All plastic materials are resistant to natural decomposition processes; they will exist for hundreds of years or more. This is one of the reasons that plastic waste is a huge pollution problem. This might elicit questions: what has happened to the 8 billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced? Should plastic materials be manufactured for short-term use and quick disposal? What should be done with plastic materials once they have been used? Most societies do not take the time to address these questions, which means that the problems associated with massive plastic waste will intensify over time.
How much plastic do you use daily? How much of this plastic is thrown away after one use? How much is discarded after a short time, a few years or less? Do you recycle plastics according to the guidelines? In the United States, less than 10% of recyclable plastics are actually recycled. Currently, most recyclable plastic is “downcycled,” which means it will be converted into materials with less or no ability to be further recycled. In other words, downcycled plastic eventually becomes plastic garbage. The good news is that plastics recycling is moving in a more sustainable direction, thanks to recent scientific findings. There are now processes that can fully recycle (not downcycle) PET plastics. However, this can only work if people are willing to recycle all PET plastics, those with the “1” recycling code on the bottom on the container. Everyone must be part of the solutions in order to reduce plastic waste.
Last spring, I wrote about the problem of plastic debris in local compost. Many municipalities create compost from the collection of yard waste (mainly leaves) in the fall season. Trucks collect the curbside yard debris, but other curbside garbage, mostly plastic, is also collected. Over several months, the leaves, grass and other natural waste decompose into compost, which is rich in nutrients and demonstrates the beauty of natural, nutrient cycling. Unfortunately, the abundant plastic waste in the compost, from films to pieces of toys to carpet fibers, remains intact. Plastic often breaks into smaller and smaller pieces over time, and turns into microplastics and nanoplastics. Even though it may be harder to find, it does not go away.
We expanded our garden this year, and added many buckets of community compost to replace the clay soil. I removed hundreds of pieces of plastic from this load of compost, far short of the entirety of the pollution. After healthy rains, the buried plastic pieces emerge on the soil surface; I am concerned that the birds perceive these as food. I am convinced that the compost is not healthy for the environment.
The plastic pollution along the roads, in the fields, in the water, in organisms, in the soil and in humans will only get worse if we continue using plastic products in the current, irresponsible manner. Here is the poem written by Valparaiso University student Ellison Pratley.
“With the world evolving everyday, We sometimes forget about what is suffering. It slips our minds that the plastic bag we just threw out, could end up inside a Humpback whale. It slips our minds that the plastic straw from Starbucks, could end up lodged in a turtle’s throat. They don’t disappear. They just get smaller. Microplastics.” Thank you, Ellison.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.