Plastic restrictions and plastic bans | How to quickly resolve the global war on plastics

  • 2022-09-13

Since the first half of this year, although the epidemic has had a serious impact on the economy, domestic companies have announced news of the production of biodegradable plastics almost every week. In the more than 100 years since plastic entered human life, it has experienced a complex process of being sought after, favored, criticized and even reflected by the public...

 "This invention must be important in the future"
For most of human history, the materials that can be processed and utilized are limited to wood, stone, ceramics and some metals. It was not until the second half of the 19th century, with the development of modern industrial chemistry, that the material revolution broke the dull situation. In 1907, an unintentional act unexpectedly opened up a new world for mankind.

"Unless I'm mistaken, this invention must be important in the future," Dr. Leo Baekland wrote in his diary on July 11, 1907. The Belgian-born chemist was 43 years old and had a successful career and settled in New York. With his chemistry expertise, he achieved financial freedom early and bought a house on the Hudson River. He specially prepared a laboratory at home to enjoy chemical experiments as a personal hobby. In July of this year, he accidentally synthesized a material with outstanding insulating properties while playing with formaldehyde and phenol.

Although not the first plastic, phenolic resin has a particularly high historical status because it is synthesized by a completely new type of chemical reaction - polymerization. The polymerization reaction is like a magical magic, which realizes the dreams of countless alchemists in the past, and greatly frees the human beings since then from the shackles of nature. The arrival of the plastic age also means another leap forward for human civilization. With the characteristics of light weight, easy processing and low cost, plastics are slowly becoming ubiquitous - from telephones, radios, guns, coffee pots, billiards to jewelry and The first atomic bomb. History has proved that Beckland's prediction was completely correct.

One of the protagonists in the current garbage heap - plastic bags, came out before World War II. In 1933, a chemical plant in Northwich, England, inadvertently developed the most commonly used plastic, polyethylene. Although polyethylene has been produced on a small scale before, this is the first time that an industrially practical compound material has been synthesized. In 1965, the one-piece polyethylene shopping bag was patented by a Swedish company. This lightweight and fashionable plastic bag quickly replaced cloth and paper bags in Europe, and was introduced to the United States in the 1970s and swept the international market. Companies that make plastic bags are starting to market their products aggressively, touting the benefits of plastic bags.
However, the good old days of plastic products are just an illusion.

The advantages of plastic are the killer of the oceans

In the second half of the 20th century, the infinitely popular plastics conquered the city. With cheap and convenient products such as plastic bottles, plastic cans and plastic bags, they became the mainstream of packaging in one fell swoop, and at the same time greatly promoted the growth of other consumer goods. While writing "Plastics: A Toxic Love Story", American author Susan Fleck spent a day meticulously recording all the plastics she came into contact with - switches, toilet lids, toothbrushes and toothpaste cartridges, etc. , she also took note of things that weren't plastic - toilet paper, wooden floors and ceramic faucets. At the end of the day, there are 102 non-plastic products, 196 plastic products, and plastic wins. Next, the question arises, where does so much plastic end up?

In worship of the power of nature, the ancients in many parts of the world believed in the power of the ocean to wash away all dirt. Until the early 20th century, the American community of sanitation engineers believed in the self-purification ability of the ocean. It is true that the dumping of municipal solid waste before World War II has not caused major damage to the marine environment, because the main component of domestic waste is degradable waste. But after World War II, Wang Yanghai ushered in a formidable opponent - plastic. The advantages of plastic just become the killer of it harming the marine environment: because it is durable, it is difficult to be decomposed in seawater; because it is plastic, its changeable shape makes it difficult for marine organisms to adapt; because it is cheap and lightweight, people have a lot of Use and discard, drift with the flow to the Quartet.

In the 1960s, researchers detected the composition of plastic in fish. In the 1970s, the international shipping industry took action and formulated the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships in 1973. Later, the Convention stipulated in Annex 5 that all plastic wastes are strictly prohibited from being discharged into any waters, including (but not limited to) synthetic ropes, fishing gear, garbage bags and incineration ash. A signatory to Annex 5 of the International Convention on Pollution. However, it soon became apparent that this was not enough.

Plastic created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In 1988, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) disclosed in a paper that researchers had measured a considerable amount of plastic accumulation in the North Pacific Ocean, and they speculated that the North Pacific current was behind it. Nine years later, American oceanographer Charles Moore was on his way back from the Pan Pacific Regatta when he saw a vast sea of plastic floating around with his own eyes. Under his propaganda, this garbage patch became known to the world. Later, Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbsmeyer named the patch of plastic toys and sneakers the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is divided into eastern and western parts. The debris is mainly composed of small plastic particles suspended on or below the surface, so it cannot be accurately detected by aircraft or satellites. After years of investigation and sampling estimates, researchers currently estimate the area of the garbage patch to be between 700,000 square kilometers (about the size of Qinghai Province) and 15 million square kilometers (slightly smaller than Russia). In 2018, the "Ocean Cleanup" organization released a paper, estimating that there are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic debris floating in the garbage patch, with a total weight of about 79,000 tons, of which microplastics (particles less than 0.5 cm in diameter) account for 88% of the total weight of plastics. %.

The 2018 study also found that in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, fishing nets alone accounted for 46% of the total garbage weight, while other discarded fishing gear such as ropes and oyster cages also accounted for a larger proportion. Plastic fishing nets float around in the sea water, and many whales, seals and turtles are stuck, injured and even suffocated by the fishing nets. The discarded plastic fishing nets cause about 100,000 marine animals to be killed and injured every year, so this kind of it has a creepy Name - Ghost Net.

A 2009 study found that 1.5 million black-backed albatrosses inhabiting the Midway Atoll were afflicted with plastic, with many chicks dying from eating plastic from their parents. Obviously, the large amount of plastic floating in the sea water seriously disturbs and misleads the foraging habits of adult albatrosses. A 2012 Wired article estimated that of the 20 tons of plastic debris that washes up on Midway beaches each year, 5 tons end up in the stomachs of albatross chicks. In addition, many fish often mistake plastic for food. These are just the direct harms of plastic to species. In recent years, with the deepening of research, other environmental hazards of plastics have become more and more clear.

Often absorbed by aquatic organisms and enter the food chain

In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law released a new report on the impact of plastics on climate change. According to the report, the production and incineration of plastic in 2019 was equivalent to releasing 850 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the case of plastics entering the ocean, they are typically broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, down to the molecular level. During this process, plastic debris is often absorbed by aquatic organisms and enters the food chain. At the end of June this year, a research team from the University of Siena in Italy collected microbes from King George Island in Antarctica for analysis. The result was polystyrene - that is, Styrofoam, was found in the intestines of Antarctic Cryptocolombes. This is the first time scientists have found microplastics in the tiny organisms that inhabit Antarctica's soil. The fact that plastic has entered the Antarctic continent's food chain has put new pressures on the polar ecosystems that are already underwhelming.

Some readers may think that eating aquatic products containing plastic is not harmful to humans. But the researchers found that at the microscopic level, sometimes some plastic products may release toxic substances in the process of breaking up, and the fragments can also absorb organic pollutants (including PCBs, DDT, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in seawater. , so plastic pollution of the marine food chain is an obvious fact. Another point that is easily overlooked is that plastics contribute to the spread of marine invasive species. In 2007, a report by the well-known environmental NGO "Greenpeace" revealed that some species were attached to plastic floating objects, and after "free-riding" drifted for a long distance, they landed in other ecosystems in the distance, robbing survival resources. The so-called accumulating a small mistake turns into a big mistake, and accumulating a big mistake turns into a crime. The current situation is something that Beckland and other plastic inventors never foreseen at the beginning, so where is the way out?

Aspergillus tabin, which 'eats' plastic

According to a report released by the European Plastics Industry Association in 2019, the world produced 359 million tons of plastic in 2018. Plastics are often made from petroleum, which increases carbon emissions if incinerated. Since plastic is lighter than glass or metal, plastic packaging materials can reduce energy consumption considerably. The impact of plastics on climate change and human economic life is mixed. To this end, people actively use scientific and technological means to seek countermeasures.

Aspergillus tabin is a dark-colored fungus that grows rapidly in warm environments. In 2017, a team of microbiologists from China and Pakistan found that enzymes secreted by this mold can degrade plastics, and during the process of decomposition, the fungi "eat" plastics as nutrients. Some plastics that carry deadly pollutants and take decades to break down can be broken down by Aspergillus tabin in a matter of weeks. Motivated by the promise of an effective solution to white pollution, the project is still moving forward.

Boyan Slat, a 26-year-old Dutch boy, aims to wipe out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At the age of 19, he initiated and founded the "Ocean Cleanup" organization, which envisaged placing a large ocean purification system into the sea, intercepting and collecting plastic waste with huge tubes, and regularly gathering them on salvage boats. All walks of life have doubts about Slater's idea. His team has raised more than 30 million US dollars from entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Europe, and launched two versions of the plastic waste purification system, which has been carried out in multiple sea areas. Experiments have been carried out, and certain results have been achieved.

The plastic road project is an idea proposed by the Netherlands to solve plastic pollution. In September 2018, the first plastic road was built in Zwolle, the Netherlands. It is a bicycle path built with recycled plastic and has a length of only 30 meters, so it is an experimental and innovative project. The road recycles plastic waste that should be sent to incinerators or landfills, including bottled plastic, plastic cups and plastic packaging. It is said that the utilization rate of recycled plastics on the road is 70%, but in the future it intends to achieve 100% utilization of recycled plastics. The company revealed that this material has a longer life and shorter construction period than asphalt, and can be directly disassembled and replaced, so it is more low-carbon and environmentally friendly. Currently, the second plastic road in the Netherlands is under construction.

Rwanda is a "model student" for a complete ban on plastic bags

The American "Science Advances" magazine published an article in 2017 saying that the cumulative production of plastics in the world is 8.3 billion tons, but the recycling rate is only 9%. In view of the fact that plastics that become garbage generally "live longer" than human beings, it has become a global consensus to limit plastics and ban plastics. Many countries and regions are actively taking actions to limit plastics and ban plastics, and disposable plastic products have become the target of thousands of people. This is because single-use plastic products are used in large quantities, and the recycling rate is low, and the pollution to the soil and marine environment is particularly serious.

On January 1 this year, the ban on plastic part of the French "Energy Transition to Promote Green Growth Law" was officially implemented. France became the first country in the world to ban the use of single-use plastic tableware. Its ultimate goal is to eradicate single-use plastic tableware by 2040. Use of plastic products. Previously, the EU issued a plastic restriction directive in 2015, with the goal of achieving no more than 90 plastic bags per person per year in the EU by the end of 2019, and no more than 40 plastic bags by 2025. After this directive was issued, all EU member states embarked on the "road to limit plastics".

On March 28 last year, in order to prevent plastic products from polluting the ocean, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill that stipulates that from 2021, EU countries will completely ban the use of single-use plastic products such as drinking straws, tableware and cotton swabs. Member States are gradually reducing the use of plastic packaging and adopting stricter labelling rules.

As early as 2016, the German government reached an agreement with relevant companies to tax single-use plastic bags, and customers need to pay a certain fee to use plastic bags. Since the implementation of the policy, the per capita consumption of plastic bags in Germany has dropped, and the national consumption of plastic bags has dropped by 64% in the past three years. Italy's measures are particularly severe. In 2011, the government announced that all plastic bags except degradable plastic bags were banned.

The Jakarta provincial government in Indonesia announced that shopping malls, supermarkets and traditional markets will ban the use of single-use plastic bags from July 1, and switch to reusable eco-friendly shopping bags. The government calls on citizens to reduce the use of plastic bags. If they do not comply with the warning, violators will face a fine of 5 million to 25 million rupiah (about 2,500 to 12,300 yuan), or their business licenses may be revoked in serious cases.

For a long time, African countries have often given the public the impression of "poor students" in terms of environmental management. But in fact, it is one of the regions with the largest plastic ban in the world. As of June 2019, 34 of the 55 African countries have promulgated relevant decrees banning the use of or taxing single-use plastic bags. As early as 2008, Rwanda began a complete ban on the use of plastic bags and encouraged recycling through tax cuts. Due to its outstanding performance in banning plastics, Rwanda is a "model student" in the prevention and control of packaging plastic pollution not only in Africa but also globally.

In the United States, a growing number of states, cities and counties have enacted plastic bag bans in recent years. Just in early July this year, Dow Chemical, the world's third largest chemical company, announced its withdrawal from the American Plastics Industry Association. In August last year, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, two major US beverage producers, also said they cut ties with the American Plastics Industry Association.

The American Plastics Industry Association is actually a plastics lobbying group that specializes in lobbying the U.S. government for plastics companies. Therefore, giants such as Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola are cutting with the plastics lobbying group, which is conducive to maintaining the positive image of the company's own brand.

 How long can plastics exist in the earth's geological environment? This is an issue that has been debated in the environmental academic circle for several years, but it is undisputed that the current situation of "plastic siege" goes against the concept of sustainable human development, and there is not much time left for human beings. Today, with the continuous improvement of citizens' environmental awareness, more and more people have realized that reducing the use and pollution of plastics is the common responsibility of the whole society, and they are actively participating in the cause of controlling plastic pollution. A field pioneer would love to see.

(In the writing of this article, the information of the American "Wired" magazine, the British BBC, the Deutsche Welle, the European Plastics Industry Association and the National Geographic of the United States are referenced, and I would like to express my thanks here!)

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