Every year the U.S. throws away roughly 29 billion plastic bottles. These bottles take about 17 million barrels of crude oil to manufacture. That is the equivalent of keeping 1 million cars on the road for 12 months1! According to State of the planet 2, as of 2009, the U.S. consumes on average, 110 million tons of plastic. Sadly, only 6.5 percent of this plastic is recycled and as little as seven percent is converted into energy. That leaves a huge pile of trouble for people and the environment.
We have to start thinking about how we are going to deplete the enormous amounts of plastic deposits in the ocean and on our landfills.
After doing some research, and experiencing firsthand through my father’s recycling business the possibilities and limitations, I can safely say there is not just one, simple solution. In fact, think of it like a shotgun shell: A gauge with tiny little solutions all clumped together, waiting to make a big impact, together utilizing a number of innovative solutions.
Here are a few solutions worth mentioning. My father, a South African, has been a part of an amazing project. At certain degrees of temperature, plastic can be remolded and turned into amazing products like the ones shown in the photos. These are viable durable products that can be made from most plastics and replaces wood as a building material.
The products also lasts longer than wood and gives plastic, that otherwise would only have been used once, a lasting purpose. The product is easily achievable and can spark a cheap, sustainable green market in developing worlds.
Ecovative, a green innovative company, has come up with a totally new natural replacement to Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene a type of plastic). Stryofoam occupies up to 25 percent of landfills in the U.S., according to Eben Bayer, one of the founders of MycoBond. Bayer expressed the need to replace this plastic product with something that is completely natural: Mycelium. Mycelium, the so-called ‘roots’ of mushrooms, is a fungal body that breaks down cellulose. MycoBond uses local cellulose composites or byproducts like; wood chippings, rice husks or nut casings as the source of mycelium food. Pictures on their website illustrate how the mycelium after just 5 days has glued all the cellulose together in a mold we could use as safety packaging. This would relieve the huge dependency we have on Styrofoam, which is otherwise a one-time use product.
There are many more innovative solutions like, MBA Polymers, who have found a solution to sort through plastic types making it economically viable to recycle in big landfill settings. Scientists that have found microbes that are able to break down certain chemical chains within plastic, making it less toxic. All very viable and possible technologies, today
In my last blog, the Plastic Bag Dilemma, I explain how the Mississippi River transports plastic to the ocean. Well, when these heaps of plastic hit the surf and ride the ocean currents to the massive churning gyres of the ocean, they break apart, into smaller and smaller pieces. Fish and other aquatic animals see these odd-looking colorful pieces of plastic thinking its food and chomp down. Here’s where you come in. Scientists are now finding undigested plastic in the abdomens of fish and other wildlife. This plastic can attract toxic chemicals that latch onto the plastic, which would otherwise flow free in the ocean, escaping the mouths of fish. The plastic is consumed by tiny fish that are eaten by bigger fish, and eventually humans end this food chain by consuming the big fish, like tuna. At the end of the line, we are eating toxic levels magnified by many fish which consumed these plastics, something called biomagnification. This magnification through a carrier like plastic can bring minute levels of toxic chemicals to dangerously high levels. Still like sushi?
The river, like any other ecosystem, is vital for life to survive. And with many endangered species living either in or off rivers like the Mississippi, it is inevitable that plastic will continue to harm these fragile ecosystems. Entanglements (a mesh of different plastics and/or ropes) kill marine life, and birds often use plastic for their nests. There are countless images of turtles and seals being strangled by beer can rings. Plastic can also block digestive systems of animals that mistake the plastic for food, which leads to death. It can also block sunlight to the ocean or river beds, which will result in ecosystem collapse, as plant life requires sunlight to grow and therefore provide food to other animals.
Plastic has a place in our consumer lifestyles and I do not propose doing away with this unique material that is vital to the advances of our technologically-driven society. Instead, what this research has shown me, is that we have the capacity to reduce plastic generation from crude oil immensely and therefore start to recycle this substance from a resource that is abundant beyond measure. By reusing and recycling, we may inadvertently reduce plastic pollution in our oceans by making it economically desirable for it to be fished out of our oceans, rivers and beaches.
Endangered species linked to river ecosystems are the most vulnerable to water pollution. Continue to read on the issues faced by these species when we begin to delve into the effects of plastic pollution on the Mississippi and its ecosystems.
By Calvin Price
- Catherine Fox, “Drinking Water: Bottled or From the Tap?” in National Geographic Kids (National Geographic).
- Renee Cho, “What Happens to All That Plastic?” in State of the Planet (Earth Institute: Columbia University, 2012).