We live in a plastic world. Many people are using various plastic products because of their convenience. In our everyday life, we can easily find people using disposable cups, straws, and plastic bags. Unfortunately, these convenient items destroy our lives. The serious problem is that people are not fully aware of the perniciousness of plastic products.
Generally, people are not interested in how products are handled after their use. Also, our society continues to make new plastics rather than recycling old plastic because the expense for mass-produced plastic is cheaper than the one for recycled plastic. As you know, plastic compounds mixed with polyethylene are relatively resistant to heat and are not easily disassembled. For example, “disposable” plastic cups and paper cups with polyethylene plastic compounds are literally used only once and then discarded. A huge amount of money is required to clean and recycle discarded cups. Plastic products used as food container can be recycled only after the remaining food in them is properly cleaned, and paper cups can be recycled only when the polyethylene plastic film on the surface of the paper is safely removed. Considering these aspects, time as well as cost for recycling is immense.
The more serious problem of plastic products is their chemical structure and material properties. It takes more than 500 years for plastic with a solid chemical bond to be completely decomposed in the soil. Furthermore, the main materials of plastic—petrochemicals such as nylon and polypropylene—have properties that absorb harmful chemicals from the sourroundings, thereby, causing many problems even after plastic particles are decomposed and finely sized down to less than 5mm. Fine plastic particles are not easily removed, and usually remain at the place where they are dumped, while absorbing toxic materials. They transform our healthy land into barren wasteland. Even worse, in case we have fruits or vegetables grown on that land, we cannot but live much shorter than our expected life-span because of these various toxic materials accumulated within our body. Actually, plastic buried under the ground is not the sole problem. Another problem is that large amounts of plastic waste have been dumped, and continue to be dumped, into the ocean. The plastic breaks down into fine particles by the oceanic currents and ultraviolet light, which then give rise to considerable problems in the ocean’s ecosystem.
Surprisingly, plastics dumped in the ocean have gathered together and have created a huge “island” that does not appear on the map. This garbage island is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch(GPGP).” It’s eyebrow-raising news that the GPGP is seven times larger than the size of the Korean Peninsula, and that plastic trash from various countries all over the world has been found there. In fact, this is not the first time we have known about the GPGP. Actually, it was first discovered in the late 1990s; however, it was ignored as trifling because of people’s carelessness. Recently, it has begun to emerge as a serious and urgent problem that needs to be solved.
Plastic waste is causing tremendous damage to marine life. Broken plastic fragments penetrate marine animals’ bodies. In fact, a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose was found on the coast of Costa Rica in Central America, and a dead seal stuck in a plastic cord was found on a beach in St. Mary’s Island in England. Sadly, the marine life tend to misjudge the plastic waste as edible food, and eat them. Ironically, they starve to death, for their bellies are full of plastic garbage. For the same reason, they suffer from malnutrition or eating disorders. It is shocking to see plastic waste – weighing 29 kilograms – found in the stomach of a sperm whale that died off the coast of the Cabode Palos, southern Spain. If plastic waste continues to be dumped into the ocean, numerous marine animals will continue to die. Also, we can easily imagine that on our dinner table, we will have fish full of polluted plastic particles, which we will then ingest into our own bodies.
Fortunately, our society is trying little by little to protect the environment around the world. For the issue of plastic pollution, we have developed an alternative of biodegradable plastic. This is an eco-friendly plastic that ameliorates the non-biodegradable plastic. However, this new eco-friendly plastic can be broken down by bacterial enzyme systems or other organisms approximately within a year. But, as this new technology is still incomplete and still widely unavailable, we still have many things to solve in order to mass produce this new biodegradable material. Another viable option to solve this problem of plastic pollution is the wax worm, which is commonly used as fishing bait. It has been proven to break down the chemical structure of plastic. Researchers are actively exploring how to emulate the wax worm for large scale use.
Some of the alternatives being used have led to the decrease of plastic pollution throughout the world. If we wait until our planet is full of plastic waste to find a solution, it will be too late. At the present state, one of the most popular solutions is plastic free markets. The Original Unverpackt in Berlin, Germany, is a plastic free market. Customers bring necessary items – such as flour, salt, and shampoo – home in bottles. In this market, employees weigh the items instead of using bar codes on packages. This means all products are priced based on their weight. As it also prevents overspending, this plastic free market gives consumers the pride of ethical consumption. The image has been positive, for most products are purchased directly from production sites. The fact that it supplies only organic and that the price of items is usually 20 percent cheaper than usual markets contributes to its positive image as well. This plastic free market is becoming a growing trend with the U.S.’s The Fillery and the UK’s Bulk Market, to name a few.
Another solution to reduce waste comes from social enterprises that have introduced the concept of “upcycling.” Upcycling is the re-creation of recycled products by adding design and utilization to them. For example, it makes blankets and bags with fibers extracted from recycled plastic bottles. Social enterprises are not just making new products with upcycled materials. They deliver messages or information concerning the environment to customers through SNS.
It is quite interesting to see the various emerging efforts to prevent environmental destruction by plastics. Many countries around the world are enacting and enforcing new relevant laws. Certain cities or states withint the United States have introduced laws that ban the use of certain plastics, like plastic bags. More specifically, California passed a law prohibiting the use of plastic straws in all restaurants on August 24. The UK also announced in April that it would ban disposable plastic straws from the following year at the earliest, urging companies to join the plastic zero movement. Such legal action is also being taken in South Korea. The Ministry of Environment announced that the use of plastic disposable cups would be banned at cafés and restaurants starting from July 2. If a plastic cup is found to be used except for the purpose of take out, a maximum of 2 million won will be fined to the store owner. Thanks to this legal measure, owners are offering mugs in the store, but some are still troubled by fines or customers’ demands. However, we should fully recognize the seriousness of environmental pollution and work together to keep up with the worldwide movements for an eco-friendly, sustainable planet. If various environmental measures are implemented and maintained adequately with people’s positive cooperation, we will solve the problem of the fine plastic pollution a lot earlier than expected.