By Abby Thomson, 2022 Summer Intern
This summer, Blue Flag USA hosted a Summer Series which discussed several perspectives on plastics in the coastal environment. Presentations centered on communication about environmental education, natural and microplastic debris in sediment, and then plastics in the coastal zone. Conversations and questions looked at what communities can be doing, how they are implementing plastic reduction, and what research questions need investigating. For decades environmentalists have warned the population about the dangers of plastic waste and how to best handle it. The long-established teaching of the “3R’s” (reduce, reuse, recycle) have represented ways to minimize plastic waste in the past. Minimizing plastic waste is crucial as it limits the impact of micro and macro plastics in our water systems.
Reducing the use of products which end up in landfills, gutters, and ultimately our natural spaces can seem daunting due to the number of products we interact with which are made of or are packaged in some type of single-use material. The Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, estimates that 150 million tons of single-use plastic are produced every year (Lindwall, 2020). After their short lifespan, the majority of these plastics find themselves in water systems as micro or macro plastics or in landfills. Reducing the amount of single-use plastic being produced doesn’t solve this problem, it only minimizes the impacts which is not enough. 2022 saw the release of the Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List which specifies 11 items whose only option is reduce. These items unable to be reused, recycled, or composited are targeted to be eliminated by 2025 (U.S. Plastic Pact, 2022). Eliminating the production of these specific plastics is the only option as reducing the production still leaves millions of tons of single-use plastic in our water systems and landfills.
Reuse of plastic materials falls primarily on the consumer. There are many ways to get creative by reusing old plastics to prevent them from ending up in our water systems and landfills. For example, taking old food jars and using them to hold pencils, or cutting up soda bottles to make planters (Huffstetler, 2021). Consumers can spend more time thinking about ways to reuse plastics lessening the environmental impacts. However, larger impacts may be seen from shifting the burden from consumers to plastic producers, the recycling industry, and system wide approaches at business or community scales.
Although recycling is a better alternative than throwing away plastic waste or worse littering, it is not as viable of a solution as once thought. According to the Columbia Climate School, 30% of all recycled materials end up contaminated, and unable to be recycled leading to an estimated 1.3 to 1.5 million metric tons of plastic being discarded in the ocean off China’s coast each year (Cho, 2020). If non-plastic materials or food waste contaminates plastic in a recycling bin, recycling companies throw away all of the plastic in the container. Recycling gives people the false reality that overusing plastic is acceptable as long as they are recycling. However, plastics thrown in the trash and recycling bin have a similar fate all too often. This is not to say that people should not recycle as often as they can.
It is inevitable some plastic products will be discarded, which is why stakeholders have been working to find new uses for this waste such as converting it into an energy source. Chemical & Engineering News reports that 13% of trash in the US is sent to waste to energy facilities (Tullo, 2018). These facilities shred down plastic waste and burn it in a pyrolysis reactor to extract biofuel that can be used in gasoline (Fahim, Mohsen & Elkayayl, 2021). Although this sounds like an optimal solution to reducing plastic waste going into waterways and landfills, Waste to Energy plants work against the circular economy as they emit carbon, toxic chemicals, and particulate matter into the atmosphere (Hoover, Rosenberg & Singla, 2021). These facilities cannot differentiate plastics containing toxic chemicals from those that do not. Burning toxic waste emits chemicals as well as tiny particles of plastic into the atmosphere causing circulatory, respiratory, and neurological issues, as well as cancer (Hoover, Rosenberg & Singla, 2021).
The 3 R’s are better alternatives to discarding plastic waste in garbage disposal, however, none of them completely mitigate the environmental impacts of plastic waste which is why environmentalists have proposed a 4th “R” be added. Refuse. Refusing to use plastics seems virtually impossible. New technology has made it easier than ever before to say no to traditional plastics. Engineers have created various plastic alternatives such as a material called bioplastic made out of red algae and fish scales. This material decomposes in 4-6 weeks, requires little energy to produce, and could be the best substitute for plastic (Talbot, 2020). Although it is more expensive than traditional plastic, it is a start. With more time and development, eco-friendly plastic alternatives will become cheaper and more accessible.
Several solutions will need to be implemented together to ultimately reduce waste and plastics from entering the environment. Learn more about ways communities implement education, how debris is handled in sediment, and how regions or local communities can take action to reduce plastic by viewing the 2022 Summer Series recordings.
May – Planning Successful Educational Outreach: https://youtu.be/vdpQDVluV0c
June – Natural and Microplastic Debris Management in Sediment: https://youtu.be/fHg1630Evpw
July – Plastics in the Coastal Zone: https://youtu.be/2NjOKy-bwXE
Cho, R. (2020, December 8). Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It? State of the Planet. Retrieved from https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/03/13/fix-recycling-america/
Fahim I, Mohsen O, ElKayaly D. (2021) Production of Fuel from Plastic Waste: A Feasible Business. Polymers. 13(6):915. https://doi.org/10.3390/polym13060915
Hoover, D., Rosenburg, D., & Singla, V. (2021, July 19). Burned: Why Waste Incineration Is Harmful. https://www.nrdc.org/bio/daniel-rosenberg/burned-why-waste-incineration-harmful
Huffstetler, E. (2021, March 17). 20 Genius Ways to Reuse Empty Plastic Bottles. The Spruce. https://www.thespruce.com/ways-to-reuse-plastic-bottles-4584358
Lindwall, C. (2020, January 9). Single-Use Plastics 101. NRDC. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101
Talbot, D. (2020, February 25). Plastics Cost the Earth, But There Are Alternatives. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/deborahtalbot/2020/02/24/plastics-cost-the-earth-but-there-are-alternatives/?sh=2d88bbe9341f
Tullo, A. (2018, October 24). Should plastics be a source of energy? C & EN. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/environment/sustainability/Should-plastics-source-energy/96/i38
U.S. Plastic Pact (2022, January 25). U.S. Plastics Pact Brings Together Leading Brands and Materials Manufacturers to Seek Solutions to “Problematic and Unnecessary” Materials. Retrieved from https://usplasticspact.org/u-s-plastics-pact-brings-together-leading-brands-and-materials-manufacturers-to-seek-solutions-to-problematic-and-unnecessary-materials/