Each year, humans dump approximately 14 billion pounds of trash into the world’s oceans, much of it plastic. This carelessness kills millions of sea creatures, putting an estimated 700 marine species at rick of extinction, and created the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a collection of debris in the North Pacific Ocean that stretches from the west coast of North America to Japan. While much of this debris is visible, not all plastic pollution is as it is broken down into microscopic threads and fragments that enter the food chain.
The plastic debris in our oceans result in approximately $13 billion a year in losses for cleaning up beaches and financial losses to the tourism and fishery industries.
They also put carbon in the air, contributing to the dire situation we find ourselves in now that the carbon threshold of 440ppm has been reached. Plastic products, spawned from the waste of making gasoline, are made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas which release toxic emissions when extracted from the Earth and during production. This contributes heavily to the quickly changing climate of Earth, putting life all over the planet at risk.
CNN reported that the French population throws away 150 single-use cups every second, or 4.73 billion per year. Now the have became the first country in the world to ban single-use plastic cups and plates as part of the Energy Transition for Green Growth Act. The new law states that by January of 2020, all disposable tableware must be made from 50 percent biologically sourced materials that can be composted in homes. By January 2025, that percentage will rise to 60.
Typical Americans use plastic products from the moment they wake up in the morning until the moment they go to bed without a second thought. Americans generate 10.5 million pounds of plastic waste per year. We only recycle one or two percent of that plastic; the rest of it is sitting in landfills or making its way into the environment. Some US cities have banned single-use plastic shopping bags, showing a trend of awareness regarding plastic waste creation.
These arguments are short-sighted and clouded by the desire for personal wealth over common good. Plastic bag bans, for example, have resulted not in paper bags being left out on the streets, but rather, in shifting consumer habits—bringing a tote bag along to the market is as easy as bringing along a shopping list, and most people don’t bat an eyelash at adding that extra step.
Plastic waste has gone so far as to cause flooding in the Phillipines. For the past year, local government units there have been banning the use of plastic in their respective municipalities. So far, at least 27 cities have banned the use of plastic, with Muntinlupa City leading the way. It is thought that plastic is a major culprit in blocking the drainage system, hence flooding is imminent whenever there is rainfall.
These bans have come about because the issue has become impossible to ignore. The evidence of waste is all around us and has begun to pose large enough problems that something is finally being done to limit their use. So what are the alternatives when it comes to packaging and single-use drink and food utensils?
The Future of Utensils and Packaging
Up until fairly recently, the next best solution to the vast amounts of plastic ‘disposable’ cutlery and packaging we create and consume on this planet has been to focus on creating better compostable, or biodegradable, single-use consumer goods, which is a small step forward, and a decent alternative to virgin plastics. But there may be an even better solution, or at least a better partial solution, which is to make certain of these items actually being edible so there’s no lengthy composting process involved and no recycling bin to find.
First, a spoon, developed in 2011 in India for the purpose of providing an alternative to plastic disposable cutlery and disposable bamboo chopsticks, is made using various flours with no additives or preservatives. Baked into a fully edible product, it is simple, useful, affordable and sustainable. It’s one of those ideas that seems so obvious and so fitting after you learn about it, and one which could quite possibly reduce a major plastic waste stream.
The spoon will naturally decompose “anywhere between 3 to 7 days if insects, dogs, birds do not eat it” and customers can specify a gluten-free recipe if desired or request additional or alternative ingredients, such as a “pulp mix of carrot, beetroot, spinach and other spices” or the adding of flavor essences for an additional cost. The shelf life of the edible spoons is said to be about 18 months
Recently, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers have discovered that a milk protein called casein can be used to develop an edible, biodegradable packaging film. The casein-based film is up to 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen away from food because proteins form a tighter network when they polymerize, the researchers found. It’s also more effective than current edible packaging materials made from starch and protects food products that are sensitive to light.
“Everything is in smaller and smaller packaging, which is great for grabbing for lunch, for school, but then it generates so much waste,” said Laetitia Bonnaillie, a USDA researcher who co-led the casein packaging research. “Edible packaging can be great for that.”
One of the potential applications could be as a dissolving packet of dried coffee or soup. Instead of tearing the top off and pouring it out, you just drop the whole thing in hot water, and it dissolves, adding protein to boot. Another is as single-serve food wrappers that use large amounts of plastic for such products as cheese sticks.
Unfortunately, unless companies try finding their own applications of the casein packaging, it will be many years before the USDA researchers can make it available, Bonnaillie said. She said they are at the very beginning of a process of finding applications for a product that has the potential to be “so much better than plastic.”
Putting a ban like France has in place would give motivation to these companies to find more sustainable ways of distributing their goods instead of putting the burden on the consumer.
Plastic water bottles are another major part of our “throw-away” culture. And while grabbing a plastic bottle on the go might seem convenient, the consequences are not convenient at all. 40 billion plastic bottles end up in our landfills every year, and ultimately, our oceans.
When a product design student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, Ari Jónsson, learned the impact our plastic use is having on the environment, he took action. Creating a water bottle that’s made out of red algae, which holds its shape until it’s empty, and then it begins to decompose. The 100% biodegradable bottle is so natural and safe the team claims it is safe to eat.
While these are solutions for lessening the impact plastic pollution will have on our future, we are still challenged with the infiltration of toxins we have already created.
Cleaning Up Our Already Plastic Clogged Environment
Biodegredation is usually a term used to refer to the breakdown of organic elements, but widespread studies on the biodegradation of plastics has been carried out in order to overcome the current and future environmental problems associated with synthetic plastic waste.
In a few examples of this research being down, there is a pattern of success that can mean environmentally sustainable ways of ridding ourselves of the plastic waste without creating more emissions or toxins from their recycling or burning.
A team of Japanese scientists has found a species of bacteria that eats the type of plastic found in most disposable water bottles. The discovery will hopefully lead to new methods to manage the more than 50 million tons of this particular type of plastic produced globally each year.
The plastic found in water bottles is known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It is also found in polyester clothing, frozen-dinner trays and blister packaging. “If you walk down the aisle in Wal-Mart you’re seeing a lot of PET,” said Tracy Mincer, who studies plastics in the ocean at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Part of the appeal of PET is that it is lightweight, colorless and strong. However, it has also been notoriously resistant to being broken down by microbes-what experts call “biodegradation.”
Previous studies had found a few species of fungi can grow on PET, but until now, no one had found any microbes that can eat it.
The research time has now found a plastic-eating bacterium they named Ideonella sakaiensis and report that a community of them could break down a thin film of PET over the course of six weeks if the temperature were held at a steady 86 degrees Fahrenheit. While it’s rate of elimination is slow, discoveries like this will further the success of biodergredation discoveries.
Another plastic, polyurethane is particularly destructive to the planet. The hardy, widely used polymer is found in foam insulation, bike seats, garden hoses, Spandex fabric and more, and its use has increased steadily since it was first developed in the 1930s. The material has long been considered nonbiodegradable because its chemical bonds are so strong. It is usually reduced by incineration, which releases harmful gases into the ecosystem, or it languishes indefinitely in landfills or the ocean, where, alternately, ultraviolet rays from the sun or waves very slowly break it into still-harmful microplastic. And it is not going away anytime soon; polyurethane production is rising both in America and overseas.
However, the pesky plastic may have a natural combatant, found in the most unlikely of places: the Amazon rain forest. In 2011, 20 undergraduates from Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry traveled to Ecuador with professor Scott Strobel for an annual research trip and discovered a fungus that eats only polyurethane. It’s the first microbe found to survive exclusively on the plastic, and, most notably, it can do so in anaerobic (oxygen-free) environments, meaning it could potentially thrive at the bottom of landfills.
“It’s interesting research. I think this approach of bioremediation could be very useful in treating accumulated plastic waste,” says David Schwartzman, professor emeritus of biology at Howard University. He has long studied the ecological properties of fungi and lichens and published several papers on the subject. “Landfills are sources of serious problems. They’re leaking methane as well as other pollutants that get into the groundwater. Some bioremediation may be necessary to deal with the huge mountainous accumulation of these waste.”
Although Strobel does not believe there’s enough in the study to warrant media coverage, other researchers in the field are more optimistic. If applied successfully to landfills, the fungus could mark a major advancement in conservationists’ ongoing attempt to change our society’s linear model of manufacturing, says Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at Columbia University and Rockefeller University. “Under that model, we extract [a] resource, we process the material, we sell it, and we discard it after use,” he says. “The problem with that model is, there is no longer a way to throw things away; what we discard comes back to bite us, one way or another. This study is part of a larger effort to replace that with a circular model.”
Researchers have also discovered yellow mealworms can digest even previously non-biodegradable plastics such as Styrofoam. The team from the US and China discovered the larvae of Tenebrio molitor, also known as yellow mealworms, can digest even previously non-biodegradable plastics such as Styrofoam. Microorganisms in their guts degrade the plastic into carbon dioxide and transforms this into nutrition for the worms, according to the research.
There have also been many advancements in machines that travel our oceans autonomously, cleaning up debris and filtering microbes and chemical toxins from the water. We can only hope these technologies provide safe and effective solutions to the pressing problems increasing as waste continues to break down into smaller and smaller particles.
Future Production of Plastic Products
Lack of degradability and the closing of landfill sites as well as growing water and land pollution problems have led to concern about plastics. With the excessive use of plastics and increasing pressure being placed on capacities available for plastic waste disposal, the need for biodegradable plastics and biodegradation of plastic wastes has assumed increasing importance in the last few years. Awareness of the waste problem and its impact on the environment has awakened new interest in the area of degradable polymers. The interest in environmental issues is growing and there are increasing demands to develop material which do not burden the environment significantly.
In the future we can hope to see, among edible and organic biodegradable goods, plastics that are made fully biodegradable as well.