Saturday, 18 September 2010

Plastic Bags: How Long Does it Take to Decompose?

Researchers fear that such ubiquitous bags may never fully decompose; instead they gradually just turn into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. The most common type of plastic shopping bag is made of polyethylene, a petroleum-derived polymer that microorganisms don’t recognize as food and as such cannot technically “biodegrade.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines biodegradation as “a process by which microbial organisms transform or alter (through metabolic or enzymatic action) the structure of chemicals introduced into the environment.” In “respirometry” tests, whereby experimenters put solid waste in a container with microbe-rich compost and then add air to promote biodegradation, newspapers and banana peels decompose in days or weeks, while plastic shopping bags are not affected.

Even though polyethylene can’t biodegrade, it does break down when subject to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, a process known as photodegradation. When exposed to sunshine, polyethylene’s polymer chains become brittle and crack, eventually turning what was a plastic bag into microscopic synthetic granules. Scientists aren’t sure whether these granules ever decompose fully, and fear that their buildup in marine and terrestrial environments—and in the stomachs of wildlife—portend a bleak future compromised by plastic particles infiltrating every step in the food chain. A plastic bag might be gone in anywhere from 10 to 100 years (estimates vary) if exposed to the sun, but its environmental legacy may last forever.

The best solution to plastic bag waste is to stop using disposable plastic bags altogether. You could invest a few bucks in reusable canvas totes—most supermarket chains now offer them—or bring your own reusable bags or backpacks with you to the store. If you have to choose between paper and plastic, opt for paper. Paper bags can biodegrade in a matter of weeks, and can also go into compost or yard waste piles or the recycling bin. Of course, plastic bags can be recycled also, but as just explained the process is inefficient. According to the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute, Americans only recycle 0.6 percent of the 100 billion plastic bags they take home from stores every year; the rest end up in landfills or as litter.


Sunday, 12 September 2010

This blog is in hibernation!

I've decided to put a hold on this blog, for now at least. I feel I've gone as far as I personally can with this. There are far more eloquent blogs around that are  dealing with the issues and challenging our ideas about waste and plastics. I highly recommend that anyone interested in facing up to the problems that plastic is causing to our environment, look at a few of the great blogs I have listed on my blog list.

I am still blogging over at my other blog, Beyond Materialism. Hope you will pop in sometime

Warmest wishes


Tuesday, 7 September 2010

More bad news for plastic!

Here are some  fascinating pieces of information about plastic, reproduced from Plastic Manners. With kind permission of the blog owner, Taina.

Recycling is not the solution.

‘Traditional’ plastic uses non-renewable petroleum as its main ingredient. Many varieties of petroleum-based plastic can be “recycled”  and these are denoted with an SPI Resin Identification Code of 1 through 7 on the bottom of the plastic container. One being the easiest to recycle into other goods and 7 being the hardest.

But really, the above statement really doesn’t accurately depict the real situation. Plastic is actually not recyclable in the true sense of the word: you cannot turn one plastic bottle into another plastic bottle. Plastic downcycles at best –becomes lower quality items like plastic lumber.. which will end up in landfill anyway at some point.

Nobody can say that they “recycle” plastic. We put plastics in recycling containers and these are taken away.. where? Nobody knows. Most of the plastic disposables are shipped to China where they are burned for energy, or melted into low-quality plastic. Sometimes it just ends up in the landfill. They say that in the US, less than 10% of plastic gets recycled.. but that is not true. 10% gets recovered, which doesn’t mean that it will be recycled. A small percentage of that will be downcycled and the rest will be landfilled (or end up in the ocean), burnt or shipped to other countries. It would be more appropriate to say that 0% is recycled. Recycling of plastics is a myth, designed to perpetuate a business built around the generation of waste.
For what it’s worth, Greenpeace provides the following chart on plastics.

Plastics affect human health.
And then, there is the health side of it all. Plastics are toxic and can have severe impacts on your health. Here are some things you should know (source:

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)
Used in soft drink, juice, water, beer, mouthwash, peanut butter, salad dressing, detergent and cleaner containers.

Leaches antimony trioxide and di(2ethylhexyl) pthalate (DEHP). Workers exposed to antimony trioxide for long periods of time have exhibited respiratory and skin irritation; among female workers, increased incidence of menstrual problems and miscarriage; their children exhibited slower development in the first twelve months of life. The longer a liquid is left in such a container the greater the concentration of antimony released into the liquid. DEHP is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the female hormone estrogen. It has been strongly linked to asthma and allergies in children. It may cause certain types of cancer, and it has been linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation and body weight. In Europe, DEHP has been banned since 1999 from use in plastic toys for children under the age of three.

High density polyethylene (HDPE)
Used in opaque milk, water, and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners.

Considered a ‘safer’ plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC)
Used in toys, clear food and non-food packaging (e.g., cling wrap), some squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, pet toys, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, shower curtains, medical tubing, and numerous construction products (e.g., pipes, siding).

PVC has been described as one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. Leaches di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) or butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), depending on which is used as the plasticizer or softener (usually DEHP). DEHP and BBzP are endocrine disruptors mimicking the female hormone estrogen; have been strongly linked to asthma and allergic symptoms in children; may cause certain types of cancer; linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation and body weight. In Europe, DEHP and BBzP and other dangerous pthalates have been banned from use in plastic toys for children under three since 1999.

Low density polyethylene (LDPE)
Used in grocery stores, dry cleaning, bread and frozen food bags, most plastic wraps, squeezable bottles (honey, mustard).

Considered a ‘safer’ plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

Polypropylene (PP)
Used in ketchup bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, medecine and syrup bottles, straws, Rubbermaid and other opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles.

Considered a ‘safer’ plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

Polystyrene (PS)
Used in Styrofoam containers, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, take-out food containers, plastic cutlery, compact disc cases.

Leaches styrene, which is an endocrine disruptor mimicking the female hormone estrogen, and thus has the potential to cause reproductive and developmental problems; long-term exposure by workers has shown brain and nervous system effects; adverse effects on red blood cells, liver, kidneys and stomach in animal studies. Also present in secondhand cigarette smoke, off-gassing of building materials, car exhaust and possibly drinking water. Styrene migrates significantly from polystyrene containers into the container’s contents when oily foods are heated in such containers.

This is a catch-all category that includes anything that does not come within the other six categories. As such, one must be careful in interpreting this category because it includes polycarbonate – a dangerous plastic – but it also includes the new, safer, biodegradable bio-based plastics made from renewable resources such as corn and potato starch, and sugar cane. Polycarbonate is used in many plastic baby bottles, clear plastic “sippy” cups, sports water bottles, three and five gallon large water storage containers, metal food can liners, some juice and ketchup containers, compact discs, cell phones, computers.

Polycarbonate leaches Bisphenol A (some effects described above), and numerous studies have indicated a wide array of possible adverse effects from low-level exposure to Bisphenol A: chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production in males, early onset of puberty, various behavioural changes, altered immune function, and sex reversal in frogs.

Important Note: Two other types of plastic that fall under code 7 are acrylonitrile styrene (AS) or styrene acrylonitrile (SAN), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Both AS/SAN and ABS are higher quality plastics with increased strength, rigidity, toughness and temperature and chemical resistance. AS/SAN is used in mixing bowls, thermos casing, dishes, cutlery, coffee filters, toothbrushes, outer covers (printers, calculators, lamps), battery housing. The incorporation of butadiene during the manufacture of AS/SAN, produces ABS, which is an even tougher plastic. ABS is used in LEGO toys, pipes, golf club heads, automotive parts, protective head gear. Our research on risks associated with AS/SAN and ABS is ongoing.

Bioplastics are not the solution.
What about bioplastics? Bioplastics are just plastics made with plants. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be toxic, just like any other plastic. Bioplastics raise lots of questions. As of today, the term Bioplastics lends itself to greenwashing.

The term biodegradable needs to be defined (plutonium is also biodegradable… just give it 300,000 years…). Some “biodegradable” plastics take years to disappear, some require heat in commercial composting facilities, and some do not biodegrade at all if they end up in landfills or the marine environment. Biodegradable plastic may leave toxic contaminants in the soil and water. All biodegradable plastics require use water, land, energy, crops (largely GMO). Lots of questions need to be asked. The most important question is do we really need disposable plastics?
Biodegradable plastics cannot become an excuse to perpetuate our throwaway habits.

It’s a wrap!

I’m going to write a blog now, that I suspect will be read my few, so if you are actually reading this, I commend your endurance!

A new report into the UK’s plastic recycling habits reveals much food for thought.
The rather disturbing conclusion drawn in the WRAP report, is that despite an expansion in domestic reprocessing capacity; the UK remains heavily dependent on export markets for recycling its recovered plastics. So much for the predictions of a few years ago that we would be recycling most of our waste by now. Which is rather a depressing prognosis, given the realisation that land fills have almost reached saturation point.

In 2009, an estimated 900,000 tonnes of plastics was collected for recycling. Of this, 590,000 tonnes was plastic packaging; but over 700,000 tonnes of recovered plastics were exported for recycling in 2009, predominantly to China. About two-thirds of this is estimated to be packaging. The primary trading route for material destined for China continued to be via Hong Kong.

Also, the plastic bottle-recycling rate now stands at over 40% and there has been extensive investment in UK plastic bottle processing capacity over the past two years.

According to the National Packaging Waste Database (NPWD), around 590,000 tonnes of plastics packaging was recycled in 2009,14% more than in 2008 and 23% more than in 2007. Nevertheless, this equates to a recycling rate of under 25%. The majority of recycled plastic continues to be plastic bottles.

UK consumption of plastics is estimated to be around 5 million tonnes a year. Of this, nearly half is used in packaging, and a further quarter is used in the construction sector. Long-term trend growth in plastics consumption is estimated to be around 1% per annum, although plastics consumption is believed to have fallen during the recession in 2009, largely as a result of the contraction in the construction sector.

Of the 1.5 million tonnes of plastics packaging consumed by households, a quarter is rigid plastic packaging (such as pots, tubs and trays) and the remainder is films and bags. Commercial and industrial plastic packaging waste tends to be plastic films, which are used as secondary packaging (to get a product to a retailer or distribution centre), and larger rigid items such as crates, totes and drums. And the report admits that the recent increase in packaging recycling has come mainly from plastic bottles.

The needs to strengthen the UK’s recycling capacity is given priority in the report, as it says, “attention has now turned to collecting and developing infrastructure to recycle mixed packaging plastics, less than 5% of which is currently recycled. Around 20% of local authorities already operate kerbside mixed plastic collections, and 2011 will see the operation of the UK’s first mixed plastic reprocessing.” But oddly enough, whilst recycling isn’t progressing as well as forecast a few years ago, there is a high demand for such products, with demand for food-grade recovered polymers currently outstripping supply. With demand likely to strengthen further, this represents an opportunity for UK manufacturers of recovered polymers; recycling of non-packaging plastics has also increased in recent years, largely as a result of regulatory drivers.

There is also strong demand for recovered clear PET and natural HDPE bottles. Domestic demand for food-grade recycled plastics currently outstrips domestic supply, and there are believed to be significant imports, largely from the EU, to meet this demand. This was one of the more shocking findings for me at any rate in this report. We are actually importing recycled plastics due to an inability to recycle enough of our own!

Waste collections by local authorities have shot up massively, with more than half of the plastic packaging collected for recycling, from the municipal waste stream. In 2008/09, UK local authorities (LAs) are estimated to have collected 320,000 tonnes of plastics from the municipal waste stream, almost three times what they collected in 2005/06

The growth in plastics collections has been achieved by rapid expansion in LA kerbside collection schemes. In 2008/09, more than 80% of UK LAs operated kerbside plastic collection schemes. In terms of household coverage, it is estimated that 70% of households have plastic bottle collections. By contrast, only around 20% of LAs offered kerbside collections of mixed (non-bottle) rigid plastics.

But again around 90% of the plastic packaging collected from local authorities is plastic bottles.

In order to bring the recycling rate for rigid plastic packaging to a level comparable with that for plastic bottles, a further 160,000 tonnes of rigid plastic packaging would need to be collected. To achieve this, more mixed plastics collection and sorting capacity will need to be put in place. To date, there has been less investment in domestic capacity to recover and recycle mixed plastic packaging. A key barrier has been a lack of capacity to sort mixed plastics into separate polymer streams, which in turn reflects the difficulty of competing with low-cost manual sorting in the Far East. As a result, most of the mixed plastics collected are exported for reprocessing.

An additional 100,000 tonnes of annual plastic bottle reprocessing capacity is planned to come on-stream over the next five years.

WRAP research has shown that plastics recovery facilities (PRFs) that sort mixed plastics into separate polymers can be commercially viable in the UK. Indeed, PRF capacity has already started to develop in the UK, with two firms already having built plastic sorting lines that can sort and bale non-bottle rigid plastics although neither is capable of handling plastic films.

In 2009, WRAP awarded grant funding to support the development of the first UK facility to be able to both sort and process a range of non-bottle rigid polymers from municipal plastics collections. Although the report also warns that a key to the success of future investments will be the development of collection schemesthat are able to provide a secure supply of high quality mixed plastics feedstock.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Drowning in plastic

This is an article that first appeared in New Internationalist magazine. The magazine is well worth reading for its informed and intelligent reporting, and is renowned for its radical, campaigning stance on a range of world issues,

Plastic is forever!
There are more than 50 different groups of plastics and hundreds of different varieties – an estimated 113 billion kilos of raw plastic pellets are produced from petroleum feedstock, worldwide, every year.

• The world uses an estimated one million plastic bags every minute; 150 bags per year for every person on earth.1
• The Canadian province of Ontario banned plastic bags from government liquor stores in 2008 resulting in 80 million fewer bags being used yearly.2
• China banned plastic bags in 2008 following the lead of Hong Kong. Bangladesh was the first country in the South to ban them in 2002. Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, Taiwan and Botswana followed suit.3
• Ireland introduced a plastic bag tax in 2002. Within a few months the number of bags handed out at supermarkets had dropped by 90%.1
• It takes about 11 barrels of oil to make one ton of plastic bags. Before the ban, China used more plastic bags than any other country and wasted 37 million barrels of oil on them every year. 4

Sea of plastic
• Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds yearly as well as 100,000 marine mammals.
•Plastic makes up 60-80% of all garbage floating in the oceans. Every square km of ocean contains 13,000-18,000 pieces of plastic.
• Discarded plastic fishnets called ghost nets are perpetual killing machines continuing to catch fish and other species.

Chasing arrows
The plastic industry has adopted a numbering system to identify basic plastic resins. In a classic example of ‘greenwashing’ the numbers 1-7 are framed within the ‘chasing arrows’ recycling symbol, thus assuring consumers they can be recycled – which is often not the case.

Toxic trio
Phthalates – compounds used to soften plastics, notably PVC. In everything from shower curtains, paint, pesticides and children’s toys to vinyl flooring, IV bags and hospital tubing. Also in hundreds of personal-care products like perfume, body lotion, nail polish, shampoo and air fresheners.

BPA (bisphenol A) – basic constituent of polycarbonate plastic, the hard durable plastic used to make re-usable, ‘sports’ water bottles, large ‘water cooler’ bottles, baby bottles, dental sealants, the lining in canned food and some drink containers, CDs and DVDs. First produced as synthetic estrogen – 2.7 billion kilos are now produced yearly.

PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) – used as flame retardants and added to plastic cases of consumer electronics – cell phones, digital cameras, iPods, TVs, laptops. Also found in textiles, curtains, foam cushions, mattresses, upholstery and circuit boards.

These chemicals are found in thousands of common household items and have been linked to birth defects, learning disabilities, cancers, liver damage and reproductive problems.

Bottled water blues
• It takes 7 litres of water to manufacture a 1 litre bottle creating 100g of CO2 emissions. Worldwide, bottling of water uses about 2.7 million tons of plastic each year.8
• In the US 96% of bottled water is sold in single-serving PET plastic bottles. An estimated 4 billion of them end up in the garbage, costing cities $70 million a year in clean-up costs.7
• To make the plastic bottles used annually in the US requires 17 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel a million cars for more than a year.
• In Britain 3 billion litres of bottled water were consumed in 2007 mostly in PET bottles. Of the 13 billion bottles, just 3 billion were recycled.

Green plastic?
Plastic made from plants takes generations to degrade in landfills. When it degrades without oxygen it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than CO2.6

• The market for bioplastics made from corn, sugarcane and wheat is growing by 20-30% a year.

Who do you trust?
• In November, 2006, 38 leading scientific experts on BPA warned of ‘potential adverse health effects of exposure’ to polycarbonate plastic.12
• Every study backed by the industry has found that low-dose exposure to BPA poses no risks. Of the 160 non-industry studies, 90% have detected harmful effects including hormone-related illnesses and cancer.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Global depository for images of beached marine plastic objects

Britain's coastline is one of the more inspiring aspects of our environment, yet due to the large amounts of plastic washed ashore daily, this coastline is becoming increasingly polluted.

Steve McPherson is an artist who has created an online participatory art project, in an attempt to raise awareness of the problem. His site Marine Plastic, is inviting beachcombers to help document those places where plastic waste is spoiling the shoreline  

Steve says that he wants the project to be a place where anyone can add images of plastic objects found by mainly other foragers and beach combers from around the world. "I intend it to be a space to hold not just the images of the lost and found objects, but also to record the names of those who find them, and the date and location of the find."

"With no definitive end, and as long as participants still keep submitting images, the bank of objects will grow, as will I hope an awareness of the enormity of the plastic pollution of our worldwide oceans.

"My long term aim will be to use the images deposited on this website in a real world exhibition and publication, where all contributions would be credited and recognised."