Tiki the Penguin’s guide to the problem with plastic

So what’s the problem?

If you look around you, you’ll probably see plastic of some sort. You’re probably wearing clothes that are partly made of plastic. If you have a phone in your pocket, that’s mostly plastic. So is your computer. Much of your food and many drinks come in plastic containers — like bags or bottles. Most toys are plastic.

Plastic is everywhere… and I do mean everywhere! This is because people make it in large quantities because it is so useful in just about everything people do. That’s why waste plastic is becoming a serious problem, especially around the world’s coastlines and oceans. I’ve written this guide to show you what’s going on and what you can do to help make things better.

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What is plastic?

Oil tankers and a huge plastic-making factory

Most plastics are synthetic and have two very special properties: they can be made into just about any shape because they can be moulded. The second property I’ll tell you about in a minute but it’s seriously bad! Almost all plastics are made from  petrochemicals. The first plastic ever made was called bakelite, invented in 1907. Since bakelite, the list of plastics has got ever longer. How many plastics can you name? Most common plastics are  polymers. All these can be varied by clever chemists to make all the different types of plastic you see and use every day. You can find out much more about plastics by searching the web. My guide is about the problems with plastics: they might be very useful for humans but they are bad news for much other life on our planet.

People make a lot of things out of plastic because it is cheap and versatile. Plastic things also last a long time. This can be very useful for people but it’s one of the biggest problems for the environment. This is because of the second — and bad — property I said I’d tell you about. Most plastics last just about forever because no life form has yet evolved which can EAT plastic. Almost everything else made by humans gets broken down, either by microbes which can use waste as food or by natural decay of metals like steel. The sun or the pounding of waves on the seashores of the world does break up plastic into little bits but the little bits don’t vanish… and that is one of the biggest problems with this human-made stuff. I’ll show you why shortly.

What does ‘synthetic’ mean?
Something that people make that does not exist in the natural world
That means chemicals which people make from fossil fuels like oil and gas.
‘Poly’ means ‘many’ so polymers that form plastics are made up of very long chains of carbon atoms. Other elements like oxygen, sulphur and nitrogen may be included to make different sorts of plastic.
All other ‘natural’ waste — like food, wood, cardboard which have been made from living things — decays because other forms of life like fungi can use the ‘waste’ as a food source.
called rusting or oxidation
So it is biodegradable: ‘bio’ = life and ‘degradable’ = can be broken down, degraded

An African bull elephant can weigh over 8 tonnes (17,500 pounds) and be over 7 metres long (23 feet). Photo by nickandmel2006If all the plastic humans make every year was weighed in elephants, how many elephants would you need? Answer: 30 million!!! If all those elephants stood in a line, it would stretch more than 5 times round our planet.
Source: Plastics – the Facts 2013. 241 Mtonnes produced globally in 2012. Hover your mouse over elephant image for actual weight and height

What happens to waste plastic?

I’m shocked at all this plastic flotsam in the ocean

That’s easy, you say: it’s recycled, and that is certainly true in some places for some types of plastic. But other plastics — and there are many — are not easily recycled. Some plastics get burned to make heat energy to power electricity generators.And some — probably most — end up on garbage tips or worse, just get thrown away, ending up in the soil (on farms), rivers, lakes and, in particular, the world’s oceans.

Burning plastic to produce electric power sounds like a good idea but it can, if not burned under very carefully controlled conditions, make a lot of toxic air pollution

Let’s go to the seaside

I’ll bet you love the seaside! I do, of course, but I don’t love the plastic trash you find, brought in by winds and waves from anywhere and everywhere on the planet.

five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world”
Jenna Jambeck

Unfortunately, the sea is where so much of the plastic people throw away ends up.

Did you know that since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic has been thrown away? And where do you think most of this has gone? Take a look at a gallery of shame… and hope Then read on to find out.

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Trashing the oceans: the great Pacific garbage patch

Imagine you’re sailing across the Pacific Ocean, way out of sight of land, right? So you don’t expect your boat to be pushing through great rafts of floating plastic for mile after mile, do you? Welcome to the great Pacific garbage patch… and to a modern myth because there aren’t “great rafts of floating plastic”. The “garbage patch” certainly exists — and there are several others — but the plastic is mostly small bits the size of confetti or smaller. It floats in the surface layers of the ocean forming a sort of thin ‘soup’ (yuk!). This plastic garbage is caught in the best known of 5 giant rotating ocean currents called gyres. These floating patches of plastic debris have become worrying new ecosystems which scientists call the “Plastisphere“.

What harm do floating plastics do?

Unfortunately, many marine animals mistake some types of plastic for food and eat them. Turtles often die because the plastic they eat blocks their digestive system so they starve. Marine mammals (like dolphins) often get trapped by plastic nets or ropes and either drown or starve to death: “ ghost fishing“. Great and rare sea birds like albatrosses also get tangled up in old fishing gear and die. Around 400,000 marine mammals die every year due to plastic pollution in oceans. The list of horrible facts about plastics goes on and on.

Plastics also poison the animals that eat them. Eventually, much of the floating ocean plastic sinks to the sea floor or ends up on beaches all around the world. People don’t see the rubbish on the sea floor but the animals (filter feeders like worms) accidentally eat it.

Nothing to do with ghosts! ‘Ghost fishing’ happens when lost or abandoned fishing gear (nets made of plastic) continues to catch fish. Other gear like lost lobster and crab traps (cages made of plastic net and placed by people on the sea-floor) does the same. In both cases, the trapped animals die and are eaten by other sea creatures leaving the gear free to catch more fish. And so the ‘ghost fishing’ goes on and on …

 

A wandering albatross in distress. Her foot is caught in an old fishing net. If she can’t get free, she will starve to death

Choking the food chain: microplastics and nurdles

This is the scary stuff. You don’t notice it because it’s very small (less than a small pea) but it gets everywhere. Microplastics form in the same way sand on beaches forms: by the endless crashing and pounding of the waves which can turn big rocks and stones into sand over time. This is called mechanical erosion and it affects anything that’s on the world’s coasts, including the gazillions of pieces of plastic waste that end up on every beach everywhere — even on the shores of large lakes. Because very few plastics can be broken down by biological or chemical means, it is only pounding waves bashing bits of plastic against rocks and twisting it about that can actually break plastic down into very small pieces — about the size of sand grains. On the land, ultraviolet rays from the sun also play a role in breaking down plastics into small pieces (photodegradation).


Chemicals such as strong acids or alkalis normally can dissolve just about anything — but not plastic!

“We’re bottom of the food chain. Most bigger sea creatures depend on us!” (These are krill and seafloor-feeding worms speaking)

“What’s for breakfast?” “Awww! Not nurdles again!?”

“Nurdles make us sick!”

Click this image please!

Nurdles are another type of tiny plastic that cause serious problems. They sound vaguely cute, like cartoon characters, but they are not imaginary. They are tiny beads — smaller than a soybean — which are the raw material of plastic production, ready to be moulded into anything from bags to toys. Accidents happen and many nurdles escape, typically from container ships carrying them around the world. And so nurdles are now a significant source of ocean and beach pollution and share all the unpleasant properties of other microplastics. Microplastics are made of all the main types of plastics used by people: polyethylene (polythene), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), PVC or polystyrene. They don’t get removed by wastewater treatment plants and so — guess what?! — they end up in the ocean.

Another big source of microplastics is waste water from washing machines. Tiny fibres from clothes made of synthetic materials get broken off the clothing by the pounding action of the machine and end up in sewage outflows into rivers and seas. And then there are personal care products like scrubs and peels many of which contain plastic particles which also end up in the sea.

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I’m looking at sand from the seafloor down a microscope. Oh dear! What am I seeing?

Like other types of plastic, these microplastics don’t go away. They build up in the sand and mud of coastlines and on the sea floor. Where there are sand dunes, the wind will blow them inland so they become part of the soil. They don’t decay because plastics don’t do that. But they do enter the food chain. Because microplastics (including nurdles) seem like food to the myriad little animals that normally filter-feed in sand and mud, they get eaten by them. But they are not food and can block up the animals’ digestive systems so they starve to death.

These tiny sea creatures (like worms, molluscs and crustaceans at the bottom of the food chain are very sensitive to toxic substances (like plasticisers) and these toxins then pass up the food chain… and humans are at the top of the chain! Scientists don’t yet know much about the damage done by these ‘invisible’ microplastics but suspect that they will turn out to be serious. They already know that microplastics can ‘suck up‘ and carry with them toxic chemicals (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs. These man-made chemicals already pollute the oceans.

The 12 worst of these POPs were banned in 2004 but they are very stable and take many years to disappear. Because of their stability, they get spread all around the world via the atmosphere and oceans. Many end up in the Arctic, far from their source, and are bad news for the Inuit peoples and polar bears because POPs ‘bioaccumulate’ (or ‘biomagnify’) in both plants and animals. This is critical for meat-eating animals at the top of the food chain such as people and polar bears. POPs become concentrated in animals’ body fat so if a person eats meat from an animal like a fish which has ‘bioaccumulated’ POPs from its own food, the chemicals become concentrated and can reach up to 70,000 times the levels you would find in the environment.

Before human industry, there were no POPs anywhere. They are not natural chemicals. But some POPs are useful to industry which is why they are made

  • because some can be used to kill crop pests like insects
  • because they are needed in many industry products (e.g PCBs )

Unfortunately some POPs form because of the burning of trash containing plastics at waste tips and incinerators dioxins are the best known ‘nasty’ which get unintentionally made when PVC plastic burns).

For more on POPs, including the “dirty dozen” worst offenders, visit the US EPA website.

Poor cow. Little does she know what’s under the grass…

So humans have to do something to stop plastic pollution. Just a century ago, there was no plastic and no pollution problem. Now it’s everywhere — in the ocean, on every coastline, on the sea floor and blowing in the wind to eventually wind up on city streets, parks, trees, fences and farmland.

Molluscs? What are they?
These are an enormous group of animals without backbones (invertebrates) which make up around a quarter of all sea creatures. They include many kinds of filter-feeding shellfish — snails, abalone, limpets, and conches — right up to the intelligent, free-swimming animals like octopus and squid
What are crustaceans?
These are a large group of arthropods (animals with ‘outside’ skeletons and jointed legs) such as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill and barnacles
These are chemicals which are added to plastics to make them softer and more flexible. Best known are the pthalates, and some of these are known to be toxic
Meaning absorb and make stronger; concentrate

By 2012, the world’s oceans contained 165 million tons of plastic pollution.

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What can you all do about it?

Obviously people aren’t going to stop making plastics. They are just so useful in so many things. So first, you humans need to know that plastic is a big problem. Then you can start to do something about it. Here are some ideas for you to think about and then get active!

Here’s an imagined plastic recycling centre. People are taking their waste plastic to be recycled and they get paid for doing this
  • You know about the three Rs, don’t you? Reduce, re-use, recycle. But now a fourth R has joined the other three. Can you guess what it is? Read on to check you know your four Rs. ‘Reduce’ means don’t buy so much plastic stuff. You can buy fizzy drink makers which mean you don’t have to keep buying and throwing away perfectly good plastic bottles! ‘Re-use’ is obvious. Plastic bottles are a good example. They are strong and can be used over and over again. Or why not use glass for bottles? That’s what people did before plastic. You know about Recycling (see below). And the fourth R is (did you guess it?): Reject! Say NO to single-use plastics like bags and bottles
  • If you already recycle plastic, excellent. If you don’t, find out how you can. Recycling of all plastic waste is the key — difficult but not impossible. Let’s take plastic bottles, for example: One idea would be to make a small charge for every plastic bottle sold. If you return the empty bottles you bought, you get your money back and the bottles get recycled. ‘Waste’ becomes valuable — a great incentive for people to recycle plastic is if they can make money from it. Once plastic waste gets seen by some new business as having real value, it will be used again and again.. So the problem is mostly solved.

Old-style plastic chokes any creature that tries to eat it but this bag is biodegradable and these tiny creatures are tucking in!
  • Join — or start — a plastic clean-up group. If you live near the seaside, there are often groups which have beach-cleaning days (see Resources for info on groups or organisations that already do this)
  • Scientists are learning how to make plastics (like supermarket bags and food packaging) from plant materials (not petrochemicals like oil) which can then be composted and will rot down like any other plant remains. In other words, there are tiny organisms which do ‘eat’ this sort of plastic. It is biodegradable. If you think of non-degradable plastics from petrochemicals as Plastics version 1.0 , then you could call the new plastics which are biodegradable Plastics version 2.0.

Did you know that

  • the USA produced almost 32 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2012
  • less than 9 per cent of that waste got recycled

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That’s it, kids! I’ve shown you the problem with plastic and offered you some solutions. So now over to you. You’ve got to fix this because the problem is global and I’m sure you can if you all work together!
Think you know all about plastic? Test yourself in my quiz

Want to find out more? Click here for videos and other resources.

If you found my guide helpful, please see if you can make donation with a secure payment for which I thank you very much!

Did you find my plastic guide useful? If you did, please tell your friends about it. Thank you and good luck with fixing the plastic problem!

Meet SHRILK — just one example of Plastics 2.0
Mix chitin from shrimp shells with a spider silk protein and you get shrilk, a tough, biodegradable replacement for plastics from petrochemicals. Scientists are developing many more.

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Smart ideas for making use of plastic waste

In Guatemala, poor people make eco bricks for wall-building. They make the ‘bricks’ from plastic bottles stuffed with plastic trash.
In Joygopalpur city, India, a Danish student has invented a way to make plastic bricks from soft plastic waste (like plastic bags) collected by people who can’t afford to build their homes out of proper bricks and have to use mud. The plastic bricks are strong and the heavy monsoon rains don’t affect them unlike the mud bricks. So waste plastic could now become a useful source of building materials for poor people. The student, Lise Vestergaard, is now working on a way to use solar power to make the bricks. That would be a real