n 2016, the London Imperial College estimated somewhere between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons of microplastics in our oceans each year (Lavender Law & Van Sebille, 2016). These plastics bioaccumulate in organisms and biomagnify throughout the food web, causing the death of countless marine organisms each year. Not only do these organisms die due to human neglect, but they can also harm human populations if they are eaten, therefore passing the plastics on to us. One of the largest culprits of this marine catastrophe is packaging waste, which amounted to 80.1 million tons in the year 2017 alone and is largely made of synthetic plastic, according to the environmental Protection Agency (2019). Therefore, something must be done to stop packaging waste from reaching the ocean before more damage is done.
The first solution many would jump to is recycling. While this is certainly a positive alternative to pollution, there are many costs associated with recycling. For example, Business Insider shares that the recent yet steady drop in oil prices has caused the process of recycling to actually become less cost-effective than simply making new plastic (Kramer, 2016). In addition, the EPA has found that only 50.1% of packaging was material is recycled, despite the fact that a much larger portion of it could be reprocessed (2019). Because these plastics never have the opportunity to become recycled, they are more likely to end up in the ocean. However, this problem can be solved. By using government incentives for packaging companies such as tax breaks or subsidies, more plastics could be recycled. However, the cost of this solution is merely shifted from businesses to the government and recycling plants instead of eradicating the cost altogether.
An alternative solution to recycling is to find a way to degrade plastics found in packaging materials- whether this be through biological or inorganic methods. The University of Gothenburg posits such a solution, as it has discovered that ultraviolet (UV) radiation can degrade plastics, especially when unsubmerged (Klages, 2015). This implies the possibility that instead of the high monetary costs of recycling plastics, plastics could instead be degraded under high UV radiation in specialized plants before they enter the oceans. In addition, a 2008 study by Daniel Burd identifies two bacteria belonging to the Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas genera as microorganisms with the ability to biodegrade plastics naturally and much more rapidly than would occur without the bacteria. While this might seem like a perfect solution to the problem of packaging waste in the world’s oceans, this solution does not account for the fact that plastic is not a renewable resource due to its petroleum base. Therefore, degrading plastics before they reach the ocean is merely a temporary solution as an alternative to plastic would eventually need to be discovered to replace the plastics lost.
Fortunately, there is research on alternatives to plastics that are both renewable and biodegradable. One such alternative is casein, a protein found in milk. Alone, casein is quite weak. However, combining it with silicate clay and formaldehyde creates polymers, which have similarly flexible and strong properties to plastic, making it a suitable replacement for traditional plastic packaging material (Patni et al., 2013). Due to its organic nature, casein is a renewable and biodegradable material. While plastic takes over 400 years to degrade, casein has the potential to biodegrade in a matter of months or even days (Vaz et al., 2003). While more research on casein’s properties is required before a worldwide switch to this protein, there is hope that sustainable alternatives do exist which could be used instead of traditional petroleum-based plastics in packaging materials.
Plastics are essential in today’s society, and especially in the packaging industry. Everything is wrapped and secured with plastics, from out takeout food to our mail. When finished with these plastics, they are most often thrown out and eventually enter oceans. This harms the already precarious ecosystem and can even come back to harm human health. However, this does not have to be the future. Research has already proven casein to be an eco-friendly alternative and there is no doubt more substitutes for plastic will be found in the upcoming years. The World Economic Forum along with numerous other groups has claimed that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (Lavender Law & Van Sebille, 2016). However, that does not have to be true. It is not too late to change the Earth’s course and to turn to renewable, biodegradable, and natural alternative to plastic packaging materials. But if that will happen, it must happen soon, before there is too much plastic to take out.
Essay by: Brielle Edwards
Basha High School