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Plastics: From a novelty to environmental crisis

Sep 06,2023 - Last updated at Sep 06,2023

Plastics have become an integral part of our modern life, but their journey from a novelty to environmental crisis requires urgent plans. The history of plastics dates back to the early 20th century. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic that marked the birth of the modern plastics industry. Over the decades, new types of plastics emerged, such as Polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene and polystyrene.

The success story of plastics has a darker side. The scale of plastic production and consumption today is staggering. In 2021, global plastic production reached 390 million metric tons, and this figure is projected to increase in the coming years. According to the Ocean Conservancy, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the most well-known accumulations of ocean plastic, covers an area estimated to be twice the size of Texas, or more than 14 times the size of Jordan.

Accumulated plastic debris in ecosystems can alter habitats, making them inhospitable for wildlife. For example, plastic pollution on coral reefs can lead to the smothering of corals and disrupt the balance of marine life, floating plastic debris can serve as rafts for invasive species, allowing them to travel long distances across oceans. This can result in the introduction of non-native species to new environments, potentially causing disruptions to local ecosystems.

Plastic waste such as discarded fishing nets, ropes and packaging materials can entangle and trap marine and terrestrial animals. This can result in physical injuries, strangulation or drowning. Marine mammals, sea birds, and even land animals like deer can fall victim to entanglement too. Numerous cases of plastic bags stuck in sheep intestines were recorded in Jordan. This bioaccumulation can have implications for animals higher up the food chain, including humans who consume contaminated seafood.

One of the most alarming aspects of plastic pollution is the issue of single-use plastics. Items like plastic bags, bottles and utensils are designed for short-term convenience but persist in the environment for hundreds and thousands of years. The disposal of these items, often in the form of litter or improper waste management, has led to the proliferation of plastic waste in oceans, rivers, soil and even remote ecosystems. Micro-plastics have been found in remote environments, including the Arctic, indicating the widespread distribution of plastic pollution.

What's concerning is that a significant portion of this plastic ends up as waste. In Jordan more than 100 million plastic bags are disposed off recklessly into the environment each year, some of which is burnt, others consumed by animals or broken down into micro-plastics in landfills and hence infiltrates the soil to underground water and even the air we breathe. Micro-plastics, which are tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in size, have been found in the digestive systems of a wide range of marine and terrestrial species. As animals ingest micro-plastics, they can introduce these particles into the food chain, potentially affecting predators and scavengers.

These micro-plastics can be ingested by animals and enter the food chain, posing potential risks to human health too. Many animals, particularly marine life, mistakenly ingest plastic debris, often in the form of small particles or micro-plastics. This can lead to digestive blockages, malnutrition, and even death. Sea turtles, seabirds, and fish are particularly vulnerable to this threat. Some animals mistake plastic items for food, leading to a disruption in their natural feeding behaviors. In some cases, plastics can interfere with reproductive behaviors and hormonal processes.

Direct health hazards can result from storing liquids in plastic containers if the wrong type of plastic is used or if the plastic is damaged. Over time, plastics can break down which release micro-plastics or other harmful substances into the liquid they conserve. Therefore, the choice of plastic matters when it comes to food and beverage storage to minimize health risks, as certain plastics can leach potentially harmful chemicals into the liquids they contain, especially when exposed to heat, sunlight or acidic substances. Plastics are also porous to some extent, which means they can absorb and retain flavours, odors, and even bacteria from the liquids stored in them. This can lead to an unpleasant taste or potential health concerns.

This danger is particularly concerning for older or low-quality plastic containers, however, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene are considered safe for storing liquids. They are commonly used for milk jugs, water bottles and detergent containers. These plastics are generally resistant to leaching and have low reactivity. Polypropylene (PP) is another safe plastic option for liquid storage, as it is heat-resistant and has low reactivity with liquids. It is often used for yogurt containers, syrup bottles and some reusable water bottles. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can trigger chemical changes in plastics, leading to the release of harmful chemicals or the formation of new compounds which can have implications for our safety when it comes into contact with food.

The effect of sunlight on plastics, particularly UV radiation, can be significant and can lead to various forms of degradation. This process is commonly referred to as photo-degradation. One of the most noticeable effects of sunlight on plastics is the fading of colour, which is a common issue with outdoor plastics, like garden furniture and toys. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can lead to the development of surface cracks in plastics which weakens the plastic's structural integrity and decrease in the mechanical strength of plastics. Plastics exposed to sunlight may lose their flexibility and thus can affect their ability to withstand bending or stretching.

To mitigate the negative effects of sunlight on plastics, manufacturers often add UV stabilisers to plastics to enhance their resistance to UV radiation. These additives can absorb or dissipate UV energy. Applying UV-resistant coatings or films to plastics can help shield them from UV radiation and slow down the photo-degradation process. This is commonly done with outdoor signage, car exteriors, and architectural plastics. Plastics used outdoors, such as in garden furniture or playground equipment, can benefit from being placed in shaded or sheltered areas. This precaution reduces their exposure to direct sunlight when not in use and prolongs their life.

 

Ayoub Abu Dayyeh is an energy and green building consultant

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