The problem with plastic – part 2

by James Flint on August 11, 2020

What's wrong with plastic?

Plastic is not really green or healthy. Why? Omnipresence, waste, pollution... We take stock of the problems related to plastic.

Too much plastic is used and it has negative impacts on the environment and on health. But still? What exactly do we criticise with plastic?

We use too much plastic (disposable)

Plastic is practical: it is light, it is resistant to different elements (water, heat, cold ...), it can take various forms (textiles, bottles, dishes, insulation, floor coverings, etc.). As a result, it is used for many purposes.

Of course, plastic is not environmentally friendly. But if it were reserved for a few uses, it would not pose so many problems. The concern is that it is ubiquitous and often used for single-use items, which generate a lot of waste that is still poorly managed.

The production of plastic has multiplied by 20 since the 1960s. It's not surprising, we use plastic everywhere: packaging, kitchen utensils, various containers, dashboards, electrical and electronic equipment, decoration, furniture, toys, etc.

Some examples of the use of plastics in the house:

Packaging accounts for 40% of the plastic used in Europe each year. By packaging, we mean anything that is plastic films, blisters, trays, containers, jars, bottles, etc.

However, packaging has a short lifespan and therefore becomes waste fairly quickly.

Packaging is not the only one with a short shelf life. We could also cite poor quality objects (toys, decoration, gadgets, household appliances, etc.) and single-use plastic objects. 47% of plastic waste found in the sea is also single-use plastic objects!

Producing plastic takes a lot of oil

To make plastic, we use a lot of petroleum, a non-renewable resource. It takes 2kg of crude oil to produce one kilogram of PET, the plastic that bottles are usually made from.

Oil is used: as a raw material;

for the production process. In particular to operate machines, transport finished products, etc.

Currently, an estimated 6% of the oil used in the world is used to make plastic. A figure which should climb to 20% by 2050.

This clearly reflects the increase in plastic consumption. And what a waste when you know that the first use of plastic is packaging (with a very short lifespan). And, contrary to popular belief, plastic is not recycled much.


Recycling is not a panacea.

The recycling of plastics remains problematic for several reasons:

We collect too little plastic. Of the 26 million tones of plastic waste produced per year in Europe, only 30% is recovered for recycling. If we limit ourselves to looking at household packaging plastics (bottles, films, containers, etc.), the result is better: recycling is 42% in Europe and 38% in Belgium. The fact remains that 70% of plastic waste is not recycled and is therefore buried or incinerated.

Recycling does not have a 100% efficiency. There are always losses in the process: a ton of collected plastic never produces a ton of recycled plastic. However, recycling figures are calculated on the basis of what is supplied to recycling companies, not on the tones of recycled materials produced.

Plastic items are sometimes recycled as non-recyclable items. For example, you can make sneakers or sweaters from recycled bottles. But currently, these objects do not have a recycling channel. In other words, if you make a textile from bottles, the plastic will in fact only be recycled once.

The diversity and composition of plastics makes recycling difficult. We do not recycle all plastics the same way. However, the same plastic (PET, for example) can have different compositions. And many objects are also made of several plastics, which are not always separated (for example a tray and its lid or a bottle and its cap).

The quality of recycled plastic is greatly influenced by the quality of the waste. The quality of recycled plastic is one of the very big points of attention when it comes to recycling plastics. A European report has highlighted the presence of flame retardants in toys made with recycled plastic. In general, recycling is influenced by the additives used in the manufacture of the plastic or by what the packaging contained. For example, opaque PET milk bottles are not recyclable due to the filler used to make them opaque. Or the ketchup bottles are difficult to recycle because the plastic turns yellow when recycled.  The issue is even more thorny when it comes to producing packaging intended to contain food. Moreover, we still do not really manage to manufacture plastic bottles from 100% plastic bottle waste. The situation should change with the European obligation to have 25% recycled plastic in bottles in the future. It will become important to have enough good quality plastic waste and therefore to potentially make 100% recycled plastic beverage bottles.

Plastic is far from being recycled locally. The plastic packaging collected in Belgium (the blue bag) is recycled in neighboring countries. But that leaves quite a few other plastics to be processed and recycled. 50% of European plastic waste collected for recycling is exported outside the European Union. Belgium is in the top 5 countries which export plastic waste worldwide, according to Greenpeace. Much of this plastic waste was sent to China. But China has revised its quality criteria for importing waste. For lack of recycling infrastructure (among others), many countries, such as the United States, sometimes find themselves having to incinerate plastics yet sorted by its inhabitants. Other countries have taken over from China, such as Turkey, India, Taiwan and South Korea. Since the Chinese import restrictions, Turkey has become one of the top ten international importers of waste, mainly from the UK, Belgium and Germany. But these countries could very well do like China. Malaysia, which had seen its imports of plastic waste increase, has just announced restrictions.

Some argue that it would be more efficient to burn the plastic (and recover the heat from it to produce energy) than to recycle it. It seems logical since plastic is made from petroleum. But that's not really a solution. Not only does recycling save energy for the manufacture of plastic (with all the usual reservations as to the quality of the recycled plastic), but burning plastic amounts to burning non-resources. renewable, with the production of CO2 that goes with it.

And this is above all a false debate. A useful action would be to simplify the packaging (less different kinds of plastics) and suddenly, to facilitate and improve recycling. But the best would be to use less plastic!

Plastic is found in large quantities in the oceans

There is a lot of plastic in our oceans. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that there will be as many kilos of plastic as there are fish in the oceans by 2050.

It is estimated that in our oceans there are:

8 million tons of “heavy waste” of plastic. This is poorly managed waste, which ends up in the oceans (plastic bags, dishes, bottles, etc.). For the Mediterranean alone, we are talking about 570,000 tons of plastic waste per year!

0.8 to 2.5 million tons of "primary" microplastics, coming from our use of plastics. For example, the microbeads contained in certain cosmetics, the fibers of synthetic clothing which come off when washed or the wear of car tires.

To this must be added secondary microplastics, which come from large waste that disintegrate.

The problem is that plastic takes a very long time to degrade in the environment, especially in water: from a few decades to several hundred years. However, the degradation process in real conditions is still poorly understood.

Even for plastics that are supposed to be biodegradable, the optimal conditions are not met and the process is slow.

Some of this waste ends up coming together to create what are called “plastic continents”. The best known is undoubtedly the vortex of the North Pacific: the "7th continent". This area where sea currents meet concentrates plastic waste into a gigantic soup of large waste and microplastics.

Plastic can be harmful to health

When you eat food that has been stored in plastic or when a child chews on an object. These are situations where compounds can migrate from plastic to the body and we then find ourselves exposed to (potentially) carcinogenic substances, endocrine disruptors, etc.

These migrations are known and governed by standards. But standards are changing and what is allowed today may be banned tomorrow, for example bisphenol-A which has been banned in baby bottles.

Plastic and Microbeads

Used in cosmetics, they are harmless to humans, but slowly degrade in the environment, threatening many aquatic animals.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is consulting the public these days on the relevance of banning plastic microbeads in personal care products for exfoliating or cleaning.

These tiny beads invisible to the naked eye (they are no more than five microns, the size of a human cell or 200 times smaller than the millimeters graduated on school rulers) began to be used by manufacturers in the years. 1990.

According to a survey conducted last year by the Canadian Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrances Association (ACCPTP) among its 150 member companies, it is found in countless products, such as skin care products (moisturizers, anti-wrinkle, lip balms…), cleansers (shower gels, soaps, lotions…), toothpastes and make-up (nail polish, foundations…). The amounts used by each manufacturer in Canada range from 30 kilograms to 58 tons per year.

There are a multitude of types of microbeads, of different sizes and compositions. Some act as an exfoliant, others as a binder for the ingredients, others increase the shine… They do not present any danger to health, provided that, of course, the products in which they are incorporated are used correctly. If you drink your shower gel or your child swallows a whole tube of toothpaste, the other ingredients may cause more harm to your health than the microbeads!

Most are made from common plastics, such as polyethylene, which are used in other forms in many packaging. Basically, we find in the microbeads the same materials as those designated by the numbers 1 to 6 surrounded by a triangle on the packaging that must be put in its recycling bin.

Except that the microbeads systematically end up in the environment, because they are not retained and eliminated in wastewater treatment plants, where they pose several problems. This is the real danger.

As they are made of very poorly biodegradable plastics, they will accumulate in sediment or float between two waters for centuries. In 2014, a study by McGill University detected significant amounts of it in the sediments of the St. Lawrence.

However, microbeads can pass in the diet of many aquatic animals, fish, mussels or even zooplankton. While they are not toxic when spread on human skin, they can become toxic if ingested by much smaller animals. In the environment, in fact, they act a bit like pollutant sponges, absorbing pesticides or persistent organic pollutants, only to release them later in the bodies of animals that eat them.

Even if studies on the toxicity of microbeads are still incomplete, their results are worrying enough that several jurisdictions have decided to ban them, on the advice of scientists and following popular pressure.

Long-lasting damage to the environment simply so that your foundation is a little more shiny or your shower gel a little softer to spread does indeed seem to make no sense!

Nine US states have already passed laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing microbeads. Some of these laws are already in force, others will apply later in 2019. In addition, a federal law adopted last December prohibit the manufacture of these products throughout the US as of 1st July 2017 and their sale in 2018. Manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs and natural products were granted a stay until 2018 and 2019.

Europe is currently working on a similar regulation.

The project currently in consultation in Canada comes at the end of several regulatory stages initiated under the Conservative government. For example, plastic microbeads had to be added to the list of toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Manufacturers do not seem to have much difficulty in finding options to replace microbeads, especially since they fear like the plague boycott campaigns likely to spread like wildfire on social networks. Thus, the giant Unilever (Dove brand, among others) has banned them from its exfoliating products for over a year!

That said, these microbeads are only a fraction of the pollution of the environment from non-degradable plastics. Most of the microscopic fragments that are found in significant quantities in the oceans, the great lakes or even the St. Lawrence River do not come from the contents of personal care products, but from the slow decomposition of their packaging, bags, tampon applicators and countless other plastic products that end up in the wild rather than in recycling plants, legal dumps, or incinerators.