One of the most popular materials in our lives is also filled with dangerous chemicals that leak out into our environment: plastic. This isn’t exactly new information, particularly with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey hailing the horrors of bottled water or more and more cities banning plastic bags from being given away at stores. Even Plato’s Closet in Christiansburg will give an extra discount stamp for declining a plastic bag.
The waste produced from plastic that isn’t or can’t be recycled takes up a sizable chunk of landfills, simply buried underground with the rest of our waste and allowed to poison that ground. While chemicals leaking from plastic into our soil and water is its own problem, the chemicals that leak into our food and so forth is also consumed by humans. The Food and Drug Administration says that amount that’s actually consumed by humans is safe; however, this only means that it probably won’t permanently harm or kill us.
Chemicals from plastic can potentially alter hormones, poison wildlife, and so forth.
However, the fact remains that most of our lives are supported by plastic. Your phone, car, grocery containers, and even the IV bag you get at the hospital are all made from plastic. For a relatively new material, it seems to be integral to our world. So how do we stop plastic from killing it?
Scientists have been trying to figure that out for years and a team of researchers from North Dakota State University have made a huge step recently. They’ve invented a new recipe of molecules that allows plastic to degrade in just three hours of direct sunlight. The new solution is based on fructose molecules and light-absorbing molecules called phototriggers that when strung together and cooled create a solid plastic. The best part? According to the team’s recently published paper in Angewandte Chemie, these molecules can then be recovered and re-used to make new plastic, which helps reduce the demand for raw materials.
Of course the whole dissolving in sunlight thing might not be ideal for many of our plastic items, such as cars or patio furniture. For cell phones and other devices which aren’t often in sunlight for prolonged amounts of time and are difficult to recycle, this material could make a huge impact on waste. While still being tested and modified for commercial production, this new material could be the first leap in a world desperately in need of less plastic.
Do you drink out of plastic water bottles? How about plastic cups or bowls? Do you wear makeup or lotion? How many times a week do you eat Ramen Noodles? Do you buy any nonorganic meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables? If any of these apply to you, then you’re being exposed to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that mess with your natural endocrine system function. You endocrine system is a highly complex body system that produces and regulates all the hormones in your body. The endocrine system controls your mood, your sleep, your metabolism, and your reproductive cycle. The scary part is, they’re in almost everything, even your water!
A common EDC that you’ve probably heard of is BPA. BPA stands for Bisphenol-A, and it was originally developed as birth control for women. However, BPA wasn’t stable enough as a birth control, but it does work well to harden plastic so they put it in your plastic water bottles (comforting right?). Unfortunately, we’ve seen that when people reuse plastic water bottles, or heat up any sort of plastic, that BPA can be released into your water or food. Even if you’ve been trying to purchase those BPA free plastic water bottles, most of them have been made using Bisphenol-S (BPS) instead, which is actually more potent and can be absorbed through your skin as well.
Another horrifying truth about EDCs is that sometimes, they actually work better the less you are exposed to, and sometimes that’s in very minute amounts. An EDC that’s been in the news lately, Atrazine, is used as an herbicide on crops. In an effort to prove atrazine’s safety, one scientist actually determined that Atrazine can have very detrimental effects. At 25 parts/per billion (ppb), atrazine will turn growing male frogs into hermaphrodites 20 percent of the time. In comparison, at 0.1 ppb, atrazine will turn growing male frogs into hermaphrodites 60 percent of the time; that’s only 100mg of atrazine per liter of water! People who live in farmland areas where atrazine is being used are all still being “dosed” with the atrazine in their water, and will be for several years.
The FDA is well aware that you are all being exposed to these Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, and has determined “safe” levels of exposure. However, these levels have been determined per product. This means that the amount you are getting in your water bottle may be safe, but combined with the level you may be exposed from that can of soup, from the plastic pipes in your home, and from the shampoo you put on everything combined, may not be as safe as you’d hope. As previously mentioned, sometimes less exposure can have more effects.
Bioplastics have become a recent trend in Sunchips commercials as they show off their new, more Eco-friendly bags. What goes into making bioplastics, and are they really all that much more Eco-friendly than normal plastics? This is something people should ask themselves before getting caught up in the bioplastics craze.
Bioplastics are very broad and vague, though all of them can be described as coming from a renewable biomass. Generally speaking, bioplastics are easier on the environment to produce as they release less carbon during production and require less energy to produce. Bioplastics also break down much more quickly than normal plastics, but the ways in which they break down vary by type. Some bioplastics are photo degradable, meaning they break down as a result of being in the sunlight for an extended period of time. Others respond to water content slowly absorbing it and gradually break down. As they do, bacteria can move in and easily eat the sugar-based plastic.
Bioplastics are made in many different ways, all of which utilize a renewable biomass as their source material. Polylactic acid-based bioplastic is formed from glucose. The process of taking the glucose and turning it into a polymer is fairly complicated. Once the glucose is in polymer form it has the advantage of being able to be molded and made into plastic on the same machines that are typically used in the normal plastic production process, making it one of the cheaper and more widespread means of producing bioplastics.
Poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is produced from certain bacteria as they process and break down starch. PHB has the advantage of breaking down without leaving any residue, and it becomes a thin clear sheet when heated to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The real advantage is its ability to break down without leaving any residue like the many other bioplastics that break down and leave byproducts in their wake.
Bio-derived Polyethylene is one of the few bioplastics which is not intended to be easy to break down. It is the same as the polyethylene that they use to make plastics, however, the main difference is how it is produced. This material is produced by fermenting agricultural feed stock such as corn and sugar cane. The claim is during the production of biopolyethylene it actually removes 2.5 tons of carbon from the air instead of producing 3.5 tons like the non-organic version of the plastic. It also has the advantage of being recyclable.
For all the good bioplastics promise or seem to do, there are still some major setbacks with the material that most people are not aware of. Almost all bioplastics are non-recyclable, and unlike some other plastics, are extremely difficult to identify from one type of plastic to another. At the moment there is very little to be done about the issue. The two options on the table are either too costly or unreliable to be put into practice. One option is to create an effective means of sorting the bioplastics out and also educating the public, along with making distinctive designs to help people identify the different types. Some bioplastics upon breaking down, while not producing carbon, do release methane into the air as a byproduct of the bacterias’ process of reducing them. Methane is thought to be a worse greenhouse gas than carbon.
Bioplastics have a great deal of potential at resolving the many issues we face when dealing with plastic, but they are still a long way from being a solution. In time though, perhaps they will be the answer for our dependency on plastics, thereby allowing us to have the convenience they provide without the harm they inflict on the environment.