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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends | [ssba]

Super Science Trends

My Opinion is Trash

“Trash” is really more of a philosophical label than a material one. After all, it’s just the word we gave to things that we’ve determined have no purpose after their initial use. One of the key questions facing manufacturing companies about sustainability and waste reduction is reconsidering the “end-of-life fate” of a product. Do you have a resource, or do you have trash? Do you want to reuse or repurpose that plastic water bottle, or throw it out? What can you do to push someone to make an ethical decision? One solution could be as simple as changing the colour of a bottle to make it more appealing to recycle.

A global analysis at the University of Georgia found that of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced in 2015, only 9% of it was recycled, 79% went to landfill, and the remaining 12% was incinerated. Even then, from a resource management perspective, recycling doesn’t solve the problem entirely, it just delays it, especially when most plastic is made from petrochemicals like polyethylene. Eventually enough people make the decision to throw their bottles or bags into the trash rather than the recycling, and that’s another layer added to the landfill.

A proposed alternative is to create better plastics from natural polymers. Plant fibres like lignin or cellulose (from which celluloid, one of the earliest plastics, is derived) or newly invented fungal-derived plastics break down better in the environment. If we have to continue to use plastic, these new materials would ideally help move the industry from a reliance on petrochemicals to a “bio-based economy” where natural materials are given precedence over manufactured ones, and plastic resources are reused as often as possible.

This may be a good solution on the macro level, but the biggest plastic crisis is about the stuff you can’t see. Plastics like synthetic fabrics, tyres, and other polyethylene products slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces in the environment, until they’re smaller than a grain of sugar, only a few nanometers in size. But they never dissipate completely. These tiny fragments, microplastics, are in everything. 83% of tap water samples from 12 countries, including the UK, Germany, and France, were found to have been contaminated with microplastic. A German study found that there was microplastic fibres in 24 of the locally produced beers. Microplastics even make their way into the food chain, with a third of the fish caught in the UK found to have ingested microplastic fibres.

While this sounds like a public health crisis waiting to happen, the jury is still out on whether microplastics present any immediate health risk to humans, as there’s been no research into it yet. It would be exceedingly difficult to study their effects, as they’re so prevalent in our environment at this point it would be near impossible to find a control group of people that hasn’t been exposed to them. Certain hazardous chemicals like pesticides can bind to microplastic fibres, some of which are thought to interfere with hormone production when ingested, but there’s about one to four fibres per 500ml of tap water on average. It’s not known what drinking them could do to the human body in accumulation.

For now, it’s a matter of being smart and conscientious enough, both at the manufacturing level and the consumer level, to use plastic ethically and responsibly, and not letting them accumulate in the environment after the fact. Or we have to get used to the fact that everything has some element of trash in it now. I guess it depends on your philosophy.


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