Saturday, March 26, 2011

Plastics now and forever!

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The work on this blog has been at a standstill for half a year. There are two reasons for that. All texts here are translations of my original Swedish-language texts about different aspects of peak oil and related subjects. Due to lack of time, I have (and will) prioritize my Swedish-language blog. The second reason is that I had so much work to do that also my Swedish-language blog was in hibernation during the last three months of 2010.

The die-hard reader will always have the option of google-translating my Swedish-language texts into the language of your choice. I have for example recently written a series of texts about "peak oil computing". I have also written a series of texts about recent unrest and uprisings in the Arab world (using Egypt as a prism) that have little to do with a thirst for democracy and much to do with public dissatisfaction the plight of the dirt-poor and with the effects of resource challenges such as oil, food and water.


Anyway, this is the independent sequel of my last blog post about Alan Weisman's book "The World Without Us" which I published here almost half a year ago. In the preceding text, I did not cover the one chapter in the book that dealt with plastic ("Polymers Are Forever"), but rather saved that discussion for this text. First, a super-brief introduction to the connection between plastic and oil, by the (Swedish-language) blogger Jonas sustainable blog:

"In principle, all plastics is made from raw materials derived from oil. Packages, bottles, electronics, furniture, shoes and clothes. All is largely made of plastic. In many applications, plastics is superior to other materials with regards to density and strength. It is also cheap to manufacture plastic products."

The use of plastic materials has virtually exploded after World War II. Small (2 mm) plastic cylinders called “nurdles” is the raw material of the plastic industry. These cylinders are melted and then shaped into anything and everything. We produce more than 5 000 000 000 million nurdles each year (100 billion kilograms). The U.S. is a net exporter of plastic and 4.6% of all petroleum in the U.S. is used to produce plastics (2006).

Of all the plastics ever made, only a minor part has been recycled or burned. Unlike cardboard or aluminium bottles, not all plastic is equal:

There are so many different types [of plastics], and so much of it really can’t be recovered because either volumes aren’t sufficient or it really doesn’t have a lot of value in terms of the marketplace”

The rest of all plastic ever made, maybe up to 1 billion tons (the U.S. produces 30 million tons of new plastics each year), is still out there somewhere in the environment. Until evolution produces microbes with plastic-degrading enzymes, there is nothing in nature that can break down plastic. This can be compares with the discussion about vulcanized rubber in the previous text.

Plastic on land which is not buried in a garbage dump is broken down slowly by the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays - but plastic in water is another story. Plastic floating on a water surface is cooled down and may be protected from the sun’s rays by algae. Plastic that does not float in the water is completely safe from UV rays.

Unfortunately, a not unsignificant share of the plastics that have been produced over the past 60 years has ended up in the oceans. For some decades, the same forces that break down stones into sand over time - wind, waves and tides – have grinded down plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Over time plastic pieces have thus become smaller plastic pieces and then even smaller plastic pieces - but there is no evidence that plastic of any size or shape is chemically degraded and disappears from the seas.

Jellyfish and birds eat small colorful plastic balls in the belief that they are fish eggs (yellow-brown ones are mistakenly taken for krill). For some reason, nurdles and other small plastic fragments unfortunately act as magnets for a variety of hazardous chemicals. What are the effects when the extremely unpleasant PCB chemicals (previously used as softeners in plastics but banned in the late 1970's) are released from the 1960's plastics it is bound to during hundreds of years to come in a worst-case scenario? Nobody knows.

When plastics is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, it finds its way further and further down the marine food chain. We can be horrified by images of dead birds, animals choking on plastic bags or entangled in the left-behind plastics from a six-pack of beer in the woods, but what happens when krill or even smaller plankton ingest plastic particles? These creatures can not break down the plastics, and if a sufficiently small organism eats a sufficiently small plastic particle, one of two things can happen. Either the plastic particle is not small enough, gets stuck in the intestinal canal and kills the organism, or the plastic particle is small enough and passes right through the organism.

But what happens on the way? Could it be that the plastic particle emits chemicals that have been bound to it, or that the particle at some future date (if or when it finally breaks down) will give off substances that are toxic, or in other ways dangerous to living organisms? Nobody knows, but we know that all living things in the oceans, including the smallest of organisms at the bottom of the marine food chain, will soon ingest a dose of plastic particles. Will the nasty coloring chemicals that are often found in brightly colored plastics become concentrated higher up in the food chain? Nobody knows.

If we humans disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, the plastic we have manufactured would persist for a long time. Plastics has been around for only a few decades, and that is not long enough for us to know what the long term effects that these materials have. We may note that of all the hundreds of different kinds of plastics there are, none has died a natural death yet, and we thus have very little knowledge about what such a death looks like. One may reflect upon the fact that just as there is a lot that we don't know about the dangers of plastic, there was a lot we didn't know and could not have guessed about the dangers of fossil fuels 100 years ago (noise, exhaust fumes, smog, carcinogens, global warming etc.).

Since most plastics floats, the majority of all that there is in the oceans is transported by currents and accumulates on our beaches and in other places. The most conspicuous place where plastic flock when it is about to “die” was discovered (or rather made known to the general public) in the late 1990s and is located in the Pacific between Hawaii and California. That is the home of the country- or maybe even continent-sized North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In this huge floating rubbish dump, much of what has blown into the water during the last 50 years in an area the size of half of all Pacific coastlines eventually end up. There are endless amounts of plastic bags, plastic caps, plastic cups, plastic foil, fishing nets, balloons and so on. The total amount of plastic in this artificial continent is unknown but was estimated to weigh 3 million tons and to cover more than 25 million square kilometers in 2005 (i.e. almost 60 times larger than a large European country such as Sweden).

The image of a continent of plastic is actually misleading, since most of the "continent" only consists of (strongly) elevated concentrations of plastic particles at or near the surface of the ocean. These particles can not be seen from a satellite, and the only way to determine the boundary is by taking samples of water and analyze them. Since there is no established boundary between "normal" and "elevated" levels of debris, the estimated size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch varies by up to a factor of 20.

In addition to the plastics that is located at or near the surface (i.e. most of it), there are plastics in the depths of the sea as well as somewhere inbetween. Since the floating garbage patch is located in international waters, individual states tend not to worry about it too much. Some of those who visit the garbage patch describe the visit as surreal – here you are in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from land, encountering both familiar and strange artefacts that suddenly pop up - a motorcycle tire, a life jacket, a construction worker's hard hat and so on. An expedition to the garbage patch found that:

”plastic debris was present in 100 consecutive samples taken at varying depths and net sizes along a 1,700 miles (2,700 km) path through the patch. The survey also confirmed that while the debris field does contain large pieces, it is on the whole made up of smaller items which increase in concentration towards the Gyre's centre, and these 'confetti-like' pieces are clearly visible just beneath the surface.”

Last year, similar plastics graveyards were discovered/mapped in the Atlantic (the North Atlantic garbage patch) and in the Indian Ocean (the Indian Ocean garbage patch), but we now know that there are no fewer than five such gyres in the oceans where plastic is accumulated. They are identified and studied in the project 5 Gyres.

Since most of the plastics in the oceans is not found in large islands of plastics, but rather in numerous tiny small pieces, there is no good way to clean it up. In addition, the oceans are sort of large, which makes cleanup impractical, to say the least. The bottom line is that the only way to limit the amount of plastics in the oceans is to use less plastics and be more careful about what happens with it when and after we throw it away.

In a public relations ploy from last year, Swedish global appliance maker Electrolux scooped up plastics from a number of gyres and built six "showcase vacuum cleaners" from it. This seems rather sympathetic, since the company’s stated goal was to:

“bring attention to the issues of plastic pollution and the scarcity of recycled plastics needed for making sustainable home appliances”

Electrolux for sure have pinpointed the problem, but the solution - "sustainable" home appliances - feels a bit strained. Anyway, Electrolux has put together a nice video (50 seconds) about the “Vac from the sea" project which is worth watching.

Another multi-million dollar high-profile-PR-project that I feel ambivalent about is the three-month Plastiki expedition of last year - conducted in a catamaran built from recycled plastic. I get similar vibes from this project as I do when Al Gore on the one hand preaches about reduced energy use, but on the other hand owns several luxury homes and flies a private jet. The driving person behind Plastiki, David de Rothschild, illuminates my own ambivalence towards the project:

”People hear it's a kid from a wealthy European family with a beard who's an environmentalist (and think), 'Surely this must be a stunt.' But I'm not afraid of drawing fire. Our culture has slowly disassociated itself from nature. But that's a model that has failed us. We must rethink it."

Finally a few words about the images of dead birds above. The photos were taken by photographer Chris Jordan and are part of a series of thirty equally scary images, "Midway: Message from the gyre" (2009). Jordan writes about this project:

”These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking. To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.“

All of his images thus show albatross chicks that died from suffocation, starvation or poisoning and whose decay allows us to see what their "last meal" contained. An albatross normally lives for 50 years and an albatross female lays only one egg once a year or once every second year. This slow reproductive cycle makes the demise of every single albatross chick extra tragic. It has been estimated that up to 40% of all albatross chicks die as a result of their involuntary plastics-eating orgies. Our plastics consumption has increased by nearly 10% annually in recent years and one of many problems is all the plastic bottles which are used only once and then thrown away. Some of these bottles find their way to the sea and finally end up in a gyre far away from you.

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