?

Sunnuntai 10.6.2018 klo 11:59 - Mikko Nikinmaa

The news about plastic pollution has more or less completely dwelled on the problem, and not much on solutions apart from one: banning the use of plastics. And, unfortunately, most of the news has reached North Americans and Europeans. I say that this is unfortunate, since even if the plastics in North America and Europe were recycled 100 %, this would have hardly any effect on the total amount of plastic waste entering the oceans. There are ten rivers in the world, which deliver most waste to the oceans: three in China, one in Philippines, one in Indonesia, two in Indian subcontinent, one in Brazil and two in Nigeria. Out of the 40 most plastic-polluting rivers 27 are in Asia,  8 in Latin America, 4 in Africa and 1 in Europe (Rhine).

Thus, the most urgent problem is to get waste treatment in the most polluting areas to function. A solution for this would be, if money could be made out of it. A possible way of doing this would be portable systems, Trashpressos (as named by the inventor, Arthur Huang), which press plastic waste to strong tiles, which could then be used in, for example, building houses. In this way, what is now thrown away would markedly reduce the costs of building material - which would be highly beneficial for developing nations.

A way to decrease plastic pollution everywhere is to use materials other than plastics whenever possible and convenient, diminish unnecessary wrappings (nowadays it is possible that, e.g. candies are in plastic bag, and thereafter individually wrapped in plastic) and stop using single-use plastic materials (instead of plastic single-use knives and forks one could have them made of wood as earlier; plastic cups could easily be replaced by paper cups or glasses) - the European Union ban on single-use plastics will certainly drive production and use also elsewhere.

With regards to microplastics, which is a problem also in Europe, the ways of diminishing plastic waste will help in part. However, much of the microplastics is released in washing clothes. In Europe and North America this waste comes into wastewater treatment plants. If the final effluent were filtered through a tight-mesh filter, all of the microplastic waste would be retained. Since the effluent goes through a narrow pipe in any case, this would not even cause a big expense. Such a simple solution would decrease the problem of microplastics release from clothwashing. Another problem is cigarrette buts, which people throw on the ground all the time. Instead, people should put them in waste boxes. This is already now possible, so it is only a matter of educating people. The only source of microplastics that I have not been able to think a reasonable way of getting rid of is the tyre dust. Presently, much of the tyre material is plastics, and is released in the environment. Such dust cannot easily be collected.

However, most of the plastics problem could easily be handled without needing to stop the use of plastic materials in appliances, where they are needed or much better than alternative materials. 

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: plastic pollution, waste treatment, garbage gyre

Getting rid of garbage gyres - its not plastics but people's attitude

Sunnuntai 11.3.2018 klo 11:52 - Mikko Nikinmaa

The waste in the seas and also in the terrestrial environment is without doubt a big problem. In this one has taken plastics as something that is the evil. Plastics are undoubtedly a problem, because they are highly stable and, being light, float and are thus easily seen. However, plastics are not the only stable pieces of trash. Similarly, all the metal-made products last almost to eternity. For plasticts to be an environmental problem, they need to reach the environment. If they did not, they would not be a part of the environmental problem.

Plastics are usually made of oil. We are still currently warming up a lot of houses with oil. If all the plastics were collected as part of the waste and burned to produce energy, no plastic waste would be generated and the need for oil would decrease. Is this done in most parts of the world? No, in the best case the plastic waste is a part of the waste ending up in waste dumps, where it is virtually eternal, and in the worst case barges filled with waste are tugged out to the open sea, where the waste is just dumped to the water. Out of sight out of mind. However, this being the case, it is actually wrong to blame a set of good products for generating a problem, when the problem is in our way of waste handling. Further, if the plastics were effectively collected, most of them could be recycled, obliviaing the need of producing new plastics to be thrown away.

Undoubtedly, there is much unnecessary use of plastic materials, and thus, plastic production can be radically diminished. However, there will always be a need for a light-weight, durable material for various appliances. And different plastics are just that, and they can be either recycled or disposed by burning so that no waste is generated. So the real problem is not the plastics, but our way of treating waste. The environment should not receive any permanent waste. People should stop throwing waste, but instead collect it all and either recycle or burn. In addition to plastics, another big permanent source of waste is metals. If they were not thrown in the environment bt recycled, the need for mining with all its environmental problems would markedly decrease.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: plastic pollution, waste treatment, garbage dumps

Plastic waste in the seas

Tiistai 3.1.2017 klo 17:39 - Mikko Nikinmaa

One of the biggest news items on contamination has been the presence of huge amounts of plastics in many areas of world's oceans. One of the greatest sources of plastics are plastic bags - carelessly handled by people. Eighty to ninety % of plastic contamination in the seas comes from coastal areas. Plastics in the coast float up to several thousand kilometers from the disposal point in sea currents.

Plastics are very stable. That is the major reason, why they have become so intensively used. However, abiotically they are slowly degraded to small plastic particles, microplastics, in sunlight and the presence of oxygen. Biologically, bacteria, which are able to use plastics as food source, have evolved. Plastics are made from oil. Thus, oil-eating bacteria have developed to plastic-eating bacteria. They are much more effective at tropical temperatures than in cold. Thus, both oil and plastic pollution are a longer-lasting problem in the arctic than tropical areas.

Although the toxic compounds of oils are also those of many plastics, the major biological effects of plastics are caused by the influence of plastic particles on digestion. Microplastics are virtually undigestible and often clog the digestive tract of animals which eat them. (And this is what most animals do, as plankton-eating animals do either not recognize the difference between real edible animals and undigestible plastic particles or eat animals with digestive tract filled with plastic particles). As the real food cannot then be digested the animals cannot get energy required for living. Consequently, it is presently estimated that millions of birds and fish die annually because of the disturbances in digestion caused by the plastics, and the number of dead invertebrates is much greater.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: microplastics, plastic pollution, marine contamination