Did you know roughly 50 million tons of plastic that accumulates annually in United States landfills can be attributed to plastic toothbrushes alone? It is nearly impossible to describe the exact number of toothbrushes represented in this statistic, but also consider these numbers do not even represent worldwide disposal of toothbrushes. This accumulation in the U.S. is a microcosm that accounts for only 0.8% of the entire world’s population. Imagine China’s staggering 1.4 billion population plastic toothbrush consumption per annum, which is more than four times greater than the U.S. With toothbrushes being as copious and inexpensive as they are today, along with the increasing population on Earth, these numbers will only continue to rise.
Most people understand that plastics, in all of its many forms, take a very long time to biodegrade. A lesser known fact, however, is that plastic does not actually biodegrade; the process in which plastic decomposes is actually called photodegradation. Photodegradation takes place when ultraviolet light rays come into contact with any plastic material. Then, during the interaction period between the UV rays and plastic, the object starts to naturally decompose.
This blog entry could become incredibly long and tedious if I were to discuss the chemical process of plastic decomposition. For today’s purposes, I want to inform you about the most common form of plastic—Polyethylene Terephthalate, or more commonly referred to and seen at the bottom of plastic bottles, PET/PETE.
An amazing fact about this type of plastic is that since its production debut, virtually all of it is still in existence today, with the exception of a few new discoveries that might help speed up and alleviate the disposal process. Researchers are not exactly sure how long this form of plastic remains, simply because not enough time has gone by in order for them to study the lifecycle of this plastic in its entirety. Scientists are, however, creating environments that mimic long UV radiation exposure to these types of plastics that will allow them to better understand PET. Depending on whom you ask, the time frame for PET to dissolve can be anywhere from 450 to 1,000 years. The point being, it takes a long time for plastic to disappear naturally from the world.
You might think, “Okay, so it takes 1,000 years for plastics to disappear. Why is that a big deal?” Plastics, which are made out of countless chemicals (~25,000), leak their compositions into whatever liquids they are submerged in, or into whatever is contained inside of them. A great example of this can be seen with the water that is held inside of the water bottle that you may be using while reading this entry.
Many of the chemicals found in PET bottles are carcinogenic: Trihalomethanes, Nitrate, Ammonia, Acetaldehyde, Toluene, Arsenic, and many more. The chances of these and other chemicals leaching into your liquid dramatically increases when the bottle itself is heated up. Don’t think just because you got it out of a cold store fridge or the one at home doesn’t mean it was not sitting on trucks, docks, and/or ships for weeks prior to your purchase, undoubtedly heating up while in various transits. Once the plastic has been heated, the chemicals released from the plastic into the liquid are not only invisible to the naked eye, but they remain in the liquid and do not get reabsorbed back into the plastic when re-cooled.
Aside from the major health concerns, plastic also has huge impacts on entire ecosystems, the most prominent being our marine ecosystem. Once plastic is disposed of, it not only accumulates in landfills, but it also and often times finds its way into our oceans. This is both devastating and destructive because we cannot control where the plastic goes from there. It is even harder to accurately assess just how much plastic is polluting our oceans. One of the ways in which we measure some of the amounts is by analyzing “garbage islands”. These islands are formed by currents carrying plastics and other manmade objects to central zones where the various currents converge. While it is difficult to measure the size of these garbage islands, some researchers believe that one of the largest in the Pacific spans one and half times the length of the United States and possibly up to 100 feet deep. Now, keep in mind, these aren’t islands you can land on, they are like small cereal flakes in big bowl of milk.
To animals, plastic can look like a nice snack, so they attempt to eat it. Sometimes, if they are lucky, it is a small enough piece to successfully pass through their digestive system. More common, however, is when animals eat a piece of plastic that cannot be digested and, ultimately, die of starvation because their stomachs are full of the plastic. Another environmental issue arises when animals become stuck in the many shapes and sizes of plastic. This can eliminate an animal’s mobility and even seal its mouth closed.
Okay, so what can you do that is easy and cheap in order to become a protagonist of these issues instead of the antagonizing opposition? As far as the easy part goes, if you haven’t started recycling, now is a great time to do so. Another simple thing you can do is stop littering. You will convince no one that throwing something on the ground is easier than putting it in your pocket until you reach a trashcan… don’t conflate the meaning of easiness to laziness—don’t be lazy! On the cheap side of things, you can buy a reusable bottle. Personally, I have a Hydroflask and this baby not only keeps the liquid much colder for longer periods of time than a plastic water bottle, but it also doesn’t leach chemicals into the liquid and I don’t have to keep buying plastic bottles. So, in the long run, it’ll in fact save you money if you buy a reusable bottle. Lastly, you need to talk about these things with the people you know. I’m not saying you should go be an anti-plastic extremist getting on everyone’s nerves with the different products they may use, but you can bring up the facts to get your personal circles aware of these issues they may not have otherwise known. I suggest discussing these issues to friends or family members when they aren’t just about to buy or use something that is plastic. This may cause them to become defensive and hinder any real chances of helping them understand the issues.
In summary, when it comes to plastic and its impact on the environment, it’s difficult to hierarchize its various issues and concerns. Whether you feel that the chemicals that comprise plastic bottles threatens humans’ health the most or that plastic inherently damages the ecosystems, the most important takeaway is to become educated on the implications that plastic has on the planet. Minor differences can have far reaching benefits to not just your health, but the health of everyone around you. Unfortunately, some people have become inured and jaded to the topic of climate change. There is a misconception that a person can’t make a lasting difference, so why do something that’ll make aspects of a person’s life a tad bit more challenging because of a lifestyle change? Not to mention, who wants to commit to change when you have some apoplectic person lecturing you about how bad plastic is because they saw you drinking out of a plastic water bottle. All it takes is to seek out new information and apply that newly found knowledge to your everyday life. Once you see how easy it is to make the minor adjustments, the bigger adjustments will come with time.
PET and photodegradation:
Amount of water it takes to make a water bottle:
The History of Plastic:
Amount of chemicals found in water bottles:
Most common plastics:
Remember how I mentioned there may be a few ways to speed up the decomposition rate of plastics so that the process doesn’t take hundreds of years? Well this student, 16-year old Daniel Burd, created a controlled environment in which it only took a plastic bag (also made out of PET) 3 months to decompose. Click this link to find out how he did it!