Plastics are all around us, in the houses we live in, in the sofa’s we sit on, the cars we drive, in the tv’s we look at, wrapped as packing material around our groceries, and as main material of the bags in which we carry these groceries home. While for many products the Dutch society has put in place some sort of recycling scheme, there remains a persistent category of plastics that is a source of pollution, disposable plastics.
A moment on the lips, an eternity on the hips
An all to familiar phrase for those amongst us who are weight conscious, is easily applied to the effect plastics have in our society and natural environment. Through (un)conscious littering a substantial amount of plastics end up in our waterways and eventually oceans, and stays there…..
Disposable plastics are basically all single use items, like bottles, bags, cups, straws, utensils, packaging materials, and other products we use once or twice. A second category of single use products that should be considered in this respect are micro-beads and micro-pellets. These micro-granules are utilized as an abrasive in soaps, cleaners and even toothpaste, but also as abrasive material for industrial purposes.
While this type of plastics is applied for single or short-term use, the material properties of plastics are not in line with it’s use. Plastics are an inert material, which means it has the nasty tendency to stick around for 100’s to 1000’s of years. It doesn’t degrade into nutrients, like for instance an apple does.
In short, we are collectively using plastic plates for our afternoon bbq, or washing our hands after fixing the car, and if not refused properly, the stuff stays around for literally 100’s of years. The main reasons for these types of plastics to end up in the environment are carelessness in use, inability to prevent pollution, and irresponsible material- / product design.
And, mind you, even in our Dutch society, this IS an issue. Just taking a stroll along a small waterway in the west of Amsterdam proves my point here. This is WITH all the recycling programs we do have in place, and WITH all the street cleaning activities that are going on. Economic incentives (like charging a (small) amount for a plastic bag) are obviously not always effective in preventing this type of pollution to occur.
Outside of the fact that it looks bad, you might say ‘what is the problem here’? There is an increasing amount of scientific research that shows some serious health risks that are developing because of this water and ocean pollution.
One of the issues with plastics is that, while the base material is inert, it contains additives, which tend to ‘leak’ out of the plastic and into the water. There are roughly only about seven types of plastics, the number of additives however run into the thousands. Additives are used to adjust the material properties of the base plastic material, like plasticity, color, antistatics, or fire characteristics. Some of these additives have been proven to affect fertility, our nervous system, and have carcinogenic properties. While the base plastic material tends to ‘leak’ these additives, the inert particles themselves are functioning as ‘collection’ and ‘concentration’ points for pollutants in our waterways, including these additives.
The (growing) usage of micro beads and micro pellets are widely regarded as the single biggest source of increased micro plastics pollution of our waterways and oceans. Current water sewage systems are unable to extract the micro granules from our sewage water (they are too small), resulting in 1 to 1 overflow into our natural ecosystem.
Where microbeads and –pellets are purpose-produced as small particles, other disposable plastics also degrade into smaller particles. This ever-reducing (inert) particle size of plastics poses a serious risk to the uptake of this material into the ecosystems, and the food chain, our food chain. Plastics particle have been found in the digestive systems of animals throughout the aquatic ecosystem, tending to concentrate higher up in the food chain.
Directions for solution
OK, given the above, plastics pollution in our waterways and oceans is probably not such a good idea. So, what can be done about this, who should do it, and what are the opportunities? And furthermore, what role can design play in all of this?
In my next blog entry I will explore some directions for remediation.
Sources / Further Reading:
– Dr. Van Weenen, H.,ir. S. Haffmans, Verkennende Studie “Plasticverontreiniging van de Oceanen”, Innovation BV, march 2011
– Leslie. H.A. (Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University), Van der Meulen, M.D., (Deltares), Kleissen, F.M., (Deltares), Vethaak, A.D., (Deltares; Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University), Microplastic Litter in the Dutch Marine Environment – Providing facts and analysis for Dutch policymakers concerned with marine microplastic litter, Deltares, november 2011
- Oceans Teem With Tiny Plastic Particles (scientificamerican.com)
- When You Wash Your Clothes, You Release Microplastic Fibers Into the Oceans (treehugger.com)
- Microplastics from Clothing: Are They in Our Food Chain? (icountformyearth.wordpress.com)
- A life in plastic – new uses for old bags (goodnewsvabeach.wordpress.com)
- Ocean’s plastic pollution turned into art (thezigzagger.com)
- When & When Not to Use Plastics Key to Kicking Oil Addiction – Plus Reducing Waste & Pollution (treehugger.com)
- Are Plastics Safe? (menopausemaniac.com)
- Plastic Pollution Coalition – Dianna Cohen Shares Her Contributions in Saving the World’s Ocea (TrendHunter.com) (trendhunter.com)
- Plastic collection on Wednesdays (thehindu.com)
- The photo degradation (gtfchampionshipsscotland.com)