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University of Silesia in Katowice

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Plastic world | World Earth Day

22.04.2024 - 09:40 update 07.05.2024 - 09:23
Editors: OO

| Agnieszka Sikora |

On 22 April, we celebrate World Earth Day for the 54th time. This year’s theme is ‘Planet vs. Plastic’.

Plastic production has now increased to over 380 million tonnes per year. More plastic has been produced in the last ten years than in the entire 20th century, and the industry is still planning for exponential growth in the future. Therefore, the slogan of this year’s Earth Day calls for global involvement in the fight against plastic for the sake of human health and the condition of the planet. It also includes the demand of a 60% reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040. The ultimate task is to build a plastic-free future on Earth.

To achieve a 60% reduction by 2040, it is necessary to intensively promote public awareness of the damage caused by plastic to the health of people, animals and all biodiversity. The initiators of this year’s slogan also demand more research on plastic’s impact on health, including disclosure to the public of all information regarding the effects of its presence in the environment. They believe that all single-use plastics should be phased out by 2030 and this obligation should be included in the UN treaty on plastic pollution in 2024. As a reminder, in 2024 the first legally binding UN treaty on plastic pollution, commonly referred to as the Global Plastic Pollution Treaty, is to be established. Resolution (5/14) on the development of this instrument was adopted in February 2022 during the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2). The resolution states that plastic pollution poses a threat to human health and the environment, and reports highlight the presence of microplastics in human blood, lungs, breast milk and placenta, showing that plastic has become embedded throughout the food chain.  

When plastics break down into microplastics, they release toxic chemicals into our food and water sources and circulate in the air we breathe. The microplastic problem is very serious, especially in the marine environment. The threat to fish and other organisms can sometimes be fatal. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the most common sources of primary microplastic release into the oceans are synthetic textiles washed in washing machines, followed by microplastics abraded from tires while driving as well as other dust and urban pollution. Secondary microplastics, in turn, are created by the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic into smaller ones. They constitute 69-81% of microplastics floating in seas and oceans.

Agnieszka Babczyńska, PhD, DSc from the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia, a specialist in the ecophysiology of animals in polluted environments, presents the threats that may occur when fish swallow particles or microplastics along with food.

“Plastic is not digestible. Without bacterial symbionts that enable the digestion of various particles, including cellulose, vertebrate and invertebrate organisms cannot digest it. However, even intestinal microorganisms can contribute to the degradation of plastic to a very small extent. Passing through their digestive tract, it damages active microvilli, abrading them like a brush, or causing atrophy, i.e. loss of the digestive epithelium, and even its complete detachment. As a consequence, digestion and absorption are disturbed and the bacterial flora changes, making animals malnourished, weaker and unable to produce as many offspring as healthy individuals would be able to. After years, the population of species weakens and, consequently, disappears”.

It is also important to remember that current plastic was produced by the petrochemical industry, which has a shameful history of toxic emissions, leaks and explosions. In addition, plastics are produced in polluting plants, which are often located in poor countries or regions. When burned, some plastics become a deadly threat to humans and animals, others carry chemicals that disrupt the functioning of our hormones. At every stage of its cycle – from the oil well to municipal landfills, plastics are a dangerous scourge.

In 2023, over 500 billion carrier plastic bags were produced worldwide – one million pieces per minute. Many plastic bags are used for just a few minutes, after which they accumulate in the environment for many centuries. Even after plastics break down, they remain in the form of microplastics, tiny particles that permeate every niche of life on our planet.

It is estimated that 2 to 5% of all plastic produced ends up in the seas. Considering all that, what can we do to stop the ever-increasing tide of plastic accumulation? Bożena Nowak, PhD from the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia claims that the most effective way to get rid of excess used plastic is to immediately recycle it or limit its use.

“There is no other way to control the excessive accumulation of synthetic plastic waste”, says the researcher. “There are many misleading campaigns that, instead of clarifying the topic, confuse people. Not every material that we call ‘plastic’ is the same. Manufacturers often do not label packaging or label it as biodegradable or eco-friendly without any proof, which means that the average user is unable to independently determine whether a given waste is degradable or not”.

We often find the term PET on plastic products, but few people know what this acronym means. PET is a globally popular polymer used for the production of plastic packaging, primarily associated with bottles used for all types of drinks. Poly(ethylene terephthalate), as it is referred to, is a thermoplastic polymer with high mechanical strength, belonging to the group of polyesters. It has insulating properties and good chemical resistance to weak acids, oils, fats and alkali solutions. Moreover, it is quite easy to successfully subject it to heat treated. It has high abrasion resistance and, above all, can be recycled. Poly(ethylene terephthalate) waste has the highest recycling rate among all plastics, and yet a significant part of it accumulates in ecosystems, which is a significant problem for the environment and, therefore, for its protection – notes Mateusz Korzec, PhD Eng. from the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Earth Day organisers say that 100 billion plastic beverage containers will be sold in 2023 in the United States alone. That’s over 300 bottles per resident. Only a few of them will be recycled, whereas 95% of all plastics in the US will not be recycled at all. Up to 5% of recycled plastics are processed into inferior products (recycling the same plastic several times may carry the risk of obtaining materials with increasingly poorer quality parameters). Other plastic waste is sent to poorer countries for “recycling” purposes, which does not reduce the demand for virgin plastic, much less solve the problem of its presence in the environment. It is worth adding here that in the case of plastics, people rarely think about the use of water in the process of their production. Meanwhile, producing one plastic water bottle requires six times more water than the bottle itself can contain.

Not only in the United States, PET waste is generated continuously, and the possibilities of its reuse are insufficient. Therefore, a big challenge today is the possibility of reusing materials sent for disposal – i.e. recycling them. Scientists from the Institute of Chemistry of the University of Silesia in Katowice, led by Maciej Kapkowski, PhD conduct research on the possibility of using rPET (i.e. recycled PET), among others, in organic electronics. The research focuses on the area where the “time of its use” will be relatively long, which will certainly contribute to a partial solution to the problem of its reuse for the benefit of human health and the environment.

Just reducing plastic production and sorting waste is not enough – it is necessary to reduce consumerism, which drives the production of plastics. We often forget that the recycling process also uses energy and environmental resources, causes excessive water consumption, CO2 emissions and waste production.

Learn more

Earth Day – official website

The World With an Admixture of Microplastics: No Limits #2 (4) 2021

PET – A Problem on a Global Scale: No Limits #2 (4) 2021

płatki PET

PET bottles are crushed and cleaned to obtain PET flakes, which can then be processed into the so-called foils, obtaining rPET (i.e. recycled PET) substrates | Photo by Sonia Kotowicz

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