Is plastic’s indestructibility still a virtue?
The first semi-synthetic plastic, known as Parkesine, was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1860. The first results encouraged other chemists to find other alternatives to create more of these new “magical” materials called polymers. More than 17 types of plastics were invented in just a century, in different parts of the world, then mass-produced, and destined for everyday life so as to define the consumption culture in the Western world.
Referring to the advent of this revolutionary material affecting a shift in our relationship to nature, the French philosopher Roland Barthes in 1950 wrote: “The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized and even life itself since we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas“.
A definition that sounds apocalyptic: to realize how much Barthes was right, indeed, just take a look around – and this wouldn’t be enough anyway!
Some recent studies conducted by The Or Foundation and The Plastic Health Foundation have proved that due to the highly polluted environment in which we live, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, we do have plastics in our flesh and in our bloodstream.
What are we exactly dealing with?
Microplastics and nanoplastics, recently discovered by scientists, are tiny plastic particles that are shed into the environment by synthetic clothes when manufactured, washed and worn. According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), every time we do our laundry, an average of 9 million microfibers are released into wastewater, ending up in the ocean where they become hazardous food for marine organisms, eventually making their way to humans. Also, just by wearing synthetic clothes, plastic microfibers are constantly released into the air.
Synthetic clothes contribute to 35 percent of primary microplastics polluting our oceans, while the remaining significant negative impact is determined by the paint, tyre and all kind of plastic objects which end up in natural environments: depending on the gravity of atmospheric conditions, once their degradation process starts, they slowly fragmentize into tiny particles – micro and nano plastics – which are known to be not biodegradable.
From the moment plastic became the most used material for mass-produced products, between the two world wars, its success as a material has always been inextricably linked to its extreme durability, indestructibility, and affordability compared to other natural materials. What makes its utility, though, is precisely what makes it such a problem: plastic is practically immortal and what’s worse, we destine such an indestructible material to highly perishable things such as single-use products and plastic packaging.
Data are not encouraging either: the employment of single-use plastic objects has more than doubled over the last 30 years.
This kind of plastic has on average 40 minutes of useful life in the consumer’s hands, after that it is discarded, waiting for its 500-years-or-more degradation process to complete.
Here are some numbers: only 9 percent of the world’s plastic is being recycled; 12 percent is being incinerated, while 79 percent end up in the landfill or environment, giving the microfibres the green light to spread out.
Do our clothes definitely poison us?
Recent research has proven that we are breathing in at least 13.000 to 68.000 plastic microfibers per year. This number is likely to increase concurrently with the contamination of all habits because of the development of neo-liberal culture and our consumeristic addiction to plastic.
Research by ZonMw, a Dutch organization that finances health-related research, found microplastics in the faeces of people from Europe, Russia and Japan, confirming that we do in fact ingest microplastics. This raises the pressing questions: Once in our bodies, do microplastics make us sick? And are all ingested plastics egested from our bodies, or does a part of them remain in our bodies?
In order to get an idea about the issue, scientists have conducted a wide range of animal studies: they found that the smallest particles – nanoplastics – were able to pass the gut barrier and reach the bloodstream, hence they can travel to other parts of the body, such as in the stomach and heart of rats, in the foetuses of mice and in the brain of fish. Based on these studies, researchers have hypothesized that the same exposure to microplastics on humans has been associated with serious health problems such as hormone-related cancers, infertility, and neurodevelopment disorders like ADHD and autism.
Even if the body of research on microplastic contamination has made progress, it is still a brand new area of study in the scientific field, arousing more questions than answers about what plastic does to our bodies. Maybe plastic’s impact on our health has no complications; maybe, instead, it is responsible for all those diseases and illnesses which come out of nowhere, with no known cause.
Moreover, what’s worse is that microplastics are a fertile ground for bacteria and a vehicle for spreading other pollutants already present in the water, from heavy metals to “forever” chemicals and human pathogens. Can really contagious diseases travel the world by sticking to marine plastic fragments? Spoiler alert: yes, they can. Particularly, in areas with poor sanitation facilities and high plastic pollution, it is hypothesized that plastic could be contributing to the spread of diseases, according to the Plastic Health Coalition.
What can we do, now, to reduce our plastic negative impact on earth and safeguard our own health?
Living with plastic has become settled practice. Almost any product we buy contains plastics, as well as any garment we wear. Recycling plastic is just a pale effort in comparison to the scope of the microplastic problem, and we really need true solutions, ones that solve the problem rather than reduce its impacts of shift them elsewhere.
Is it really possible to reduce our plastic consumption and to clean up our environment from its contamination?
We gathered some positive efforts that everyone can make in order to shoulder the weight of plastic and deal with the problem.
1. Choose natural-based cosmetics & cleaning products
According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, beauty products don’t only come in plastic packaging; most of the time, they may also contain plastic ingredients.
Some 83 percent of suncare products, 80 percent of hand sanitizers, 71 percent of face creams contain microplastic.
Microplastics are intentionally added to these formulas to bind ingredients together, mattify, give the skin a soft feel and make the product last longer on the skin. How can we know which products contain them?
Just download the Plastic Soup Foundation’s apps: “Beat the Microbead” scans the ingredients list of any of your products in your bathroom, helping you choose volatile silicones-free products and particle-free formulas, and “My Little Plastic Footprint” helps you to reduce your plastic use in the domestic environment.
2. Avoid disposable & single-use containers
Favor instead reusable and ecological packaging, that can be washed and used hundreds of times, such as canvas bags and glass containers.
RECIRCLE is an initiative that replaces single-use packaging with reusable alternatives. Restaurants, stores and events can purchase, use, refill and wash them ad infinitum, before returning them to RECIRCLE when they are not needed anymore. (www.recircle.ch/en/)
3. (for businesses) Use natural-based materials for packaging.
Use environmentally friendly alternatives to polystyrene or plastic, as the packaging industry is still the biggest purchaser of plastic products, accounting for almost 40 percent.
A research group at Gӧttingen University develop plant-based environmentally friendly material made of popcorn. The University has signed a license agreement with the company Nordgetreide for the commercial use of the process and products for the packaging sector. It just looks like polystyrene, but it is sustainable!
Again, would you ever imagine that little containers can be made from the water in which chickpeas are cooked? Designer Paula Nerlich developed a bioplastic made from chickpeas aquafaba mixed with other ingredients and boiled, after which it is shaped into the desired form. It is currently being tested and appears to have potential for industrial production.
DESINTEGRA.ME is another example of natural alternatives: its name -from Spanish- means that the material “disappears” if you use it. Extracted from algae, this material degrades in a period of 2 to 4 months, aiming to replace single-use plastics and it visually just looks like plastic! Not for sale yet.
And what about wrappers that are fully organic and compostable? Tampons brand Daye created sugarcane packaging which disintegrates when comes into contact with water. (www.yourdaye.com)
Who said plastic can be the sole solution? Modern times require new solutions which can not only respond to practical needs but can also be sustainable and environmentally friendly (human beings included).
The year 2023 will hopefully see positive developments in microplastics:
Firstly, the EU Commission will publish its report on microplastics and the regulatory measures it will implement to achieve the EU Green Deal objective of reducing microplastic emissions into the environment by 30% by 2030.
Strong regulatory signalling should drive action by the paint, tyre and textile industries to engage on this issue. It will also provide a more solid basis for innovators and capital to develop new solutions to tackle the problems of secondary microplastics.
The second round of negotiations on the planned UN Plastic Treaty will occur in Paris, France, at the end of May. The Meeting presents an unmissable opportunity to set legally binding global measures to address microplastic pollution. Plastic packaging and single-use plastics have gained a place on the agenda at the UN Plastic Treaty negotiations, partly because big retailers and consumer goods companies face consumer pressure to act on plastic pollution.
5. Technological Innovations
GoJelly is a EU H2020 funded project where jellyfish is used as source of innovative solutions to combat marine litter. Jellyfish are converted into precious resources to produce filters for microplastics, as jellyfish mucus is able to capture microplastics. The derived bio-filters could be used to purify waters or in factories where microplastics are produced.
6. Microplastics Cleaning Machinery
Ultrasound waves have also proved to be an efficient vehicle to collect microplastics. A team led by Menake Piyasena, associate professor at New Mexico Institute of Mining an Technology, developed a device that uses sound waves to push microplastics together and concentrate them into specific steel tubes, making them easier to remove. The researchers estimate it would cost around 7 cents to operate the current device for an hour and take around an hour and a half to clean one liter of water, making it cost effective to use on a larger scale – an application that they hope is in the future of their device.
Alongside traditional filtration methods, Microplastic Removal System created a polymer-made static charge filtration screen that emits a low level of electrostatic charge used to remove microplastics from beaches. Through a back-and-forth motion, users manually filter the sand through the screen, which has a 0.7 millimeters mesh, but because of the low static charge, il catches material down to 50 micrometers. It is mostly used in Australia, Northern Europe and USA, and always open to volunteering initiatives.
7. Favor natural compositions for your garments
An Italian study made by CNR proved that every time we do our laundry, almost 124 to 308 mg per kg of microplastics are released in the wastewater: this range is influenced by the type of garment being washed, the nature of the yarn and its structure. This research project took 4 t-shirts of different compositions: two made in polyester (100%) with different structures, one in recycled polyester (65%) and one t-shirt with blended material (cotton, polyester and modal).
The experiment result was that the t-shirt releasing the highest amount of microplastics was the one made in blended polyester, because of its fragile structure (equal to 1.500.000 particles), followed by the two t-shirts made in 100% polyester (1.100.000 and 770.000 microfibres), while the t-shirt made of recycled polyester released the lowest amount of microfibers (640.000).
In the successive laundry cycles, the microplastics released by the 100% polyester t-shirt tended to stabilize, while the blended material t-shirt release tended to decrease through time.
This problem clearly does not present itself when natural fibers garments are washed.
These are only a few examples of the systems and procedures we can adopt to reduce our plastic consumption; yet, the list of stores and markets that sell non-plastic products is endless. Find the closest to your home or choose carbon-neutral delivery.