Waste management - the key to reduce plastic pollution

Maanantai 12.3.2018 klo 13:46 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Everyone has seen pictures about garbage gyres, composed mostlGarbage_gyre.jpgy of plastics but also all the other kinds of our waste. As a result of these pictures and different videos about encountering plastics all the time when diving, it has become very fashionable to demand that we get rid of plastics. In Finland "Muoviton Maaliskuu" (March without Plastics) is getting attention. However, is it really so that the lightweight, durable and easily molded material is the evil of all evils?

It is funny that I have now in several instances sounded like an advocate of plastic industry, although I really think that the slogan should be "environment first". It is clearly so that the plastics problem cannot be resolved by removing the material from the oceans after it is there. The migitation must take place before. There are two ways of doing this: 1. Stop producing and using plastics. Although there are many instances, where the use of plastics is not necessary, why should one stop using very useful material? 2. Stop the plastic waste from entering aquatic environment. I think this is the real possibility, as hopefully becomes clear from the following text.

In their article in Science in 2015 Jambeck et al. (Science 347, 768-771), estimated, where the plastics to the oceans come from. Interestingly, among the 20 most plastic-polluting countries, there was not a single European country, although the use of plastics per capita is among highest in the world (If considered as one entity, European Union, with twice the population of USA, would have been no. 18, slightly ahead of Morocco, North Korea and USA). Out of the 20 countries producing most mismanaged plastic waste 8 were from  Pacific Asia (China, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, North Korea), 4 from Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka), 5 from Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Nigeria), The remaining three countries were Turkey, Brasil and USA. It is notable that there appeared to be more mismanaged plastic waste coming to the oceans from North Korea than from USA. It is also notable that Japan and South Korea were not among the most plastic-polluting countries.

So what is the reason of the plastic waste in the oceans. It is not plastic use per person, which is highest in USA, Canada and European countries. It is poor waste management. In USA only a couple of % of the plastic waste enters the ocean, most of the waste is burned and some recycled. In Europe the situation is similar. In the Pacific Asian countries in the list 80 % of the waste is not treated properly. The mismanaged plastic waste of Indian subcontinent countries exceeds 85 %, and that of the African countries is slightly over 65 %. Consequently, if waste management in the primary polluters could be improved to European/American level, the amount of plastic waste reaching the oceans would decrease to 1/30-1/40 of what it is today. If we, in addition, decreased the unnecessary use of plastics, the good material could be used without generating the unfounded guilty feelings.

Together with climate change actions, i feel that waste management issues should assume major emphasis in environmental negotiations. Further, effective waste management (in the simplest case burning) is not the question of money but attitudes, so it could be done as easily in poor as in rich countries.

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

Plastics removal by micro-organisms

Sunnuntai 24.9.2017 klo 17:50 - Mikko Nikinma

Plastic garbage is a huge problem everywhere in the world. The most visible collections of mainly plastic trash are the Pacific Garbage Gyre and similar smaller ones in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, but all the aquatic environments have plastic waste and non-visible microplastics. Plastic trash is a highly visible problem also in terrestrial environments.

In the light of the huge plastic pollution problem, two major solutions to alleviate it have been envisioned. The first involves diminishing the use of plastics markedly, collecting plastic trash for reuse, and if the material cannot be reused, burning it. Burning plastic is virtually the same as burning oil, since currently virtually all plastics are made of oil. Thus, burning the plastic trash diminishes the need for oil and thus diminishes its consumption. This way of addressing the plastics problem is tedious, demands a lot of work and time, and requires a change in our daily behaviour. 

The other solution is much simpler. Let's just find a micro-organism, which uses the plastics as an energy source. The evolution of micro-organisms is rapid as a result of their short generation interval. There are both some bacteria which use oil as food and some fungi which decompose plastics. An example of the latter has recently been described in the journal Environmental Pollution (Khan et al. 2017 Environmental Pollution 225, 469-480). Notably, oil-eating bacteria have successfully been used to clean up oil-contaminated soil, so what is simply needed is to have plastic-eating micro-organism placed within plastic trash, and the microbe does the rest. Simple and effective, right?

However, the solution is not so clearcut beneficial. Our world today uses plastics in virtually everything. Already in the beginning of 1972 a book with the name Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters was written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. In the book, a mutant bacterium was generated (to remove plastic contamination), but it got loose and started eating up, e.g., the plastic covers of electrical wires with the consequence that electrical appliances short-circuited, planes crashed etc. No one can guarantee that the plastic eating micro-organism cannot spread outside of where it is wanted, unless the evolution of organism is directed so that it cannot live anywhere but its wanted target. For example, one could generate the plastic-eating micro-organism so that it is strictly anaerobic, whereby it would die immediately upon contact with air.

However, for developing the plastic-eating anaerobic organism time is needed. Thus, we must primarily use the tedious first alternative.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: microplastics, garbage gyres, environmental pollution, plastic waste

Drinkwater in plastic bottles - why?

Sunnuntai 25.12.2016 klo 11:21 - Mikko Nikinmaa

One cannot but notice that a large number of people are buying water in plastic bottles. Quite often the bottles are not recycled, but end up in the huge pile of plastic waste, which is currently contaminating especially our seas. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of fish and marine birds die currently as a result of ingesting plastic waste.

But back to water in plastic bottles. Did you know that approximately three liters of water are used to produce a litre of bottled water? Did you know that occasionally the source of the water in bought bottles is tap water in the production place of bottled water? Further, I cannot see the reason why small water bottles are transported, e.g., from France to USA.

It is probably true that fresh water will be an inadequate environmental resource in the world in future. Consequently, we should save it where we can. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to drink tap water whenever possible, and when it is not, use local bottled water in recyclable bottles - and actually recycle the bottles, not throw them away.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: plastic waste, water shortage