Pesky Polymers: The Problem with Plastics

Plastics are incredible materials. They can be extremely durable, heat-resistant and, best of all, cheap to produce. Plastics are so great, in fact, that we have gone from producing only 1.5 million tonnes of plastic per year in 1950 to producing around 400 million tonnes in 2018!

The Impact on the Ocean

As amazing as plastics can be, the amount we produce has become a real problem. It is estimated that around 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean each year. That is the equivalent in weight of 20 empire state buildings worth of plastic every year!

Because plastics last so long in the environment, this waste builds up in the ocean and disrupts marine ecosystems. It is estimated that there is currently between 100 and 200 million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans.

This problem will only get worse, especially when you consider that there is about one truckload of plastic entering the ocean every minute. That is projected to increase to about one truckload every 15 seconds by 2050!

This plastic breaks down over time into smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny fragments of plastic are known as microplastics. Plastics do not break down in the environment in the same way that organic materials do. Instead of breaking down into their constituent elements, they simply break into smaller chunks of the same material, and these can stick around in the ocean for hundreds of years.

Microplastics are constantly being eaten by tiny ocean animals like plankton. These tiny animals are then eaten by larger animals, introducing plastics into the food chain. Eventually, you find these plastics in the stomachs of large animals like sharks and whales, as well as in the stomachs of seabirds. These plastics take up space in the stomachs of the animals, often preventing them from eating enough food to survive.

The Impact on Human Health

Aside from causing the deaths of a huge number of marine animals, this plastic can also find its way into the human food chain, where it likely causes a number of health problems. While there is still much research to be done, the preliminary evidence from in vitro studies suggests that nanoplastic ingestion results in inflammation and oxidative stress.

There is particular concern around the thousands of chemical additives which give plastics different characteristics like flexibility, colour and durability. Some of these additives, such as certain flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals, have already been shown to be dangerous to humans.

On average, humans ingest about a credit card worth of plastic every week! Much of this comes from the water we drink. Bottled water is of course much worse than tap water, with bottled containing about 22 times more plastic particles than the same amount of tap water.

There is also quite a lot of plastic in the air. Much of that comes from car tyres being worn down by use on the roads. If it does turn out that plastics are harmful to human health, which seems very likely, then a lot of people could be at risk due to the high volumes of plastics consumed by humans in everyday life.

Plastic Production and Disposal

Another major problem with plastic is the way it is produced. Currently, around 99% of all plastic is produced using fossil fuels. This is obviously unsustainable. Experts agree that one of the most effective ways to combat climate change is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

That will not be possible if we are to continue to produce plastics from fossil fuels. Global plastic production is projected to continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Currently, around 4-8% of fossil fuels are used to make plastics. This is projected to increase to about 20% by 2050 to accommodate the 1.8 billion tonnes we are expected to produce per year by that time.

You may be thinking at this point that this problem will be solved by recycling. Unfortunately, only around 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Around 12% has been incinerated, releasing greenhouse gases and toxic fumes into the atmosphere.

The remaining 79% of all the plastic waste ever produced has ended up sitting in landfills, dumps and the natural environment. It has become clear that we need a new way to produce plastics, and a new way to dispose of the plastics we already have.

What’s Next?

One way to solve the problem of plastics is to replace them with a more sustainable material which retains the characteristics of fossil-fuel plastics. The two most important considerations are making sure that the new material is not made from fossil fuels, and making sure that it can be disposed of in a way that is environmentally friendly.

Remember I said that around 99% of plastics are currently made from fossil fuels? The other 1% are a new type of material called ‘bioplastics’. These are plastics which are made from organic materials like plants and food waste. In other words, they are ‘bio-based’ rather than fossil-fuel-based.

Unfortunately, most of the bioplastics currently produced use food crops as their feedstock. In other words, the plastics are made from crops like corn and sugarcane. This is a problem, since the production of bioplastics in this way competes with food production for land, water and fertiliser use.

The human population is constantly growing, and we already struggle to provide food for everyone, as evidenced by the massive poverty rates in many developing countries. It does not make sense, then, to put aside so much land for plastic production. We need that land to grow food, foster biodiversity, build renewable energy infrastructure and much more!

Grain-4-Lab’s Solution

At Grain-4-Lab, we have developed a solution which avoids the problems above. Instead of using fossil fuels to make our plastic, we plan to use the waste from Ireland’s food and drink industry to make a bioplastic.

The use of waste also avoids the problem of competition for land use. These crops are being grown anyway to produce food and drink, with the waste products left over at the end going unused. We can take that untapped waste stream and turn it into a plastic that can replace traditional fossil-fuel plastics.

Our plastic will also be compostable, which means it will not end up in landfills, incinerators and the ocean. The plastic is industrially compostable, which means it needs to be sent to a special facility in order to be broken down into compost. Some people have raised concerns about bioplastics not breaking down in the natural environment.

This is one of the reasons why we have identified lab plastics as the plastics we want to replace. Scientists are used to separating their waste for various reasons. They have to deal with everything from biohazards to radioactive waste on a daily basis. It should be relatively simple, then, for scientists to add a compost bin to their labs and use it correctly. This should ensure that none of the bioplastic ends up in landfills, or worse, the ocean!

Another reason we are trying to replace lab plastics is that they often need to be single-use in order to avoid contamination. While many other plastics, like food packaging, can be reduced, lab plastics are necessary for important research and often can’t be reused or recycled.

Summary

Plastic pollution is quickly becoming recognised as one of the great problems facing humans and ocean ecosystems today. We need to develop innovative solutions, and fast! These new alternatives need to possess the same characteristics as the plastics they are replacing, but with a fraction of the environmental cost.

That means they can no longer be produced using fossil fuels. It also means they can’t require massive amounts of land, water and fertilisers to produce. The race is on to find the perfect material which ticks all of these boxes, and can also be disposed of in an eco-friendly way.