Sustainable Development

Nature or plastic? It's your call!

Nikola Jagodić 4 September 2018 • 20 min

In 1950, the production rate of plastic was 1.5 million tonnes a year, six decades later it is 407 million (t/y). The greater portion of produced plastic is disposed of which poses a direct threat not only to the environment but human health as well.

Did you know what piano keys, chess figures, umbrella handles, billiard balls, combs and trinkets jewellery were used to be made of? Of a very rare material – ivory. However, when the population of elephants became endangered and ivory expensive and rare, Felan & Kolander Billiard Ball Company from New York offered a $10,000 US reward to whoever comes up with a substitute material for the manufacture of these products. An inventor named John Wesley Hyatt discovered the solution. It was celluloid, the material made of cellulose, a polymer present in all plants. Soon afterwards, he founded his own company, Albany Billiard Ball Company, and continued to develop his patent. Not only did he save the lives of elephants but he contributed to the billiards ceasing to be restricted to aristocrats alone and to the moving of the billiards to the bars and becoming available to the working class as well.

In the years that followed, products made of plastic could be found in almost all areas of life. One of the benefits of plastic can be seen in medicine where it is the material of choice for artificial heart valves, various implants and devices, controlled discharge of liquid in IVs, etc. However, due to its low cost, many industries manufacture items of plastic that we don’t wish to keep. It is believed that every fifth item we purchase in a day is made of plastic. Plastic bottles, drinking straws, food storage containers, food bottles such as bottles for mayonnaise and ketchup, shopping bags in supermarkets and smaller bag packages for things like “vegeta” and similar products are nature’s worst enemy.

The first commercial production of plastic began only in 1950. Six decades later, we produce 407 millions of tonnes of plastic a year. Most of this plastic is the single-use plastic. The production volume is increasing each year. It is believed that half of all plastic ever produced was produced in the past 15 years. Last year, Coca-Cola, as one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bottles in the world, disclosed for the first time the exact number of bottles manufactured: 128 billion bottles a year.

From homes to oceans

The exact quantity of waste that ends up in the oceans is unknown because most of it is not dumped from ships but instead gets into the oceans indirectly, mostly via rivers or by wind action.

The amount of plastic discharged into the ocean increases each year. The plankton population important for oxygen production is decreasing, the fish stock is falling, the ocean temperatures are rising and the ever warmer oceans are speeding up the melting of the Antarctic. Scientists have recently investigated a huge pile of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch made of individual pieces of plastic. The size of this garbage is nearly 14 times the territory of Serbia. Scientists believe that ever-increasing pollution is not hazardous to animals alone but to the entire eco-system as well.

Drinking straw – the killer

The single largest “plastic” pollutant is the drinking straw. During their lifetime, drinking straws are useful only for several minutes, until you finish your drink, after which they end up on the landfill sites where they pollute the nature for up to two hundred years, which is the time span needed for them to discompose. Seattle was the first major US city to ban the use of plastic straws and single-use cutlery in restaurants. From now on, five thousand of the city’s restaurants will have to use either recyclable or compostable food-service items. Other US cities are also considering the introduction of the ban. Minor cities in California, including Malibu and San Luis Obispo, have restricted the use of plastic straws. In Great Britain, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced in April her plan to ban the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and ear-picks.

Plastic for the main course

In addition to the pollution of the entire environment, discarded plastic is at the root of yet another problem. The scientists were puzzled by the fact that no major quantity of discarded plastic has been found when the annual production rate grew from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 407 million tonnes in 2015. The answer was found in the newly coined term – microplastic. This plastic is so small it can bearly be seen with a naked eye and it is generated when the waves and sun break down huge chunks of plastic. However, waves and suns are not the sole causes of the microplastics. In laboratories, scientists observed how tiny crustaceans similar to shrimps devour plastic bags and noted that they can decompose one plastic bag into 1.75 million microscopic pieces of plastic. In the follow-up of these researches, it was discovered that microplastic is omnipresent in the seas.

The crushed pieces of plastic look like food to plankton, bivalves, fish and even whales. A major problem would arise if these tiny pieces of plastic would enter the animal tissue. Researchers have been finding for a long time tiny plastic fibres, pieces or particles inside the bodies of marine and freshwater species. Microplastic was found in 114 aquatic species, more than half of which end up on our plates. The scientists are now attempting to determine how this plastic affects human health.

It is fairly difficult to prove whether the plastic is harmful because we eat seafood or because we are exposed to it from all sides – in the air, water, food, clothing. Plastic takes various forms and contains a wide array of additives – pigments, ultraviolet stabilisers, waterproof substances, fire-resistant materials, hardeners such as bisphenol A (BPA) and softeners called phthalates – which may leach into the environment. Some of these chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors. They disrupt the regular hormonal functions and may contribute to weight gain. Fire-resistant substances (called fire-retardants) may affect brain development in fetuses and children. Other compounds which get attached to plastic may cause cancer or defects in newborns.

Examining the effects of microplastics on human health is not easy because one cannot make people eat plastic. Besides, plastic and its additives behave differently depending on the physical and chemical environment and their properties may change after they are eaten and excreted by various animals in the food chain. We know next to nothing about what effects the preparation and cooking of food have on the toxicity of plastics in aquatic organisms.

On one hand, the good news is that most of the microplastics do not enter the muscle tissue of the fish we eat, but on the other hand, it is believed that it remains in its stomach. Meanwhile, the scientists remain concerned about the effect marine plastic has on human health because, as we have already said, it is everywhere, it gets degraded and reduced to nanoplastics, smaller than the one billionth part of the meter – in other words: invisible to the human eye. The hazard lies in the fact that such a small plastic can penetrate the cells and move into tissues and organs. Since scientists do not have an analytical method to identify nanoplastics in food, there are no data available about its presence or absorption in the human organism.

How can the environmental chaos on the planet be stopped?
What is encouraging is a sudden intensive focus placed on the solution of the issue of enormous quantities of plastic present on our planet. Last year, a draft was made for the New Global Vision of the Future. 90 non-governmental organisation from around the world took part in the development of the draft vision. It stands for 10 principles whose ultimate goal is “future without plastic pollution”. European governments and multinational companies have to face their own accountability for the irresponsible use of plastics which caused severe damage to the environment worldwide with the greatest impact on what is the most sensitive. It is clear that without great and coordinated efforts and encouragement from the decision-makers, the industry will continue to use plastic, intensifying the pollution. NGOs are calling on the European Commission and EU member states to fight for ambitious changes in regulations which could pave the way for the future which is not polluted by plastic.

Beside large multinational companies, other companies as well should integrate the fight against pollution into their businesses. Over the past couple of years, an effort has been recorded to incorporate this idea into companies’ corporate social responsibility policies but only a few have been implementing the plans. NIS has invested more than 12.78 billion dinars in environmental projects. In 2017 alone, it spent 479 million dinars on the projects in this area. Sustainable Growth Report for 2017 clearly states that the company’s activities are environment-oriented which is one of its key priorities.

Many renowned brands, such as IKEA, Panasonic, Nike, donate huge funds to environmental organisations and, in addition, organise various activities primarily in order to raise awareness of their employees and the remaining general public about the importance of having a healthy and clean environment. Acting on this model, our Company organised an environmental activity – clearing and cleaning the Fruska Gora’s watercourses on 5th June, World Environment Day.

Lately, you can often hear that to a plastic bag is “a crime against nature”. This is only one way to protect nature. In developed countries, the use of plastic bags is reduced down to 1% or 2%. In Serbia, several supermarket chains have only recently introduced the “price tag” for a plastic bag which resulted in 30% lower consumption. Our company also took part in this activity throughout the year by promoting the use of woven shopping bags instead of single-use plastic bags. For this purpose, promotional woven shopping bags were given away in our business centres in Belgrade and Novi Sad on World Environment Day.

In addition to these activities, which can significantly reduce the use of plastic, scientists are making an effort to find adequate alternatives. The term “biodegradable” is often the subject matter of discussions. Biodegradable plastic was a hit in 1980. However, its degradation did not go as planned. The degradation process was severely aggravated in oxygen-depleted landfill sites and cold oceans. To degrade, it needs a 55 degrees temperature and industrial manure. Likewise, if biodegradable plastic was to be mixed with recyclable plastic, the latter could be ruined as the resulting mix would no longer be usable for the manufacture of the new resistant plastic, which is the reason why this proposal was rejected by the United Nations.

Some US states demonstrated that bottle recycling can be efficient. The model was based on the collection of plastic bottles by customers who then exchanged the bottles for the money at the supermarkets. There is a similar model in place in Norway which recycles 97% of plastic bottles. Customers who pay 2.5 crowns as a deposit for bottles return the bottles to the supermarket and place them in machines which immediately return the cash.

As we have already noted, plastic bottles are not the only problem. There are many plastic items that get into the oceans. One certain way to reduce the quantity of plastic in nature is to reduce the use of one-time plastic.

We offer you many methods by which you can contribute to the fight against plastics at no cost whatsoever.