Plastic waste issue has surpassed climate concerns

A picture is worth a thousand words….. And it is backed by a study done by the University of Georgia (link below) that has punched us all in the face with the truth. Now, media outlets all over the world are posting this information and eyes are being opened, with people saying that this issue is more concerning than climate change. Humans have created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic. 9% is recycled, 12% is incinerated and 79% is landfilled. And they estimate by 2050, we will be at 34 billion tonnes. So this begs the question that we feel we have the answer to… do we solve this problem?

Plastic infographic

Lets look at the facts. And let me just say, if this image doesn’t put a few butterflies in your stomach, you are probably naive or just doing what most people do and choosing to ignore the problem. This one isn’t going away and is now a greater concern than climate change.

Fact 1: Plastic isn’t going anywhere. The world is not going to stop producing plastic. Thats a simple truth we all need to accept. In my travels in the past 2 years, I have seen the sheer size of this industry and its staggering. Factories in China with 50 foot high walls to accommodate massive extrusion machines (used to make bags, plastic and packaging wrap, agricultural film etc), a million plus square feet and growing. Factories this large that still don’t have the capacity to supply us with an order for one large customer for bags… Think about that. We have to split our production between a few different factories to handle the volume of just one customer annually, and we have just started our business. Imagine the large companies pumping out billions of bags and rolls of film and how that impacts our planet. At least our Breakdown Bags are solving the problem, but I’ll get into that later on.

The point I’m trying to make is, our whole lifestyle is dependent on a few things, and plastic is foundational. If you look around you and on you, I guarantee you are covered and surround by plastic. Maybe you didn’t even know it.

Lets go head to toe. Your hat is made from synthetic fibres. Your root canal has thermoplastic fillers used in the canals of the tooth. You shave your face with a plastic razor, comb your hair with a plastic comb, put on your plastic frame glasses with synthetic lenses. Maybe you get out your make up bag and get some nice Sephora blush on those synthetic cheek bones you had done last year…this might scare you, but those cheeks you sport now are made from silicon or more recently,  Gor-tex. Yup…I guess they wanted your cheeks to withstand the arctic breezes whilst doing the slalom at Whistler.

Put on that lycraspandex bra (if your a girl or maybe a cross dresser), your shirt, underwear pants and socks….all made with some sort of synthetic fiber unless you are a hippie and wear hemp which is a great alternative, or cotton which is worse than plastic because of the huge environmental impact of processing cotton. Is that getting your heart pumping yet? The heart that you had a plastic valve inserted last year after all those hot dogs caught up with you? You eat your cereal from a plastic bag, put on your rubber synthetic shoes, grab your Starbucks latte in a plastic coated cup,  hop in your plastic car and burn rubber (plastic). Plastic isn’t going anywhere.

Fact 2: Recycling can’t keep up. The stats don’t lie here. 9% of plastics have been recycled since the beginning of plastic production. Now, lets give the industry some credit here. From the studies that we have read, most of the recycling has happened in recent years. People seem to understand better today than ever before that recycling is important. But lets stick with the facts. A lot of countries export their plastic waste. I live in Vancouver Canada and we export all of our #1-#7 plastics. While this is good that this plastic will be sent to other countries that will reuse these plastics, what is the overall green score? How much fuel is burned to transport plastic waste? How much money is used and man power to reuse this plastic? Add to this the fact that a lot of plastic can NOT be recycled due to their end product properties. There are two types of plastics. Thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. Thermoplastics can be formed into product, then re melted back into product. Thermoset plastics always remain in a permanent solid state…like rubber tires for instance. If you tried to melt a rubber tire and turn it back into a tire, it would just burn, which is why most used rubber is incinerated or thrown in the ocean. More than half of ocean plastic waste comes from rubber tires….brutal.

China recently announced that It is going to ban the import of certain waste materials, including plastic. To give you an idea of how this will impact the planet, China currently imports 7.3 million tonnes of plastic annually. The United States and Japan are the largest exporters of plastic waste and now they have to find other countries that will accept it. This is going to cause a huge influx of plastics entering other countries that are already taking on more than they can handle. And we all know what that means….they will dump it. For years to come, this excess plastic is going to be landfilled, making our job even more important.

Fact 3: Renewable plastics are a challenge: When bioplastics entered the scene, everyone thought ‘very cool’. But then things got confusing, to say the least. I am in the plastic industry and am still confused about all the different types of bioplastics, what their functions are and how they are derived. Are they truly a better option? Are they really the answer to the problem? So many questions!  I can’ t imagine the misconceptions of plant based, bio based, bioplastics etc. that consumers must have. So let me try to explain bioplastics as clearly as I can. The pro’s the con’s etc.

There are two types of plastics. Petrochemical and bioplastics. Petrochemical plastics are what we see in our everyday life for the most part. They use a byproduct of fossil fuels dug up from deep in the earth that are refined into gases and converted into plastic pellets. They are very versatile and clearly the reason why plastics are so prevalent today. We have a seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels so scaling has never been a problem, and previously the material that now makes up plastic was discarded so the production carbon footprint is very low. If you want to order 5 million tonnes of Polypropylene pellets to make a plastic cup, no problem. You could have it shipped to your factory from Sinopec in the Middle East in a week. But these plastics are tough, durable and before BDP was invented, non biodegradable. They require drilling for oil to produce and have come under heavy fire from environmentalists.

Bioplastics are derived from a biological substance, such as corn, beets, sugar cane etc. Sometimes referred to as ‘bio based’. This is where things get confusing. Some bioplastics can be made of 100% natural materials. The clear plastic cups that you sometimes see in juice bars will say ‘PLA’ on them. This stands for Polylactic Acid. This is a polymer that is extracted from a food crop, like corn. It looks and feels like regular plastic but it is made without the use of fossil fuels…sort of….farming crops uses fuel, water and energy. Does it still sound better than oil? Think about the whole chain from start to finish. We now have to grow food crops to make a disposable plastic fork or cup….Food that would be best served feeding starving people. There is the cost of growing, production, water usage and low cycle time of manufacturing. One report we read said that the PLA production uses 30% more oil in the production process. Also the production of corn produces mass amounts of nitrous oxide which is 300 times more potent a global warming gas than CO2. Oh, and bioplastics are not recyclable. Doesn’t sound so green to me.

Another problem with PLA is that it is susceptible to high temperatures. Once when I was in India, someone poured me a cup of tea in a small plastic cup. It began melting in my hands as I was drinking the tea, so I dumped it out and flipped the cup over and noticed the #7 on the bottom. This poses a problem to manufacturers and users alike.

Enter bio based plastics. These are mixtures of renewable and petrochemical plastics. Countries all have different rules on what companies are allowed to claim on their packaging, but the common acceptable claim for bio based plastic is 50% bio based, 50% petroleum based. So does this make bio based and bioplastics the same? Definitely not. Just because its bio based doesn’t mean its biodegradable. For something to be biodegradable, it needs to follow a set of standards, most commonly laid out by the ASTM D6400, which is a test that is done on compostable products. It needs to be consumable by microbes, disintegrate rapidly during composting (usually within 90 days), have left over materials that can support plant life and not contain high amounts of metals. There are some bio based materials that are biodegradable and follow most of the parameters listed above, but fail to comply with others and thus the confusion. There are so many different blends of bio based plastics that it becomes a gauntlet of which certifications to get, which claims to make and in the end, the consumer ends up completely lost.

The point I am trying to make with all of this is that the plastic waste problem will continue regardless of all the recycling efforts, the bioplastic efforts and even our efforts of trying to drive home the solution that BDP offers.

We are also working on renewable materials with our Breakdown Earth resin line, but our goal with this is to be truly environmentally friendly, unlike PLA and other carbon positive so called solutions. Our company motto is ‘ it has to be affordable, scalable and truly environmentally friendly’. We don’t just want to hop on the PLA bandwagon because it is a 100% renewable plastic source. It is expensive, there is not enough quality PLA to supply the whole planet. This forces companies like Coke and Kraft to abandon the bio based effort until supply increase. PLA messes up the recycling streams, ruining whole batches of plastic. We know this because we talk to the factories that sell PLA in China and they all have confirmed these problems and cost issues directly to us. Our customers show us the problems they have with oxo degradable and PLA products. The coffee cup lids don’t fit right, the forks are weak etc etc. It makes our job really easy with BDP products because they don’t have the same issues as PLA or oxo.

So how do we solve the problem? We feel the answer lies in a multi tiered approach. We need to team up with environmental organizations, governments, scientists, consumers etc to all do work towards stopping the plastic waste scourge. At Change Plastic for Good, our goal as a company is to work alongside the recycling industry in support of it, but also to not be naive to the fact that it can’t save the planet. People throw batteries and dirty diapers into the recycling bin and this causes more work for the recyclers. Certain non recyclable materials and plastics simply need to be landfilled. We need to implement technologies and programs that are actually going to alleviate the waste issue. But we need your help to get our politicians, businesses and consumers to drive this forward. I always stick to my guns on the consumer being the world shaper and I’ll stick to it here…. consumers make the change. If consumers stop buying something, they have to stop making it. If consumers start buying something, they have to make more. And we consumers have the ability to save the planet. In the words of the legend, sir Jerry Maguire…’Help me… help you’.