When chemist Leo Baekeland combined phenol and formaldehyde in 1907 to create Bakelite, the world’s first plastic, few would know just 100 years later what a huge impact it would have — for good and for bad.
Iconic scene from “The Graduate.”
Plastic has led to advances in production and commerce, but it’s also created one of the most pressing environmental problems today — how to stop the vast deposits of plastic being buried in landfills and left swirling in the world’s oceans.
Plastic can take anywhere from 450-1,000 years to degrade naturally, and some materials made with polyethylene terephthalate or PET never biodegrade, according to Postconsumers.com.
Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation via Statista.
What’s more, only about 14 percent of the 78 million metric tons of plastic produced in 2013 was recycled, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found.
Vortexes of trash
When it’s not in a landfill, small pieces of plastic litter the oceans, flowing into currents and eventually ending up in five known “gyres” or vortexes where all the globe’s debris accumulates. Learn more about trash gyres in this VICE News documentary.
Using buoys released over the past 35 years, NOAA visualized this trash migration, and backed it up with a computational model of virtual particles. The white dots in the video above show actual buoys released and where they end up.
Photographer Chris Jordan has also documented the toll that plastic debris has taken on wildlife in Midway Island located in the North Pacific Ocean which sits on the gyre known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. Watch a trailer to his short film: “MIDWAY, a Message from the Gyre”:
One solution: Bioplastics
So what’s the solution? For many it lies in bioplastics — or plastics made using biodegradable materials such as corn, potato, and soy. Materials are extracted from these starches, fermented and then polymerized, to make polylactic acid or PLA.
Source: Applied Market Information via Statista.
The global demand for bioplastic is expected to increase sixfold by 2020 to 5.3 million metric tons — but that’s still small compared to the 78 million metric tons of plastic produced in 2013, according to data from Applied Market Information.
Another solution: Advances in recycling
Scientists at Colorado State University have recently found a way to polymerize single plastic molecules and then heat them to convert them back to their original molecular state. This would allow plastics to be completely recyclable.
Marc Hillmyer with the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota said this new bioplastic represents a huge step forward.
“The idea of taking a plastic all the way back to its starting materials and then making a new pristine material again is attractive in that regard,” Hillmyer said.
Another solution: Worms
Scientists at Stanford University have also recently experimented with using a worm that can break down styrofoam into organic materials.
Study says meal worms may reduce plastic wasteThe United States produces more than 855 million kilograms of Styrofoam each year. Professors at Stanford University in California have discovered that a very tiny creature may hold promise for cutting down all that waste.
The bad news
Despite these advances, petroleum-derived plastics still dominate.
The falling price of oil has even negatively impact green industries, Sky News reports.
With a barrel of oil currently at $33, down from $50 last year, it’s cheaper to buy new plastic than recycled plastic, Sky News found. Several plastic recycling plants in the United Kingdom have been closed or put on hold as a result.