Plastics: A Two-Edged Sword

By Brad Waite

Plastic touches all of our lives.  It’s convenient, flexible and lightweight.  For all its usefulness, plastic is a two-edged sword.  It’s tough to recycle.  It breaks down, but doesn’t biodegrade.  It’s clutter is everywhere.

There’s an even nastier, more perilous side to plastic.  Its production and use is a significant source of greenhouse gases (GHG).  Increased levels of GHG causes environmental degradation and health problems.

As a society, we must accelerate efforts to reduce production of GHG.  Many are addressing this by driving greener cars such as electric vehicles, opting up to MCE’s Deep Green 100 percent renewable power offering and taking public transportation more. Hopefully, we’re doing all of the above. There’s more to do.

Moving Beyond Hybrids, Wind and Solar Energy

Researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) recently discovered several greenhouse gases are emitted as common plastics degrade in the environment or are intentionally burned. The biggest problem with plastics is that they don’t biodegrade, certainly not within a human lifetime. Biodegration means the process whereby bacteria in the soil transforms an item, like wood, grass and food scraps, into other useful compounds, such as beneficial compost. However, bacteria mostly ignore plastic.

For example, a plastic bottle takes at least 450 years to completely decompose. Plastics don’t biodegrade. They do photo-degrade, when exposed to sunlight.  According to the University of Hawaii SOEST study mentioned above, “plastic is known to release a variety of chemicals during degradation, some of which have a negative impact on organisms and ecosystems.”  They discovered the unexpected production of GHGs methane and ethylene when the most common plastics are exposed to sunlight.  Methane warms the planet by 86 times as much as carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, significantly accelerating the speed with which our planet itself degrades.

Reduce Your Reliance on Plastics

Thus, the world’s heavy use of plastics is a major environmental issue.  The story doesn’t end there.  Plastic is negatively impacting both wildlife and human life. As plastic degrades, it brakes down into smaller and smaller pieces.  Wildlife, especially marine life, ingest these particles as food, ultimately killing them. I expect these micro-plastics (MPs) will be discussed in more detail in future Earth Matters articles. The smallest of MPs, nanoplastics, have begun showing up in drinking water.

Bird feeding on plastic netting

We all need to take concerted action to reduce our use of all forms of plastic as quickly as we can. Yes, being diligent about recycling our plastic is helpful, but only to a certain extent as it is becoming increasingly difficult to recycle plastic for several reasons. First, China has outlawed its acceptance of used plastic and they historically have been the United States’ biggest destination for it. Secondly, most plastics can only be recycled once. Thus, it is imperative we greatly reduce its use in the first place.

I realize how we all became addicted to using plastics. Most plastics make our lives better in some way, from plastic bags at the grocery store, plastic beverage bottles, even the plastics used to make our synthetic clothing. They’ve become so ubiquitous in our lives that we don’t stop to realize the prices we as a society are paying to use them. I suggest we each start by taking an inventory of all the plastics in our lives. Then decide which we can stop using, or at least radically reduce our usage of. We must start now.

Ways to Learn More

Weather is increasingly becoming more extreme.  The pace of change is accelerating. All reputable climate scientists attribute the changes primarily to the build-up of greenhouse gases (GHG) in our atmosphere and oceans.  Human burning of fossil fuels increases GHG. For those climate deniers reading this, I direct you to the website titled “Climate Change Evidence and Causes: An overview from the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.”

In addition, everyone concerned about the state of our planet should watch the documentary Merchants of Doubt.  The film makes a compelling case that the fossil fuel industry is using the playbook developed by the tobacco industry decades ago. The industry denies culpability, then obfuscates as long as possible by executing a well-coordinated misinformation campaign.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, August 29, 2018 edition.  Email Brad Waite at

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