Our Plastic Planet

Since 1950, the world has produced 9.1 gigatons of plastic with only 2.1 of that still being used today, leaving 7 gigatons for disposal. Of that number, about nine percent of it was recycled and twleve percent incinerated for energy, leaving a whopping 5.5 gigatons of plastic left on the Earth in landfills, litter, water, and according to new research, in our bodies and wastewater treatment systems as clothing fibers. Most common plastics, made from petroleum or other fossil derivatives, may take over a thousand years to biodegrade. The duration varies widely by how much sunlight the plastic receives, therefore plastic at the bottom of a landfill or in the ocean can sit for over a thousand years (half the common era of humanity!!)

For perspective, let’s say the average life expectancy is 67 years globally, so someone born in 1950 would be 67 now. With the global population sitting at 7.5 billion people and an average weight of 80 kilograms per person, the entire weight of the population is roughly 600 megatons. During the span of one human lifetime, the world will leave about 9 times the total weight of every human currently on Earth in plastic waste, all of which will require up to 15 times longer decompose than it took to create. Furthermore, the plastic waste created within that one human lifetime could potentially burden more human lives than the culmination of every life that has come before it, yet we are still producing an accelerating 450 megatons per year. Common plastic manufacturing needs an alternative before the whole world is composed of plastic.

Bioplastic technology is slowly but effectively introducing itself into the marketplace, making it increasingly more viable as an alternative to common plastics. As of now, bioplastic technology could substitute for 90 percent of common plastic use, and although all types are not biodegradable, many of the emerging blends are. Additionally, all bioplastics are made from mostly renewable sources, so the sustainability of these plastics seems encouraging as well.

Various currently known bioplastics include Polylactic acid (PLA), bio Polyethylene (bioPET), Plastarch, and bio high-density polyethylene (bioHDPE), but the most promising new bioplastic blend was developed and patented by a University of Florida professor named Stephen Miller, called Gatoresin. While other bioplastics meet some of the pressing constraints of our common plastics, the Gatoresin is the first in development to meet all the resilient qualities of a fossil-based plastic as well as the environmental qualities.

Gatoresin Life Cycle

Gatoresin plastics are in the class of PFA/PHFA’s (polyferulic acid derivative) and are made from polymers from lignin in plants. The plastic is marine and biodegradable and can be recycled as well as remanufactured. US Bioplastic CEO, on the forefront of expediting this new technology into the marketplace, has recently closed on two six-figure loans from private investors and a Florida public institute loan for the commercial development of the material.

It seems for the sake of mitigating ecological plastic contamination, we might should suppress our beef with the University of Florida and support the mass development of Gatoresin or similar PFA/PHFA’s. The bioplastic industry as a whole is accelerating upward and is predicted to reach an annualized growth of 17% with a value of 7.8 billion USD by next year. With the actual growth of the industry uncertain, one thing remains, the lasting burden of petroleum based plastics.

How do we plan and implement a market swap from a dominant common plastic manufacturing industry to include emerging bioplastic technology? Can the market drive such a drastic economic change? Or do we need political influence? How would it affect future generations if we do not address this issue soon? Above all, how do we going to respond to the increasing credibility that the University of Florida has gained from this great discovery?

World’s plastic waste – 9.1 billion tons worth – enough to bury Manhattan 2 miles deep: study

US Bioplastics: About Gatoresin

Taxpayer university research money helps private sector

Florida institute funds US bioplastics

 

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18 thoughts on “Our Plastic Planet

  1. I think industry swap between common plastic and these bioplastics and Gatorsin can be done by our current market system without issue when the time comes. Although bioplastics are currently more expensive, they will become more feasible and cheaper as the technology advances, while petroleum based plastics become more expensive. Having sustainably sourced products also makes for good PR and assured sources of material. I think the rising economic and social advantages of bioplastics will soon outweigh the advantage of using standard plastics. The sooner we act on and curb this problem, the better for everyone. We are not slowing our plastics use any time soon and our wastes will keep piling up in our backyards and oceans.

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  2. Unfortunately, I think you may be right in that we have to fold the cards to the the University of Florida. I know that a lab at UGA is currently working on a form of biodegradable polymer but it seems we have been outdone. I would imagine in order for us to be globally sustainable, the switch to bioplastics would need to happen in the next 10-20 years, hopefully sooner. I would be curious to know how long it took Miller to conduct this research and development and how unfeasible it is currently.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I think we will eventually be able to make the swap once the price of using fossil fuels surpass that of the bio plastics.In the United States, everything is driven by money so I think money is the ultimate deciding factor in American culture. On the other hand, I could see this becoming implemented in smaller countries that have already demonstrated their interest in environmentally conscious products/systems.

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  4. I really love your metaphor about relating the ages and total weight of humans to the total weight/degradation rate of plastics, it really puts into perspective what we are dealing with. It may be because I do not fully understand the economics of doing so, but I do not understand why we have not switched to bioplastics/stopped producing regular plastics if the technology is there. I definitely think that there will need to be political influence involved, or at least a way to show that bioplastic will be more profitable to these companies over time (again, I do not fully understand the economics behind it so I am not sure). Either way, if the technology is there, I really do not see why we would not use it. (Side note– just because we support UF’s research does not have to mean that we support them in anything else 🙂 )

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  5. We can’t be the best at everything when it comes to research so we may have to give this one to the University of Florida. Im making the assumption that this will cost more than current plastics in use or else we would be using them. But in order for this to happen, I think that there has to be regulation because not many companies are going to be willing to lose profits just to have a biodegradable bottle. Although some companies will switch so that it can be put loudly on their bottles, most companies will rather take the money because they already have a large customer base. Plastics have been a big issue and it needs to be taken care of because nobody likes to look at landfills or trash in the waters or on the roads.

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  6. I’d be curious to see data as to how various forms of bioplastic degrade in aerobic vs anaerobic environments. Landfills are anaerobic so something that degrades in the open might not be able to actually break down as predicted. Likewise, I wonder if there are plastics than can degrade in anaerobic environments but not aerobic.

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  7. More and more awareness is going to changing manufactured plastic (especially packaging) to biodegradable material. However, there are some companies who still prefer to use classic harmful plastics. So, I think political intervention could be the best way to insure almost all companies start using biodegradable plastic, by enforcing a regulated fee to those who use harmful plastic versus those who use biodegradable. Along with political intervention, marketing could play a great role in getting companies to make better decisions for the environmental when manufacturing.

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  8. Interesting article! It is absolutely insane to think about how we extract million year old petroleum from the ground, manufacture it into a plastic spoon/fork/straw/etc, ship it hundreds of mile across the ocean and then use it for literally two minutes before it sits in a landfill for thousands more years. Plastic pollution is no doubt a problem that needs to be addressed, and I definitely see bioplastics having a space within that broader solution. I do think it is important to remember that anything pumped into the environment in high enough quantities can become a pollutant. I think there is almost a hidden danger in solutions like these in that people see them as something that will fix all our problems so we can keep on doing what we’re doing. ‘Fixing’ anything in the plastic pollution system is going to require better waste management and a shift in consumption patterns in additional to creative technological solutions like these.

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  9. This was a very interesting read. The amount of plastic that we are using and discarding is outrageous. I am glad that there are currently people in labs trying to come up with new alternatives. If we don’t do something about it now, it could be very bad for all future generations.

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  10. The problem I foresee is we won’t swap away from plastic until the economic costs from impacting the environment are greater than using a biodegradable alternative. This will keep us reliant on petroleum even longer supporting the oil industry. I believe we will have to slowly regulate ourselves out of the plastic industry which will be very difficult. However, small steps such as banning micro beads may help us begin down the path away from a petroleum reliant society.

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  11. This article was very interesting to read and one of the most relevant topics that need to be discussed in my opinion. Plastic waste is such a large issue and it seems like nothing can be done to beat the giant. Ive even read articles that stated that, in most instances, the cost of recycling plastics actually makes the situation worse. From the transporting, cleaning, and the shredding and recycling process, one can see how this can quickly add up; with water being the most costly. I think our approach has to be new types of plastic that can be taken cradle to cradle rather than cradle to grave. With new technology, i expect we will see a form of plastic or something similar that will be used and will easily be decomposed back into our planet. The only issue is funding and public awareness, as always..

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  12. I’m always skeptical of free-market environmentalism. It seems like such an easy fix, always, except that it doesn’t really work. Consider the average American’s apathy, even in the political realm where action is free. The low salience of environmental issues means people just don’t care. I remember reading about how one Lays initiative to make biodegradable SunChips bags failed because consumers thought the bags were too noisy. It is just picky, silly things that consumers are so terrible about. I think policies need to be implemented now– sure, in the long run you might have bioplastics that are cheaper than conventionals. But how long will that take and how much damage will already have been done?

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  13. I really enjoyed this post. Most people know that the amount of plastic waste on the planet is growing out of control and it is easy to just say, “we need to stop.” Actually stopping or even slowing down the production of plastic is completely unrealistic without some alternative taking its place. I really have not seen or read much about bioplastics so the post was helpful in explaining ehat they are and what kinds have been found. I am especially intrigued be the gatoresin, although they really should come up for a new name for it.

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  14. Chase, I never saw you as the guy to betray your college to the University of Florida, but this bioplastic technology could have amazing impacts. I do think that the market could drive this bioplastic into taking over traditional plastics. Maybe Gatoresin could start by marketing to Gatorade, as I believe that was created at Florida as well. My only concerns are, how much does it cost to produce this bioplastic as opposed to regular plastic, and can it be mass produced?

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  15. Your blog post caught my eye because I regularly think about how much plastic we use and where it all goes. My roommate drinks a new plastic water daily and I think about how many other people just do the same. It’s good to learn there’s new technology out there to try to solve this issue and that in the future people could make money off of it. Hopefully as a country we can figure out how to start solving this huge issue

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  16. I am always a big fan of informing the mamas because no one is more zealous of ensuring the health of their kids! I was scared out of plastics when I learned in environmental health how they can affect you epigenetics and hormones. I made a “passing by” comment about my fear of plastics to my cousin and the next day, I found her trying to remove plastic disposable water bottles from the household.

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  17. I think that this is kind of a unique environmental issue in that it doesn’t necessarily need political attention or policy to be changed. The issue of plastic generation, use and management in this country seems to be one that is mostly driven by industry and consumer habits. While small actions taken by the government, such as a plastic bag taxes or bans, may help to nudge the population in the right direction, I don’t think that it will be necessary for the government to get involved to bring about change.

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  18. Chase way to bring up an important topic. The pollution that we’ve created with mass producing plastic is out of control. I like the idea of substitution for environmentally friendlier types of plastics, but we still have to address what we do with all the plastic that we have already. Economics will also play a huge factor in this transition as plastic is cheap to manufacture. What is the cost comparison between the two types of plastic?

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