Category Packaging Tech

The Environmental Dangers of Plastic

There is no escaping the reality that plastic waste is an enormous environmental problem both in the United States and worldwide. The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that global plastic consumption has increased twenty-fold over the last 60 years, from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009. From plastic water bottles to high grade plastic boxes used for packaging, electronics, food and household storage, our collective reliance on plastic has created a disposal problem that is overwhelming the world’s landfills, polluting its oceans, and creating tons of hazardous waste.




Although plastic disposal is a global problem, the United States leads the way in generating plastic trash. Americans throw away nearly 35 million tons of plastic every year, including about 29 billion water bottles, only about 13 percent of which makes it into the recycling stream or is burned for electricity or fuel. The rest winds up in landfills, or worse, on the ocean’s floor. The National Defense Resource Council estimates that plastic accounts for 60 to 80 percent of marine litter — about 100 million tons of it — and poisons millions of aquatic animals and birds every year. On Midway Island, 40 percent of the 500,000 albatross chicks that are hatched each year die, largely as a result of being fed plastic by their parents, who mistake it for food. Millions more marine animals die from becoming entangled in six-pack packaging or other plastic debris.


Deadly Plastic Pollution endangered animal

Deadly Plastic Pollution endangered animal



Unfortunately, the plastic that makes it into landfills is no less hazardous. Since most of the plastic currently in use is photodegradable (versus biodegradable), it never truly disappears. Photodegradation causes the plastic to disintegrate into smaller and smaller particles called nurldes or mermaid tears. Not only do these particles never completely disappear, they have a unique ability to absorb toxins from their environment, turning them into tiny toxic time-machines that can contaminate the soil and groundwater for hundreds of years. Moreover, plastics themselves contain toxic chemicals such as phthalates and BPA, both of which have been shown to cause reproductive harm. These chemicals, too, leach into soil and groundwater as the plastic sits in landfills and slowly breaks down over 100s of years.


Polluted with plastic debris


So, what is the answer? Obviously, recycling is an easy, but apparently futile solution, since Americans and our neighbors abroad do not seem to care enough about the future of the planet to be bothered rinsing, separating or otherwise properly disposing of recyclable waste. At one time, biodegradable plastic was thought to offer promise. However, according to a recent study by Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, biodegradable plastic is no better than traditional plastic once it makes its way into a landfill. In fact, about 60 percent of so-called biodegradable products undergo very little in the way of decomposition in the air and water-tight environment of landfills, reports Canada’s Environment and Plastics Industry Council. What’s more, according to archeologist William Rathje, author of the book “Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage,” if the millions of tons of plastic currently in landfills around the world were to biodegrade, the resulting release of carbon dioxide and methane gasses into the atmosphere would greatly exacerbate the already catastrophic impact of global climate change.





All this notwithstanding, the problem of plastic waste is not insurmountable. According to a 2011 study conducted by the Earth Institute’s Earth Engineering Center, the energy contained in the plastic waste in U.S. landfills is equivalent to 36.7 million tons of coal, 139 million barrels of oil or 783 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Moreover, the technology exists today to put that latent energy to use. Agilyx, a company based in Oregon, produces systems that convert plastic into synthetic crude oil, which can be refined into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. A similar company, Pennsylvania based- EcoClean Inc. burns waste plastic to create energy for boilers and other manufacturing processes that use steam. Unlike old-fashioned incinerators, these waste-to-energy plants are designed for complete combustion, which translates into “less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity,” says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What’s more, the energy produced by burning what is currently in U.S. landfills could potentially create enough electricity to power over 16 million U.S household and reduce coal use by 108 million tons.


Plastic Pollution


Of course, the most important and most eco-friendly way to manage environmental pollution from plastic is to decrease use, but the American public seems firmly entrenched in its cultural bias towards plastic of all kinds. From water bottles to coffee cups, plastic is as American as mom and apple pie. So, for now, it appears that those who want to protect the environment from plastic pollution must be satisfied with speaking up, speaking out, and doing what they can to minimize the damage caused by those who simply don’t care.

This information is provided by CLPG Corrugated EcoClean Plastic

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