Plastic permeates our lives. Objects made from plastic materials are seemingly in our hands from dawn to dusk. Toothbrushes, drinking cups, components of the vehicles that take us to work or school, bank cards that pay for lunch, soles of gym shoes, water bottles. The list could go on and on.
Plastic is ever so versatile, lending to its adoption for so many applications. It can be shaped into balls, rolled into sheets, strung into long fibers, poured and then hardened in molds, or any number of other processes that squash and press it into the right shape and feel. Plastic is durable while still retaining flexibility. Strength is not compromised even under extreme environmental temperature.
Versatility is joined to economy and efficiency. An entire manufacturing industry has developed to provide original equipment makers with the plastic parts that will give final goods full functionality. Injection molding, thermoforming, blow molding, rotational molding, film blowing, and extrusion are just a few of the processes that make plastic into functional objects. All can be scaled to high volumes that put plastic among the most cost-effective materials available.
Downside of Versatility
Yet plastic has downsides. The negatives may not be as numerous as the many uses, but the consequences are dire. We list below a few of the problems created by plastics.
Air Pollution - Plastics production processes expose workers to toxic chemicals. A similar exposure to airborne toxins can occur when plastics are incinerated at waste disposal facilities. Most plastics are based on the carbon atom that is linked to hydrogen oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine or sulfur. The raw material formation begins with separation of hydrocarbon chemicals from natural gas, crude oil or coal into pure streams of chemicals called monomers. The monomers are then chemically bonded into chains called polymers or plastics.
There are numerous hazardous substances used in making plastics, including solvents, initiators, catalysts and other polymerization additives. Solvents such as methanol or heptanes may be toxic and flammable. Used as initiators, potassium persulfate and benzoyl peroxide can cause respiratory problems.
Food Chain Toxicity - There are thousands of additives used in plastics production: peroxide to speed up polymerization, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and lead compounds for heat stabilization.
Brominated flame retardants are much like polychlorindated bisphenyles, otherwise known as PCBs. PCBs accumulate in the fat tissues of aquatic animals such as fish, leading to neurotoxic effects and altered thyroid functions. Other aquatic animals get hit by phthalate plasticizers. These are estrogenic compounds that can disrupt endocrine function and reproductive systems. Algae, invertebrates and other micro-organisms are particularly vulnerable to phthalates.
Leaching - Additives are not usually chemically bound to the plastic structure and they represent a substantial amount of all the chemical substances in plastics. For example, PVC may contain more than 40% by weight of plasticizers such as phthalates. These hazardous additive substances can be released or leached at all phases of plastic life cycle.
Leachable compounds can be found in all plastics except polypropylene. Printed polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride type plastics have the highest leaching rates, while polyethylene terephthalate type plastics have the lowest leaching potential. As might be expected plastics left in turbulent water experience faster leaching rates. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation and salt water also accelerate leaching rates.
It is not just the additives in plastics that can leach into water or soil and eventually find their way into the food chain. Polymers with their large molecular size are usually considered to be biochemically inert and harmless to the environment. However, monomers used in plastic are another story. Bisphenol or BPA disrupts endocrine function. Styrene and vinyl chloride are carcinogenic and mutagenic.
Microplastic - As plastic waste moves about the land and sea, breaking into smaller pieces it becomes microplastic, which is defined by the NOAA as plastic bits less than five millimeters in diameter. Not much is known as yet about microplastic and what impact it might have on animal physiology or food crop growth. One of the few studies completed to date found that earthworms exposed to microplastic in soil have increased gut inflammation, slower growth and high mortality.
What is clearer is that it is widespread. A study by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Dublin found microplastic in tap water and well water in Ireland. Then there are the notorious microplastic collections in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Exemplary of the ocean collections of microplastic and chemical sludge is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean. It was discovered in the late 1980s by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Discarded fishing gear represents about 60% of the gigantic mass of plastic marine debris. Another significant component is micro-pellets used in abrasive clearers. Most of the contents are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean and some particles are so tiny they are invisible to the naked eye. The microplastic soup is simply floating in the ocean slowly making its way into the digestive systems of the tuna, salmon, ahi ahi, and sea bass investors are ordering for lunch.
Entanglements - It takes about two to four weeks for a paper towel to degrade. An apple core will be around as long as two months before Mother Nature can process it back into the most basic elements. A plastic bottle on the other hand will be around for as long as one hundred years. Real longevity is represented by monofilament fishing line that can last more than six centuries. For six hundred years the turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, and crabs will have to dodge and dive around monofilament fishing gear left behind by fisherman. Abandoned fishing gear trap, maim and kill hundreds of marine animals daily.
In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program estimated that 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing gear are floating around the world’s oceans. The building gear retards the marine food chain by impeding movement needed for reproduction cycles and reducing breeding age population.
The first plastic was made in the late 1800s by Alexander Parkes, a metallurgist and inventor in England. Then in 1907, Leo Baekland made the first synthetic polymer from phenol and formalydehyde. Called Bakelite after Baekland, it was the first commercially successful plastic. In the 110 years since, six different plastics have been developed: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polystryrene (NASDAQ:PS), and bisphenol A or S (BPA and BPS).
The University of California at Santa Barbara studies ocean pollution. Of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950, as much as 7 billion tons are no longer in use. Of this amount, only 9% is estimated to have been recycled and another 12% incinerated. That leaves about 79% or 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste somewhere in the world. Some plastic is still in use in our homes and offices. Unfortunately, probably most of the plastic made so far is at large in the ocean or on land slowly devolving into microplastic and seeping into the food chain.
The next few posts will focus on companies attempting to deal with the plastic refuse in our world.
Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.