Knowledge gaps about plastic combined with common carelessness makes us plastic users an inadvertent environmental threat. Now it is time for greater awareness:
"We often talk about fossil-free energy and fossil-free vehicle fleets – but not so often about fossil-free plastic. It’s high time to do so, as plastic has long been a hidden factor among the carbon dioxide villains," explains Anna Karlsson, Environmental Specialist at Vattenfall’s waste incineration plant in Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth biggest city.
She leads a cooperative group in Uppsala, aiming to phase out fossil plastic from our society. The hunt for plastic is important for Vattenfall, since various types of plastic, for example rubbish bags and packaging, are still produced from fossil oil. This leads to carbon dioxide emissions when the rubbish is burned, an issue that became apparent at Vattenfall’s plant in Uppsala.
One tonne of carbon dioxide per person
In this city, plastic use leads to about 140,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That corresponds to one tonne of carbon dioxide per resident, or ten per cent of total emissions.
"That makes it harder to reach the emission targets set for 2030. We at Vattenfall cannot solve this problem on our own, but work together with the rest of society, not least by way of a cooperation agreement with Uppsala municipality."
Plastic discarded in nature ultimately emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as it would if it were burned. The difference is that the degradation process takes longer.
"We need increased recycling, better source separation and more reuse, as well as political decisions that offer incentives to remove oil-based plastics, in items such as packaging, and go over to renewables like bio-based plastics instead," says Karlsson.
Don’t "buy, use and throw-away"
The term "bioplastic" crops up increasingly frequently – but it is not always as environmentally friendly as it sounds. "Bioplastic" refers to two distinct features: the origin of the underlying raw material and the property of being biodegradable. "Unfortunately this can lead to confusion, as degradable plastic can be produced from both fossil and renewable raw materials," says Karlsson.
Politicians have begun to wake up to the issue. France, Germany and the UK have introduced laws and regulations that discourage the routine use of items such as plastic shopping bags.
But a lot is up to us consumers. To counter pollution and an ever faster consumption of the earth’s finite resources, we must abandon the idea of "buy, use and throw-away".
"To buy packaging and then just throw it away is not particularly smart. Where disposable packaging is unavoidable, we should see to it that it is made of renewable material like paper, or a plastic made from renewable raw materials and can be recycled," Karlsson concludes.
A nasty threat to marine life
Plastic waste that ends up in the sea stays in the sea, even if over time it disappears from view. It is broken down, slowly shredded by waves and washed onto beaches while becoming increasingly brittle due to the sun’s rays. The plastic residues become smaller and smaller until finally, they can no longer be seen. That produces the illusion that the plastic has disappeared, that it has degraded. But it remains in the form of microscopic fragments that float about in the water like a kind of artificial plankton.
Levels of microplastics are often highest in the waters around coasts, home to the fry of many species of fish. Recent research has now shown that fish fry prefer microplastics to their natural food.
"It seems that the microplastics give off an attractive smell which confuses the fry, who believe that they are small bits of food, so this attracts them," says Oona Lönnstedt, a doctor and researcher at Uppsala University.
"In our study, pike had absorbed large amounts of plastic because their food (larval perch) eats microplastics. In that way, the microplastic can migrate up in the food chain and affect us human beings. I read an article not so long ago pointing out that the average shellfish eater absorbs an average of several thousand microplastic particles per year, so I now avoid mussels and oysters," says Lönnstedt.
Even clothes made of plastic-based fleece can lead to large emissions of microplastics. A study by researchers at University College Dublin found that when a fleece is washed, more than a thousand small plastic particles can follow the rinsing water down the drain. These tiny particles, some thousandths of a millimetre in size, pass unchanged through the treatment plant. Once in the water, they become food for zooplankton, who cannot distinguish them from their natural food, phytoplankton. Micro grains of plastic are also often used as abrasives in cosmetics, toothpastes and cleaning agents, and are then washed out with the rinsing water.
In recent years, researchers have become increasingly aware of the significance of plastic particles in the sea, which are on the way to developing into a global problem.
"The situation is not yet alarming, but a growing problem today is the widespread distribution and accumulation of plastic waste in the world’s seas," according to Lönnstedt.
"If the research results do show a higher mortality in the natural environment of fish, this can have direct consequences for the sustainability of fish populations. These circumstances underline the need for new methods of handling microplastic waste – perhaps by prohibiting the use of microplastics in body care products – or by developing alternative products that reduce emissions of plastic waste."