Plastics: the Good and the Bad, and the Ugly

Plastic pollution on a beach

πŸ“·:Β CaptainDarwin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

––––––––––––––––––––Part 2 of 4 in our Plastic Free July series––––––––––––––––––––

Plastics have had quite a century. A vast class of materials never before seen on Earth until around the first World War, now can be found in every corner of the planet. On land, in the deepest ocean, and atop the tallest mountains, even inside our own bodies and the food we eat. For all the use and convenience plastics provide, the problem is the sheer amount of it has found its way out of use and into the environment, especially the single-use variety. This situation has motivated Ecovative from the beginning, as we seek to displace and replace so-called disposable plastics using mycelium, subject of the next post in this series.

It is difficult to overstate how common and widespread plastics have become. According to the National Resources Defense Council, plastics are produced at a rate of 300 million tons every year, with roughly half of it going to single-use products like utensils, foam packaging, "disposable" cups and bottles, among countless others. That's 150 million tons a year flowing into landfills and waterways, adding to a waste stream that already weighs more than all animals on the planet combined. But plastics are also found in places we might not expect, like our leather shoes and handbags, where it provides a surface coating that adds sheen and durability, or in beauty products like single-use applicators, or microplastic beads used in skin creams for texture and consistency. There's good reason for us to use plastics, but one only has to step outside to see that our path with plastics has taken a wrong turn. So before we get into that, let's recap the good:

We use plastic for almost everything, and that's because it's very useful. Thanks in part the tax-supported infrastructure for extraction and refining of fossil fuels used to make them, plastic is cheap. That means it can be made at huge scales, and it is durable, meaning that products can last a long time, even those that only get used once β€” every toothbrush you've ever used is still somewhere out there, and that bag of chips that offers maybe ten minutes of enjoyment will last in the environment for decades or even centuries (never mind that they're always about half as full as they could be). It's no wonder plastics became so common. It just so happens that the very things that makes them so useful β€” low price, versatility, durability β€”Β are the things creating problems.


Seal caught in plastic
πŸ“·:Β Subhankar Chatterjee and Shivika Sharma, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


In the first post of this series, we discussed how plastics are polymers: very long chains of molecules that can be arranged different ways for all kinds of useful qualities. Plenty of polymers exist in nature, like rubber, silicone, even DNA. But unlike these natural polymers, modern plastics do not break down naturally. The polymers that make up plastics are usually totally foreign to digestive systems and offer no nutrition,Β  but that doesn't stop them from getting ingested at almost all levels of the food chain.Β 

By now most people are familiar with the large-scale kind of plastic pollution: litter on the beaches, streets, or greenways, swirling "garbage gyres" in the ocean, animals getting stuck in 6-pack rings. Much of the larger forms will find their way into the bodies of fish, whales, birds, anything that finds its meal where plastics accumulate. Plastic may mean less room for other food, and also have various toxic effects (Don't eat plastic, kids). In a 2014 study, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris were estimated to be in the ocean, altogether weighing nearly a quarter million tons. And that's just the big stuff floating near the surface, items like bottle caps, fragments of toys or lighters or lunchboxes. Just as significant an issue is what are called microplastics.

Microplastics close-up
πŸ“·: Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Microplastics are basically any plastic that's under 5 millimeters long. They're used in a variety of things, from beauty products to toothpaste to textiles to cleaning products, adding texture, acting as emulsifiers, or just taking up space. Customers are often unaware of the presence of microplastics, though, and may not realize that they easily find their way into our bodies, or wash away into streams, rivers, and oceans, where they accumulate and cause real problems for the ecosystem. They can travel far and wide, and take many forms β€” fibers from clothes and furniture, like fine plastic hairs, carry through the wind and find their way into lungs and airways. Microplastics in the water can be small enough for microscopic organisms to ingest, conveying plastics right up the food chain, often landing straight on our dinner plates. Microplastics have spread far and wide and deep. In some tests, every person who was tested demonstrated microplastics in their digestive tracts. The problem is new and not yet fully understood, but some estimate as many as 50 trillion microplastic particles floating in surface waters around the world.

There are basically two types of microplastic pollution. "Primary" pollution is all the plastics used in the ways described above, the stuff we make and use directly. When discarded or misplaced, they find their way into the environment. A plastic fork, microbeads from skin cream, or the raw polymer pellets that are melted down to form plastic products, all count as primary pollution once they enter the environment. Secondary pollution are the byproducts of plastic breakdown. Sometimes this means the plastics break down under sunlight to become like a liquid film, or release chemicals like phthalates. With centuries to go before many polymers ever fully disintegrate, this is a problem that will only continue growing.

Ok, that's a lot to think about. And there are many other challenges related to plastics accumulating in our environments. But here's the upside: we know what to do about it. The best way to avoid plastic pollution is simply to not use the plastic in the first place. Plastics are incredibly useful, and if they are applied to things that are meant to last, and are kept out of the environment, there is no reason not to continue using them for all the benefits they provide β€” and there are many benefits. But when they are so cheap, it makes economic sense to make even "disposable" things like cups, foams, packaging and beauty products. How can we call these things disposable if they never really go away?Β 

Ecovative's solution is to meet the day-to-day needs that plastics meet with materials that can actually return to nature once their use is through. The secret is mycelium, and our next article will explore the ways it can β€” and will β€”Β help us displace plastic and stop the problem of plastic pollution at its source.

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Ecovative slipper
πŸ“·:Β Charlotta Aman