Plastic pollution is one of the most significant environmental challenges we face today. Most plastic on the market is made from a petroleum by-product from the fossil fuel industry.
Our largest challenge with plastic and using these types of materials in everyday products; it that it is not biodegradable. Biodegradable means any object or substance that is able to decompose by bacteria or other living organisms. As the plastics we use in our everyday lives are not able to decompose they end up landfills or end up in the ocean which has consequences for wildlife populations and humans. When and if plastic starts to decompose, it becomes a microplastic, making them harder to see and are easily reintroduced into existing food chains.
The scale of the problem
According to three sources, it can take up to 450 years for plastic to decompose in landfills. In the ocean, plastic bags can take up to 20 years to settle and decompose, it can take 450 years for plastic bottles and around 600 years for fishing lines to completely decompose. ( How Long Does It Take for Plastics to Biodegrade? | HowStuffWorks )
There is great concern about the impact of plastic pollution.
- Every day around 60 million plastic water bottles end up in landfill. In Ireland, on average each person every year will though away 2,000 plastic bottles. ( Plastic Waste in Ireland – Core Ireland) (Down the drain (container-recycling.org) )
- If any plastic ends up in a river, lake or stream it will more and likely end up in the ocean and harm the wildlife. If a turtle ingests any type of plastic, there is a 22% chance that the turtle will die from it. ( What Do Sea Turtles Eat and Where Do They Live | Ocean Blue Project )
- Just from plastic alone over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year. But it is not just wildlife that plastic is harming, it is also affecting the health of humans. As of March 2022, there has been evidence found that microplastics are in humans blood streams.
The first sign of microplastics in humans was when they found them in the placenta of a pregnant woman in Italy.
This shows that every living thing on earth is affected by plastic in some way. Even if plastics are incinerated, it can lead to air pollution if the fumes are not captured properly.
So, what’s the solution?
There are many solutions and ideas out there to help to reduce plastic pollution on our planet that have been brought in by the Irish Government, Companies and Universities.
Circular Economy Bill and Daily Habits
On March 31st this year, the Irish Government approved a Bill called the Circular Economy Bill 2022. This bill was introduced to stop the pattern of our current linear economic model of “take, make, dispose” where we take raw materials from the earth, use these to make products to sell and, once these products have reached the end of their useful life, dispose of them. Rather the idea is to create a Circular Economy where we make better use resources, close loops of resource flows by recovering as much as possible and prevent waste and pollution through better design. The emphasis is placed on shifting the way we extract, make, use and repurpose the material in our products to ensure emissions are reduced and resources are efficiently used and kept in circulation as long as possible. For example, in Ireland, the price of take-away coffees will increase if the customers do not bring their own reusable cups. By bringing in these extra charges they are hoping it will persuade people to stop using single-use resources. The bill will also help prevent illegal dumping in Ireland by empowering local authorities around the country to use GDPR- compliant Technologies such as CCTV cameras to help enforce action.
Graphic by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Innovative Solutions by companies in Ireland
Companies such as AYU Makeup have tried to stop the use of plastic in their packaging such as shredding their unwanted cardboard to use instead of bubble wrap to help stop the products breaking while being delivered.
Compostable Bio-plastics made of renewable resources and are a low environmental impact solution solving a specific environmental problem in various sectors, such as agriculture, foodservice, and packaging. SAMCO, a company operating in the agricultural sector, are changing the way they do things to help the environment. They offer two types of biodegradable film for the tillage sector, ingredients made from Oxo-Biodegradable resin and ingredients from Compostable Bio-plastics. Oxo-Biodegradable: a masterbatch which turns ordinary plastic at the end of its useful life, in the presence of oxygen, into a material with a different molecular structure. At the end of the process, it is no longer a plastic, and instead has changed to a material which is biodegradable in the open environment.
WAZP, a 3D printing company, have a zero-waste approach to how they manufacture their products for clients. In Additive Manufacturing, the material that is not used during each print is traditionally disposed of. This had a negative impact on resource and waste management. Since 2015, WAZP has implemented a process for re-using this previously ‘waste’ material in the new production runs which directly resulted in a reduction is waste, better utilization of resources, and a more sustainable product for their clients.
There is wave of new courses and educational activity taking place across the country. By teaching the new generation about plastic, its negative impact and the solutions, and by making it engaging through real-life examples we empower students to share knowledge with their communities about this significant problem the world is facing. For example, at Munster Technological University, we offer the Circular Economy Certificate. This Certificate in Circular Economy provides participants with state-of-the-art knowledge on the Circular Economy model versus traditional linear business/economic models, outlining how the Circular Economic model can achieve the sustainability goals of a business.
Guest Writer: Shauna Flynn, Marketing Intern at Circular Bioeconomy Cluster, South-West.