FAR OUT OF SIGHT, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean--roughly between Hawaii and San Francisco--lies the North Pacific Gyre, popularly known as "the Pacific trash vortex" or "great Pacific garbage patch." Estimated to be roughly the size of Texas, the patch is an accumulation of buoyant trash from around the world, carried by the sea and trapped in converging ocean currents, slowly drifting in circles for decades. Here bob water bottles, grocery bags, pen caps, hardhats and all manner of other trash. Tellingly, the vast majority of the garbage patch is made up of plastic waste.
First noticed in the mid-1990s, trash has been accumulating in the garbage patch for a half century. Some areas of the gyre contain as much as a million pieces of plastic per square kilometre, and researched has shown that in some regions, there are about six kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton.
This marine garbage dump highlights a major global problem: the overuse and poor disposal of cheap and abundant plastics.
These materials are used frivolously for mass-produced cheap toys, flimsy grocery bags, needless packaging and dollar-store Tupperware knockoffs, when we should be placing a much higher premium on them. It could easily be argued that the course of development in the past 60 years has completely hinged on plastic resins, which revolutionized countless industries on which we all depend.
Think blood bags, syringes and pacemakers: modern medicine is completely reliant on modern plastics. Televisions, records, CDs and stereos: entertainment for the masses. Film, cameras and projectors: they forever changed how we record history. Auto parts, airplanes and space shuttles: we travel farther and faster than any previous society thought possible. And of course the almighty computer.
Plastic has no equal. Durable, pliable, sterile and versatile, it has been so fundamental to our economy that its production since the 1950s has increased at roughly five times the rate of other sectors of Canada's manufacturing industry. In western nations, each individual uses about 110 kilos a year. But despite its amazing properties, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, about 35 percent of the plastic produced in Canada is used to make packaging--used once and thrown away.
The environmental ramifications, alarmingly illustrated by the garbage patch, are tremendous, as are the human costs associated with plastic's production and consumption. In addition, the oft-forgotten relationship between plastics and oil (most plastics are made from fossil fuels) means that fuel shortages will affect plastics, causing an inflation of the cost of the now cheap and abundant polymer.
Recent years have seen an increase in awareness around plastic waste. The plastic bag in particular has become a worthy target, and is increasingly being banned around the world. But mitigating plastic-related disasters will require going much further.
What makes plastic so useful is precisely what has made it one of our worst ecological headaches: it takes forever to break down. If a chunk of plastic winds up in landfill, it will sit there for many centuries. Wayward bottles and bags will litter the planet for possibly tens of thousands of years.
Of all the plastic waste, perhaps most significant is the junk that litters our oceans, thrown overboard deliberately or (mostly) washed out from land in rain and sewers. At least 6.4 million tonnes of garbage finds its way into the oceans every year, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, some 90 percent of which is plastic. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 70 percent of this will eventually sink to the ocean floor, where nets and bags rip apart coral reefs and other fragile habitats.
The rest, floating on the sea, will stay there indefinitely. Every square kilometre of the ocean's surface is estimated to carry at least 13,000 pieces of plastic trash, which ensnare and mutilate sea turtles, marine mammals and other wildlife, or are swallowed whole, lacerating animals' stomachs and causing starvation. Some 50 to 80 percent of beached sea turtle carcasses carry plastic in their bellies. Birds in particular are frequent connoisseurs of plastic meals, which they then regurgitate for their hungry chicks. A 2005 Dutch study found that 95 percent of dead fulmars washed up on the shores of the North Sea had ingested plastic. Overall, precise estimates of the effect of plastics on wildlife are difficult to calculate, but some have pegged the number of seabirds choked by or ensnared in plastic trash at a million per year; approximately 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles share that fate.
The effect of sea-faring plastic doesn't end with cruelty to animals and birds. Most of this debris will wind up on the ocean floor and on coasts and beaches, where it is broken up into ever-smaller fragments, as small as the grains of sand in which it becomes mixed. Contrary to common misconceptions, most plastics are far too durable to "biodegrade"--they just break down into bits too small to see.
Richard Thompson, a marine ecologist at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., became interested in these tiny bits of plastic while doing voluntary beach cleanups as a doctoral student in the early 1990s. "I wondered just how small this stuff was breaking down," he recalls. "So I asked some undergrads to help me figure out what the smallest bits of plastic we could find were." The answer? As small as their scientific equipment could measure. Since then, he has been able to detect pieces just 20 microns in diameter (about 20 thousandths of a millimetre).
Thompson has spent the past decade studying this "microplastic" pollution, and his findings do not make for light reading. Examining time-capsule-like samples of water taken by ships for the past 40 years, he and his researchers estimated that the amount of microplastic pollution in the oceans at least tripled between the 1960s and the 1990s. And this refuse is there to stay--plastic waste is a legacy of the 20th century. Tiny bits of plastic will be present in the sedimentary record for millions of years to come. It is still uncertain whether microplastic pollution represents an environmental hazard, and only a few studies have tried to address that question, but all signs seem to point to yes.
Moreover, most plastics are hydrophobic, which means that, like oil, they won't combine with water when in liquid form. Many of our most toxic and pervasive oceanic pollutants, such as the toxic coolants PCBs, long banned but still awash in the environment, are also hydrophobic. This means that plastics can act like sponges, sopping up chemicals, themselves turning into tiny, toxic Trojan horses. Microplastic particles have been shown to hold concentrations of PCBs more than a million times higher than in the surrounding water.
So what happens once those tiny carriers of pollution settle on the sea floor, in the mud and sand filled with worms and other creatures? Thompson poses a troubling question: "If those plastics are ingested, is that process reversible? Will those contaminants come off in the gut of an animal that eats them ?" Again, the answer appears to be yes. Last fall, Thompson's team published the results of a study suggesting that lugworms will absorb the toxic chemical phenanthrene when microplastic particles saturated with just a small amount of the common marine contaminant are added to the worms' water tank. In the experiment, which used a man-made worm stomach, phenanthrene in the tissue shot up 80 percent. The results are transferable to real worms, which likely means that contaminants will then work their way up the food chain when the worms--and other bottom-dwellers that have eaten the microplastic particles--are devoured by larger animals.
"There's not a lot that can be done to remove the microplastic pollution that is already there," says Thompson. "But there is a lot that can be done to prevent new pollution." Like not letting our plastic trash wind up in the oceans in the first place.
Whether in bits or whole, plastics have significant health implications for humans as well. The chemicals used to make the plastics have been shown by independent and government researchers alike to be harmful to lab animals, with a potential health risk that extends to people.
Vinyl chloride is at the top of that list. The main chemical building block of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the most common plastics in the world, used to make flexible products such as vinyl records, construction materials, pipe fittings and shiny black textiles, is a known carcinogen. It does not pose known risks to consumers, but is an enormous hazard for the factory workers who handle it. Since the 1960s, the workers have been documented to suffer higher cancer rates than the general population.
But there are chemicals you come into contact with every day that may present a threat. In particular, phthalates, which are plasticizers used to soften stiff polymers and found in a huge array of products, from squeezy plastic bottles to cosmetics and soaps. Due to their curious ability to mimic estrogen, they have been shown to cause reproductive defects in lab animals, and studies of human populations have linked them to poor sperm quality, smaller genitals in baby boys and early puberty in girls.
The best-known and most controversial plastic chemical is bisphenol-A (BPA), used to make clear polycarbonate plastic--like water bottles--and the lining of tin cans. BPA is also an estrogen mimic, and has been linked to birth defects, cancers of the sex organs and other reproductive malformations in lab animals; in human populations it has been linked to miscarriages. Contrary to previous assumptions, the chemical does leach into food, and is found in the urine of around 90 percent of Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Certain kinds of phthalates have already been banned from baby toys in Europe and California, and some experts believe it's only a matter of time before Canada bans BPA. Health Canada has already named it as one of a few hundred chemicals (out of 23,000) slated for further review and possible restriction as part of its Chemicals Management Plan.
For such useful materials, there are a lot of strikes against plastics They are virtually immortal global pollutants, carriers of toxic chemicals and a serious pain to dispose of. Some plastics can be recycled, but people, overall, are not very diligent in doing so.
Although 80 percent of the Canadian population has access to recycling for plastic bottles, only 36 percent of these containers are recovered for recycling. And that's just bottles; plastics come in a broad variety of polymers (indicated by the little number inside the triangle on the bottom of a product), and most municipalities in North America take only a couple of kinds. Each type of plastic polymer needs to be processed separately, so recycling centres tend to take just the most abundant ones, usually No. I (polyethylene terephthalate, typically used to make soft drink bottles) and No. 2 (high-density polyethylene, usually found in more durable plastic containers like milk jugs).
When it comes to plastics as a whole, our record is even more dismal: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only seven percent of all municipal plastic waste is gathered for recycling. (Figures for Canada are not collected.)
One of the biggest obstacles to effective recycling is that the governing legislation across Canada is a patchwork, says Serge Lavoie, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. "In Ontario, for example, there are no guidelines--every municipality decides on their own which kinds of plastics to recycle, to ship them to Michigan or just stuff them into landfills. There is a huge policy void in this country when it comes to waste management in general." And more and more, he notes, developed countries choose to ship their plastic waste to China, where it is melted down under more lax environmental and health standards, at a fraction of the cost of recycling it here.
Another problem with recycling is that plastics are not often used to make an equivalent product, such as a bottle into a bottle, but rather, "downcycled" into other materials, such as plastic lumber or carpet fibres, "which just delays the trip to the landfill," says Thompson. One solution, he says, would be to reduce the number of plastics we use, and make plastics that can be recycled back into equivalent materials. "We need more work from scientists within industry to help develop smarter polymers," he says.
We can also look to other parts of the world for examples of how to better recycle. "Japan has the most carefully organized waste management approach in the world," says Lavoie. "[It has] a recycling strategy for virtually every kind of plastic. There is a process for recycling CDs, for example, but I can't point to one North American jurisdiction with that kind of attention to detail."
While recycling is clearly important, reducing consumption remains the key. And the world is moving to cut down on plastic waste. First on the chopping block: plastic bags, one of the most needless yet pervasive plastic items--up to a trillion are churned out worldwide every year. In Taiwan and Ireland plastic bags are taxed, and they have been banned outright in Rwanda, Bhutan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Mumbai, Paris (soon all of France) and the small town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, among others. By June 2008, China, with a sixth of the world's population, will also have outlawed them.
"We can't just base our industry on producing more and more plastic bags," concedes Lavoie. "Our future lies in moving away from mass amounts of cheap goods to more high-value products that are designed more intelligently and help us achieve sustainability."
And sustainability is exactly what is needed. With oil prices hitting $100 a barrel late last year, the six-decades-old supply of cheap plastic is now under threat of extinction.
Supplies of ethane, one of North America's primary supply resources, are drying up, especially in Western Canada, says Gerry Goobie, a Calgary analyst with international oil and gas consultants Purvin & Gertz Inc.
Does that mean plastics will become more expensive? "The answer is a very clear maybe," he says. "Worldwide there is enough ethane, there are a lot of new natural gas production plants in the Middle East and Asia. And a number of companies are looking at going further afield to extract ethane from new areas. You can't just draw the conclusion that ethane supplies are going down and so the cost of plastic will go up; there's a lot more to it than that."
But some think the inevitable is already happening: in 2006 Dow Chemical closed two petrochemical plants in Canada due to ethane shortages.
"Industry says supplies are secure and business will continue as usual, but that really might not be the case in 10 years' time," argues Gordon Laird, author of two books on fossil fuels. Laird is currently working on a new volume examining how traditionally cheap and plentiful commodities, such as plastics, will become scarcer and more expensive. "I don't think that we're going to hit a wall in terms of peak oil theory, but we are going to see a greater volatility in prices, which will create greater volatility in the markets. There is going to be economic confusion across the board. This issue is going to be long term and chronic."
Shortages of fossil fuels mean not only a shortage of the raw materials to make plastics, but also a shortage of the energy required to fuel their production (sometimes around three-quarters of the cost of production is for the energy to power the factories, with the remaining quarter for the raw materials). And even if we start to extract from more and more remote locations, such as the Arctic--as everyone seems to anticipate--it's going to require more and more energy to transport materials around the world.
As Laird explains, "On the surface it looks like a bit of an arcane industrial struggle: we are competing collectively among ourselves for resources that are depleting and becoming ever more expensive. It's going to be harder and harder to get all these commodities in the right places in the world at the right time. The markets themselves are a blueprint for self-sabotage."
In other words, the very same substances--fossil fuels--that we use as raw materials for plastics and other petrochemicals that we have come to rely on are also being increasingly devoured to fuel the production of these commodities, as well as to extract and transport more fossil fuels. "Essentially," Laird explains, "the carbon economy is cannibalizing itself."
We need to rethink how we use our fossil fuels, he adds, starting with a carbon tax, and an end to government subsidies for non-renewable resources.
As problematic as plastics are, no one would suggest abandoning them entirely. We'll always need medical supplies, and people will not relinquish their iPods willingly.
Lavoie of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association notes, too, there are many ways that plastics can actually help the environment. Photovoltaic solar panels would not exist without plastics. Green roofs work best with an impermeable plastic membrane beneath them. Lightweighting, making auto and plane parts with plastic composites to weigh less, means vehicles require less fuel. Insulating buildings with plastic materials makes for much better energy efficiency.
"We just need to really rethink the way we use plastics as a whole--these really are remarkable materials and we should value them more than we do," says Adam Walters, a research scientist with Greenpeace. "The problem is that plastic is considered to be such a cheap commodity, most items are designed for only a single use."
Another option for reducing our dependence on plastics, particularly for optional consumer goods, lies with the development of alternatives that do not rely on fossil fuels, and that also have the ability to biodegrade. Researchers at McGill are looking at ways to create plastics out of carbon dioxide in the air, rather than fossil fuels, as is the Ithaca New York start-up Novomer--though it might be some time before this technology can be used on any large scale. Already we can make plastics out of plants--either turning biofuel ethanol into ethane to make conventional polymers, or truly biodegradable plastics made from corn or potatoes--though these at present represent only a tiny portion of our polymers.
Although truly biodegradable plant-based plastics have a huge plus (that is, they actually break down in the environment), they will never completely replace conventional plastics; for one, some plastics--such as blood bags--need to be durable and long-lasting. And in hot climates, biodegradable plastics aren't very stable. Moreover, they can't be accidentally introduced into the recycling stream, as they would contaminate the conventional plastics. But they certainly have their place, says Lavoie, as long as we keep them separate from conventional plastics disposal. For example, he says, providing biodegradable plates and cutlery at food courts would be a great solution, as they could just be chucked into the compost along with leftover food.
As for conventional, non-biodegradable polymer plastics made from biofuel ethanol, they could eat into our food supplies (as is already happening with biofuels). Turning all our agricultural land over to produce ethanol for plastics would still not create enough feedstock to satisfy our appetite for plastics. And we don't have the infrastructure necessary for that yet anyway.
In the meantime, we still rely overwhelmingly on fossil-fuels-based plastics. Our only choice is to be more wise about the way we use them.
"Justifiably, we have a love-hate relationship with plastic," says Lavoie. "But it is simply too valuable to throw away; it makes no sense at all to waste this resource."
BY THE NUMBERS
Amount of plastic produced in Canada every year: 4 million tons
Amount produced worldwide: about 120 million tons
In Canada, percentage used to make packaging: 35
Number of plastic bags used worldwide every year: 500 billion to a trillion
Percentage of Canadian population with access to plastic bottle recycling: 80
Percentage of plastic bottles that are recycled: 36
Total percentage of all plastics that are recovered for recycling: 7 (U.S. figure)
Amount of plastic used by each Canadian every year: 110 kilos
7 WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR PLASTIC FOOTPRINT
1. Carry reusable shopping bags, and even Tupperware when grabbing takeout
2. Avoid buying bottled water. Choose reusable bottles, and fill them from the tap
3. Buy in bulk if you can to reduce the amount of packaging you are bringing home
4. Buy loose produce
5. Make sure you know what kind of plastics are recycled in your area, and try to purchase plastic jars and bottles accepted by your local recycling depot
6. Instead of tossing plastic bags, polyester clothing and other hard-to-recycle plastics in the garbage, look for take-back programs near you
7. Don't litter. Ever. (But you knew that already)