Plastics, plastics, plastics. Everywhere we look we can find plastic. Plastic in the ocean and on land is becoming a standard. Plastic waste are becoming a great problem for the entire planet. It keeps growing and does not seem to stop. Per current evaluations there will be more microplastic and plastic in the oceans than there is fish by 2050. How can we solve this problem?
With ever increasing world population, demand for plastic remains high. It is evaluated, that approximately 270 million tons of plastic was produced annually in recent years. 18.5% of this number was produced in Europe alone. These numbers will be even higher in the future. Plastic waste pollution has a direct effect on the ecosystems. Thousands of seabirds, turtles, seals, and other marine life die every year due to plastics ingestion or entanglement.
PLASTIC AND PRODUCTS
Everyday commodities are often made of plastic and our desire for convenience is boosting this production as we go. From one-time-use packaging to full shopping shells of commodities, and clothes, which release microplastics while being washed. In the first decade of this century, we produced more plastics, that was produced in the entire history until the year 2000.
In some ways, plastics produced from end petrochemical polymers (long chain molecules mostly derived from oil) perfectly satisfies consumer expectations. It is clear why it prevails in many industries (most commonly in technology, food, and fashion sectors) as the first choice for packaging and much more. It is durable, robust, and can be shaped to fit our needs. However, the disadvantages of long-term use of plastic appear very quickly – where does all this plastics go after it is disposed? All the plastic “to-go” cups where we get our drinks, plastic bags, and many other products. Where do they go after serving their purpose?
It required 77 million years of organic material degradation for the fossil sources from which plastic is made (and we don’t think twice about it at disposal) to be created.
Where Does Plastic End Up?
Focusing on Europe it is estimated that approximately half of plastic waste end up on landfills. European Plastics Association claims, that 30% of plastic is recycled into new plastic or used to create energy. However, plastic recycling process can be very energy intensive, but closer of sustainability loop on one end with the use of recycled material compared to synthesis of new one, at least promotes the sustainable progress. The rest of plastics, which is not recycled or end up on landfills, can contaminate the environment, especially the marine ecosystem of our biosphere.
Plastic waste in nature is a global problem. Due to the robust nature of molecules inside plastic structure it stays in the ecosystems for a long time. Degradation process is a long lasting one and it literally stays at point for years, decades, centuries. Plastic cup from which you enjoyed your coffee and was in use for 10 minutes, requires decades to degrade. Plastic is so long lasting, that every piece of plastic that was ever made, still exists today (EPA).
When plastics endanger the marine environments, this presents a very toxic consequences for organisms on all levels of the food chain. Mammals such as whales or dolphins often mistaken pieces of plastic for food and ingest it. This leads to increased mortality rates for the species. Many already endangered animals, including green turtles, are in even more danger due to plastic in the ocean, which leads to a decrease of biodiversity. Migratory birds, which fly thousands of miles across the globe, are especially endangered due to floating plastic in the ocean.
Due to microplastic, not only the well-known species are in danger. With degradation, plastic is changed into microplastic. These small plastic particles move through water and enter the sediments. Some of the smallest ocean inhabitants, zooplankton, were observed to ingest these small plastic particles. This is very concerning, as zooplankton presents a food source for many fish, that consequently accumulate this plastics inside their tissues. Furthermore, these fish can be tracked to human food chains, where we ingest these toxic particles. Microplastic is an active research area and the effects of microplastic for the environment and human health are already being researched.
It is proposed, that microplastic also works as a disruptive agent inside our endocrine system; physiological system, which regulates hormone production. Bacteria (and other microorganisms) in the oceans, which take care of ecosystem proper functioning and maintaining global biogeochemical cycles (such as carbon or nitrogen cycle) can also be damaged.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
An island of trash is presented by plastic in the ocean (north-central Pacific). This is the largest area of accumulated plastics in the world. And how large is it? You can check the photo below:
PLASTIC AND POTENTIAL ALTERNATIVES
Is there a way to stop plastic waste pollution? Even though effect can be seen on the most isolated oceans on the planet (plastic waste pollution even reached the Arctic), long-term management strategies could prevent even more damage to the ecosystems if we act as fast as possible.
Sustainable approaches development has a potential in preserving the natural capital of our oceans. Furthermore, sustainably produced materials such as molecules from bacteria or plants similar to plastics, could help in decrease the oil-based products use.
The Alternative – Hemp
Plant plastic based on hemp has been similar or even stronger than regular plastics. It has an advantage of being produced from sustainable sources. Cellulose, the main component of plant stem walls is extremely strong and hard. Moreover, bio composites based on cellulose degrade faster through time. Plant based plastics are becoming more popular in the industry, while bacteria produced materials lack behind a bit.
HEMP BENEFITS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Alternative to regular plastic, which shows great potential is hemp. Hemp bioplastics degrades under standard conditions up to 3 months. This is extraordinary compared to traditional plastic. Furthermore, it is extremely strong, hemp can be grown almost anywhere in the world, and during growth phase it captures a large amount of CO2. This means it also helps decrease the release of this gas to the atmosphere and is captured in the product for a long time. Even Henry Ford swore to hemp:
We can find quite a few products made of hemp fiber or hemp plastic already. From clothes, accessories, furniture, musical instruments, sunglasses, and many others – hemp can really replace most of the materials. Another interesting case of hemp use as an alternative comes from the automobile industry. Certain BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Bugatti vehicles have their door panels and rear shelves made of hemp fiber. Maybe Henry Ford’s vision is coming to life after all.
Hemp product production is still limited. It has a lot to do with hemp growth legislation across the world as well. With raising awareness and increasing production capabilities the prices of hemp products could decrease as well. As for now, it remains a boutique production.
PLASTIC AND THE FUTURE
We can all agree that plastic pollution is a great problem. It already comes with a possible solution. Hemp is one of them and is efficient, diverse, and can be grown almost anywhere in the world. With sustainable production investments and raising public awareness on the importance of being connected to our planet, the move from unsustainable products based on oil might be closer than we think. And with the emergence of new alternatives, plastics in the ocean will not be too common.