SINGLE-USE PLASTICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT
“One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics,”: David Barnes
Our environment and that of diverse species of living organisms is constantly being perturbed, not by some incredible aliens, but by man himself. In a bid to make life comfortable and fast, to mention just a few mankind has succeeded in overwhelming nature’s natural tendency to eliminate the excess and the waste. Industrialization and modern lifestyle have brought us into a world dominated by plastics. Yes, plastics are quite becoming all pervasive, from your handset, to computer; from your kitchen to shopping malls. They are everywhere imaginable.
You may be oblivious to the danger of plastic beyond what you see in gutters, fenceless communities or flooded roads following a rainfall. Plastics are noxious, a big threat to our environment. That innocent plastic bottle from which you just had chilled water may soon find its way to the ocean or land. “Well”, you may wonder, “How seriously damaging are plastics in these places?” They constitute grave harm to our environment, both at the microscopic and macroscopic, as well as, at the atomic and super atomic scales.
But are plastics that horrible? Not in the sense of their amazing usefulness and how advanced technology is innovating “safe-plastics.” Plastics-the fact 2016, explains that plastics are a wide family of resource efficient materials derived from organic products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. The new members of this wide family are “bio-plastics” – this term, according to the association, actually describes two different concepts: Biodegradable plastics and Bio-based plastics. The former is made from organic and/or fossil resources, the latter, from biological and renewable resources such as grains, corn, potatoes, beet sugar, sugar cane or vegetable oils. Both can be biodegraded.
The issue with plastics, however, is that most of plastics in use are recalcitrant to the biodegrading work of nature. These are the petroleum-based plastics. They are almost perpetually extant. It takes so many years to break down these plastics, which in the process releases toxic substances or microplastics that pollute the environment, affecting food and water. To destroy plastics by incineration pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens. The components of plastics have been reported to have hormone-disruptive potentials and have been implicated in other health problems in humans. A glance at these chemicals: Phthalates are used as plasticizers in the manufacture of vinyl flooring and wall coverings, food packaging and medical devices. Eight out of every ten babies, and nearly all adults, have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies. In addition, bisphenol A (BPA), found in polycarbonate bottles and the linings of food and beverage cans, can leach into food and drinks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 93 percent of people had detectable levels of BPA in their urine. The report noted that the high exposure of premature infants in neonatal intensive care units to both BPA and phthalates is of “great concern.” Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, which are flame-retardants added to polyurethane foam furniture cushions, mattresses, carpet pads and automobile seats, also are widespread (Environmental Health News, 2009). Plastics are toxic to human health. Plastic substances are finding their way into the food chain, subtly being “incorporated” into our genomes and those of land and sea creatures. Thus, setting in motion mutation that could result to cancer and other health challenge.
Also known as disposable plastic, single-use plastics are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These items are things like plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging. Generally, petroleum based plastics are not are barely recycled. Statistics puts global production of plastics around 300 million tons yearly, with China churning out about 49% in 2015. Of these only about 10% are recycled. The rest ends up in landfills as litters. These landfills are excellent cache for the synthetic plastics before they migrate to oceans. By 2050, it has been stated, that oceans shall contain more plastics than fish by weight!
The Center for Biological Diversity reported that in the U.S, at least 267 different species have been affected by plastic pollution in the ocean. 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic bags annually. One in three leatherback sea turtles have been found with plastic in their stomachs. With this data we can begin to appreciate the huge cost plastic pollution is to the biodiversity, affecting wildlife, wildlife habitat and human!
(Plastic – It’s What’s for Dinner)
Additionally, it is not hard to see that as nicely put by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, “plastic pollution and climate change are parallel global emergencies.” You would not agree any less, would you? Plastic is got from petroleum. Consequently, the more petroleum for more plastic production, the more the damage to ozone layer with destructive impacts nascent on ecosystems. That plastics are ubiquitous is indeed worrisome, even though, damage to our environment is hardly perceived by people to go beyond the sheer blockage of drainage.
Already, advanced nations like Western Australia, are considering ban of plastic use in 2018. The call is to refuse plastic pollution. Plastics have an ugly way of eclipsing the beauty of cities. Lagos, in wester Nigeria like so many cities is not spared. But far beyond the cities, everyone, every town, and village suffers from this unwelcomed child of modern lifestyle.
One approach to addressing the problem may have do with the tripod: governance and policy and advocacy. Government should become increasing involved with the local and ward, or even smaller levels of society. More judicious funding targeted at the welfare of the people through ensuring a healthy environment should be at the front of local budgets. All the relevant stake-holders must be made to see that plastics are horrible, children, market women and men, all persons alike should be made to play active role in managing the environment. Innovation is needed; can’t we do better than just merely refuse collection? For example, many don’t know why bottles have the recycle symbols or even what they should look at for whenever they purchase items in plastic bags or containers. So the respective agencies, governmental and non-government should consider strong education of publics in order to empower them to make right choices on the use of single-use plastic.
We must innovate. Our scientists and engineers in our universities and industries should consider how they can chart a new course in developing safer alternatives to the single-use plastic, described as “green chemistry”. Plastics are useful and when compared to other materials with similar packaging use, they may be less abrasive on our environment. For example, the Environmental Health Sciences (2015) revealed that one study found that packaging beverages in PET (a type of plastic) versus glass or metal reduces energy use by 52 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent. And, solar water heaters containing plastics can provide up to two-thirds of a household’s annual hot water demand, reducing energy consumption.
Another way to remedy the situation is a change in attitude. Individually, we must be accountable to how we manage our immediate environment. How do you dispose of used plastics? Conscious and deliberate attempt to keep plastics out of environment can help limit the municipal waste burden. Then be the change. We can insist on not accepting plastic bags, if we can bask on the right information. A cut down on plastic material patronage would do. Let’s look out for the alternative. The next time you go to a grocery shop or boutique, go with a plastic bag from home and keep the re-use culture on. Thus, we could reduce the amount of plastics going around. If you can take it just in hand, why not; why ask for a new plastic bag? This attitude change and pursuit of a less-plastic culture is important. We must never forget: a poor environment, one littered with plastics or other solid and liquid wastes is a function of our attitude. It is up to you and me.
FABE International Foundation is a not-for-profit environmental health organization passionate about the establishment and improvement of an eco-conscious generation committed and dedicated to the restoration, conservation, environmental sustainability, and protection of the environment. Our mission is to promote environmental sustainability, by engaging our youths and women in the identification, exploration, and facilitation of sustainable eco-solutions to problems caused by the impacts of climate change, affecting the health and environment of people and biodiversity in Nigeria through advocacy, education, youth development, women empowerment, community engagement and participation.