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Top 10 Plastic Pollutants: Will Banning Single-use Plastic Straws Solve Our Plastic Addiction?

Amongst tumultuous arguments in finding a working solution to our plastic pollution, it is essential that we ask:  what is the place of single-use plastics in our wicked problem regarding plastic pollution?

When the world produced 322 million tons of plastics in 2015 (1), various global leaders and organizations were provoked to act on it. Their first targets? Single-use plastic utensils such as plastics spoons, forks, and the most popular, drinking straws. Banning single-use plastics was highly encouraged by different environmental organizations worldwide; however, counterarguments regarding its efficiency and capability to address the global plastic addiction have also remained. The act remained questionable, and even when California banned the use of single-use plastic straws (2), for it has strained additional problems such as straws being essential for the disabled (3) and accessibility for alternatives (4).

Amongst tumultuous arguments in finding a working solution to our plastic pollution, it is essential that we ask:  what is the place of single-use plastics in our wicked problem regarding plastic pollution? In this article, we will observe the top ten ocean pollutants collected by the organization Ocean Conservancy in the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup and their ease of recycling by type (5).

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Infographic from Ocean Conservancy

10. Foam-takeaway containers

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Image from Flickr

Foam-takeaway containers are your common take-out beverage containers. Milk tea? Coffee? Their containers are typically composed of polystyrene (or PS), the same components of yogurt containers, meat trays, and egg boxes. PS could take millions of years to decompose (6). For decades, it has been a popular choice as packaging among industries and as disposable drinking container for concessionaires and beach campers for the convenience that PS provides.

Under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, PS falls under the difficult category. 

9. Other plastic bags

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Image from Flickr

Of course, plastic bags will not be excluded from this list. Shampoo sachets? Bubble wraps? All fall under this category. These pollutants are made up of low-density polyethylene (or LDPE). Like PS, LDPE also takes millions of years to decompose. Similar with PS, LDPE has been a popular choice as a single-use plastic packaging among industries. 

Under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, LDPE falls under the manageable category. 

8. Glass beverage bottles

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Image from Flickr

Glass beverage bottles are made up of silicates, and can be recycled (7). However, for glass bottles to be recycled, it should be sorted and brought into Material Recovery Facilities. Without the effort to recycle these bottles, they end up as trash in the oceans. Until these are collected, they will remain as ocean pollutants which go hand-in-hand with plastics.

7. Straws and stirrers

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Image from Flickr

Here goes the target of the popular plastic bans around the globe: straws and stirrers. Seems like a little gunshot in a wide array of targets since straws and stirrers are only 0.025% among millions of tons of plastics (8). Nonetheless, straws and stirrers are polypropylene (or PP) which also takes a lot of time to decompose.

Under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, PP falls under the manageable category. 

6. Plastic Lids

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Image from Flickr

With straws comes the perfect partner: plastic lids. Takeout sodas, milkshakes, and other similar products also use plastic lids. Also made up of PP, these lids do not decompose easily. With the ban on straws and stirrers, plastic lids are not thrown into the limelight as much, even though these are similar in composition and function with single-use straws and stirrers.

Once again, PP falls under the manageable category for ease of recycling. 

5. Plastic Grocery Bags

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Image from Inhabitat

Plastic grocery bags are still widely used by grocery chains worldwide even though there are alternatives such as paper bags and recyclable cotton bags. Plastic grocery bags fall under a separate category from other plastic bags. Why? The bulk of plastic bag pollutants are from plastic grocery bags. Like other plastic bags, these are also synthesized LDPEs. 

Under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, LDPE falls under the manageable category. 

4. Food wrappers

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Image from Flickr

Food sachets? Candy wrappers? They still go to our oceans even though they are only minute details of daily life to many. Food wrappers vary widely in their composition. It could be LDPE, PP, or PS. Once again, LDPE and PP can manageably recycled. PS, on the other hand, is difficult to recycle.

3. Plastic Bottle Caps

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Image from Flickr

Third from the top of the list are plastic bottle caps. Plastic bottle caps are non-biodegradable, like most plastics on this list. Plastic bottles could range from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to high-density polyethylene terephthalate (HDPE). 

Unlike LDPE and PP, PET is generally easier to recycle. Under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, PET and HDPE fall under the easy category. 

2. Plastic beverage bottles

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Image from Flickr

Vis-a-vis plastic bottle caps come its bottle container, which is also non-biodegradable PET or HDPE. In comparison to glass beverage bottles, PET bottles are more utilized by beverage companies due to the fact that they are relatively cheaper and easier to transport than glass bottles. Once again, plastic bottles got the patronage of consumers because of the convenience that the single-use plastic bottle provides.

Efforts in recycling PET bottles have been the major target of plastic recycling worldwide, even though only 18% of the plastics thrown into our ocean are recycled (8). Like its caps, plastic beverage bottles, under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, also falls under the easy category. 

1. Cigarette Butts

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Image from Flickr

Unexpectedly, topping the list are cigarette butts. To much dismay, cigarette butts are neither biodegradable nor recyclable due to the filter that the cigarette has. The cigarette filter is made from cellulose-acetate, photodegradable but not totally decomposable (9). 

Under the NGM plastics category for ease of recycling, cellulose acetate falls under the other category and is described as very difficult to recycle.

Other Pollutants

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Image from Flickr

Other than these ten major pollutants collected during ICC, microplastics and fishing equipment are also polluting our oceans at an alarming rate. Microplastics could be all sorts of plastics (PET, HDPE, PP, etc.) for it is a category of size rather than composition, and billions of it are found in our oceans (10). Commonly used microplastics include glitters, cosmetic components, and disintegrated plastic wastes in our oceans. Consequently, fishing equipment should also be considered. Discarded fishing equipment comprise 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (11).

Should we really ban single-use plastic?

Going back to the comparison of single-use plastics and the plastic pollution that the world is in, banning drinking straws seems like such a futile effort to consider. It is only a bucket of water that one can pull from a deep well. Even if an individual decides to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, industries who choose to manufacture plastic increases the plastic consumption ten-fold than what a single person can save from consuming. Moreover, top polluting countries produces plastic pollution in rates that seem to be unstoppable. How can such a small initiative counter a wicked problem?

There is a need to acknowledge the fact that banning single-use plastic utensils is only an entry-level initiative in a bigger image that most fail to consider: plastic wastes in our ocean did not just suddenly exist; these are accumulated plastics used by an individual, compounded by time and billions. Plastic pollution also started as a single insignificant event, overlooked, neglected, and ignored until it has fallen out of hand. 

There is a silver lining in the fact that politicians and organizations are starting to act upon this global problem, even if it starts with a disciplinary approach such as plastic straw bans. Setbacks are still present but reviewing and revising these laws and campaigns prove that exceptions can be made and that these setbacks are not indicative of a hopeless cause. 

With billions of plastics polluting our oceans, it also takes billions of individuals to act on it. Like the little act of plastic disposal which started a worldwide catastrophe, a little act of sacrificing convenience also possesses a potential to further prevent our world from drowning in plastics. 


References:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/news-plastic-drinking-straw-history-ban/

https://globalnews.ca/news/4320295/banning-plastic-straws-benefits-drawbacks/

http://time.com/5335955/plastic-straws-disabled/

https://globalnews.ca/news/4320295/banning-plastic-straws-benefits-drawbacks/

https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/International-Coastal-Cleanup_2017-Report.pdf and https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/

https://sciencing.com/long-styrofoam-break-down-5407877.html

https://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/bottles_consult/files/ENG/Environmental_condoc_ENG_chapter1.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2697937/

10 https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/05/plastics-explained/

11 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22939-w

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