After reading “A Dangerous Intersection” and then reading “Do Birds Eat Plastic” from a guest blogger on the KnowYourH2O Website, I was interested in learning more about plastics. In this effort, I came across a free ebook:
The Plastics Paradox: Facts for A Brighter Future (Plastic Distraction)
By Dr. Chris DeArmitt, published in 2020.
Because plastic is a hot button issue with a lot of websites providing a mixture of fact, ideology, and spin, as always I wanted to present a fact-based discussion of this topic to our readers.
Dr. Chris DeArmitt is a PhD polymer (plastics) scientist who has spent his whole career working with plastics and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.
Reportedly, his review of the science around plastics and the environment was performed unpaid to preserve impartiality.
This is what we gathered from Dr. DeArmitt’s website and my reactions based on my 30+ years of consulting experience:
1. Dr. Chris DeArmitt based this book on 400 peer-reviewed articles; these 400 articles are ultimately based on over 3000 published scientific articles and reviews.
2. Since it is my (Mr. Brian Oram’s) opinion that much of the peer-review efforts for science and news reporting has become as accurate as “Yellow Journalism” (a term defined as journalism that uses lurid features and sensationalized news to attract readers and increase circulation by pushing political, social, and economic ideologies and not facts), it was refreshing to see that Dr. DeArmitt appears to have a similar view to mine. Dr. DeArmitt states: “Studies reveal that three in four Americans overestimate their ability to identify fake news, which is why we need an independent, trusted source of information. It turns out that only a few percent of the wisest people actually care enough to look at the evidence” and “The headlines and articles we read are not supported by science and evidence.”
KnowYourH2O Comment: We agree that an article should not be created just to get clicks, push a message, sell products, or promote an ideology. Unfortunately, "with social media and some news outlets, it is easier to sell rumors as fact.
3. DeArmitt suggests that “Powerful, well-funded organizations with massive marketing budgets are creating such headlines almost every day”. (KnowYourH2O Clarification: The term “such headlines” refers to headlines that are designed to mislead the viewer, gain clicks, misinform the public, or support a social-political ideology over the actual facts and science).
KnowYourH2O Comment: We agree that not all, but some larger national non-profit environmental organizations have a significant bias and so do some industry and lobbying groups. In other articles, We have called these the ‘12-Monkeys’ (the root of political or ideological division, tribal behavior, and groupthink).
4. Why did DeArmitt make this statement?: “I am a scientist, so I feel it is my duty to present the evidence for those rare people who are not just pretending to care about the environment to be popular and to look good, but to get the facts.”
5. Dr. DeArmitt suggests that because of Brandolini’s Law, getting to the facts can be a challenge.
KnowYourH2O Comment: Reason 4 and 5 are the main reasons we created the KnowYourH2O Web portal and Water Blog.
“Brandolini's Law, also known as the ‘bullshit asymmetry principle’, is an internet adage coined in 2013 that emphasizes the effort of debunking misinformation, in comparison to the relative ease of creating it in the first place. The law states the following: The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.” (Source)
It is easier to push a lie down the hill to the village than it is to push a boulder of facts up the hill to the tower to report the facts to the villagers.
After reading the ebook and reviewing the website, the one portion of his website that I truly enjoyed was the Q/A section. I decided to take (aka “copied”) 10 questions and the 10 answers Dr. DeArmitt provided and then add my “spin” or “insights” or added additional information as a part of this review.
You’ll see my comments after each question with a block like this one titled, “KnowYourH2O Interpretation or Know Your H20 Comment.”
There is no evidence that it was. They never analyzed the object to see if the object was made of plastic. They wrote an email admitting that they were not sure it was a straw at all. There was never a peer-reviewed publication on it either, so this story is nothing but gossip. A page here fully debunks the turtle and straw myth.
KnowYourH2O Comment: This answer is unedited to better understand the word “THEY” please follow the link and read the story and the page that reportedly debunks the straw hypothesis- it is worth your time.
When I watched the video from 7 years ago (viewed more than over 110 million times on YouTube), I was also thinking it was rubber or a coating that had been stripped from a wire because it does not really look like a plastic straw. The PhD candidate researcher in the video shot in Costa Rica referred to it as a ‘straw’ which caught-on. What I found most offensive about the video and the rest of the story was that not one scientist bothered to test their hypothesis. Why? Because the hypothesis fits the popular sensationalized political narrative for the day?
In follow-up videos about the video, the PhD candidate researcher also continues to refer to it as a ‘straw’, however, this may be due to an English language vocabulary limitation with regard to what else it might be called. Just because it looks tube shaped and with a hollow center does not mean it is infact a straw. Regardless, the publishers of the videos have not gone back to their YouTube entries to correct the descriptive language used, yet it has perpetuated a global boycott and, in some cases, promoted a ban on plastic drinking straws for many communities as well as fueled the creation of alternative reusable straws made from glass or metal. The reuse option is great! But the material footprint of these alternatives is questionable from a cradle-to-grave material creation to disposal life-cycle assessment perspective. Littering anything is the wrong choice!
A more accurate scientific result would have been obtained if the material were tested to confirm whether it was plastic or not and the facts reported and corrected on original posts as more information became available. I think we can all agree that littering is bad, poor management of solid waste is a problem, and, as stewards of the Earth, we could do better regardless of chemical composition of the drinking straws, but we must utilize the scientific method and base statements on facts.
No. That number was made up by a 9-year-old schoolboy named Milo Cress. The press repeated it without thinking to check it first.
This is appalling. This was not only reported by the press, but by the National Park Service, National Geographic, New York Times (“The Paper of Record”), USA Today, and Farm and Dairy, and when we searched “Google Scholar,” with the search terms “500 million straws per day,” 10 of the first 20 citations were pushing this false information.
During the initial gas boom in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I (Brian Oram) had dinner with some of the scientists at Duke University who were writing papers about natural gas drilling and the associated impacts on the community. During the dinner, I asked them if they thought they had a duty to notify citizens if their work was being used to misinform citizens or create fear and if they thought it would be wise to create a “layperson’s version of their reports or journal articles” It was met with laughter from the group.
While editing this blog, it was suggested that I watch the Netflix documentary titled “Seaspiracy”, which points out that most of the “plastic” pollution is related to the commercial fishing industry and not straws, plastic bottles, etc. The movie is controversial and raises many questions about statements in the movie, but it is clear this movie is worth a watch and some of your time. Here is a link to the official trailer for Seaspiracy.
No. According to a huge number of LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) reports and scientific studies, plastics are usually the greenest option. They are better for the environment than metal, glass, cotton and usually paper, so replacing plastic harms the environment more. Plus, getting rid of plastics would be terrible – no internet, no cell phones, no computers, no medical devices, no electricity to our homes, and so on.
We do not think plastics are great for the environment, but the problem is not so much the plastic as it is litter, inadequate waste management and disposal, and insufficient reuse. Plastics have been a game changer when it comes to reducing energy costs related to shipping and storing products and materials, technological products, health care, etc. The bigger problem is the human use and disposal of and not the plastic's existence specifically.
No. Biodegradable plastics are less green than standard plastics and when they degrade, they release large amounts of carbon dioxide and tiny particles of plastic.
Besides the issue of carbon dioxide, we rely on plastics for critical devices, such as building construction, alternative energy, and health care. Making plastics more readily biodegradable may not be a wise choice for all plastics. Maybe the goal should be to develop more recyclable plastics, compostable plastics, stop littering and stop burying these resources, and by finding innovative reuse methods that economically incentivize the recycling of existing plastics. One problem with compostable plastic is they do not always compost well and they cannot be recycled. Again, it is up to HUMANS to make the “RIGHT DECISION”!
Home Compostable Plastics Are Too Good to Be True
“Home compostable plastics do not break down successfully in real-life composting scenarios. Manufacturers may claim that people are ‘doing it wrong,’ but this argument fails to take into account ‘the real behavior of normal people, who have a range of abilities in regard to managing composting.’ If something is designed to break down, it should do so for the average person with limited knowledge of the process.”
KnowYourH2O Comment: The problem is not the material – but humans and everything must be written so the least informed understands!
Sustainability Metrics: Life Cycle Assessment and Green Design in Polymers
“While biopolymers rank highly in terms of green design, they exhibit relatively large environmental impacts from production.”
Managing Plastic Waste – Sorting, Recycling, Disposal, and Product Redesign”
“Over the years, the petrochemical industry has developed a plethora of polymers that are contributing to the well-being of humanity. Irresponsible disposal of used plastics has, however, led to the buildup of litter, which is fouling the environment, harming wildlife, and wasting valuable resources.”
Tennessee tackles plastic waste with innovation, advanced technology
“Tennessee’s business community is leading the way to protect our environment and promote new technologies that limit environmental waste. … are committed to solving through innovation, collaboration, and advancements in technology."
KnowYourH2O Comment: We agree that innovation and technology is part of the solution, but we also agree that recycling plastic will be a challenge for many reasons, including public awareness and education.
Innovative recycling of plastics, garbage awareness, and profitable reuse options are keys to fixing the problem:
Polywood Lumber Manufacturing
A look at Garbage Recycling for New York City
TED-Ed – What really happens to the plastic you throw away – Emma Bryce
This Company is Transforming Plastic Recycling in India
Meet 8 Young Founders Turning Trash Into Cash
Microplastics are the latest kind of tiny dust-size particles found in the placenta. For example, studies show that titanium dioxide, carbon black and silica particles have all been found in placentas. It is interesting that microplastics in the placenta have generated much interest whereas no-one has had any interest in the other particles.
– Ambient black carbon particles reach the fetal side of human placentas
– There is a Basal Ti level in the human placenta and meconium. An ex-vivo placental perfusion model suggests that there is a maternal-fetal transfer of food-grade TiO2 nanoparticles in the placenta.
Microplastics are plastic particles ranging in size from 5 mm (0.2 inches, 5080 microns, or 5,080,000 nanometers) to 1 nanometer (0.00000004 inches or 0.001016 microns). Nano plastics are plastic particles < 1 nm. Note for scale: A human hair has a diameter of 0.017 to 0.18 mm (0.00067 to 0.00709 inches; 80,000-100,000 nanometers wide). Therefore: “Some microplastics can be filtered from your drinking water using commercially available water filtration systems” although the smaller nano-size particles will remain in the water.
I think I missed the rest of the answer, should we be concerned? From a search of “Google Scholar” and “PubMed” it appears microplastics have also been found in human tissue and biological samples, including blood, liver, lung, placenta, kidney, spleen, sputum, and feces.
Environmental Health Impacts of Microplastics Exposure on Structural Organization Levels in the Human Body
The journal article states “the potential human health risks and impacts of microplastics remain largely unexplored.”
Health Effects of Microplastic Exposures: Current Issues and Perspectives in South Korea
The journal article states that, “although humans are exposed to microplastics via various routes, research on the adverse effects of microplastics in humans remains limited.”
Airborne microplastics: Consequences to human health?
“Due to their small size, they can be inhaled and may induce lesions in the respiratory system dependent on individual susceptibility and particle properties” and “Even though environmental exposure has not been studied, airborne microplastics are known to cause disease in industry workers.
KnowYourH2O Comment: So the answer appears to be: we do not know, but given a choice we would recommend not eating plastic especially when there are better options.
Yes, however, the study used a special type of particle only found in laboratories meaning it does not exist in the environment. Therefore, the study is not meaningful.
See our comment about Question 5. The extrapolation trap here is that people generally pay attention to only the main category of concern ‘microplastics’ in the study, but not that it was a specific microplastic used in the study making extrapolation of the problem to ALL microplastics irrelevant from a scientific perspective.
No. The new scare story is not valid science for several reasons. Firstly, it has been known for decades that particles of all kinds can get into the brain of rodents when they are exposed to extremely high concentrations, so the finding is not new at all. Secondly, they used a special type of nano plastic that does not exist in the environment, so we are not exposed to it. They used millions of times too high of a concentration as well, further invalidating the study. A full report on microplastics in the brain can be found here.
See our comment about Question 5. Also, further study of any theory of concern is always encouraged when there is a factual finding that leads a researcher to believe the efforts would be well worth determining the truth. We have so many things we still do not know about everything – it is a part of the human condition to explore and continue to find truths.
No. For perspective, plastics are 0.4% of materials we use by weight (under 1% by volume). About 90% of plastics can be recycled the normal, green, cheap way called mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling might be a good idea for the other 10% of plastics. So, at best, chemical recycling will apply to 0.04% of materials?
Chemical recycling has been called the first “infinite” plastic. This is where the plastic is converted back to an oil that can be used to make other plastics. There are other ways to recycle plastics.
The world's first 'infinite' plastic
We think the first step is to get humans to recycle and at a minimum promote mechanical recycling. Maybe the portion that can not be physically recycled could be integrated into other chemical, construction, or manufacturing processes. Manufacturer incentivization regarding the cradle-to-grave use of packaging is also key. Some states have started to require retailers to accept the responsibility for the proper disposal of plastic materials to make it more convenient for the public to recycle used plastics. Education is also key. The public needs to have a realization moment that ‘everything’ that is ‘something’ human-made took resources to become ‘something.’ Placing value on the time, materials, energy, etc. to make ‘something’ leads to a mindset of reuse. Simply taking school children on a tour of the waste stream options in their area can be an enlightening first step to creating this mindset as a social norm.
Plastics degrade just like all carbon-based materials like wood and leaves. Experiments prove that a plastic bag disintegrates in less than one year outdoors.
“A more recent study revealed that PET degrades more rapidly than previously thought in ocean water due to the presence of metal ions in the water. Fifty percent degradation was said to occur in 4.5 years and 100% degradation in 72 years.”
I think a waste product that can be around in whole or part longer than the average human lifespan is still an issue. Also, land burial of plastics, especially pipes and bottles, significantly decreases the rate of degradation. Does this suggest it should be banned? No, but it does suggest we need to reduce littering, look to develop second-life uses for the products, stop filling our landfills with plastic, recycle and reuse if possible, and consider the development of alternative products or making plastics more recycling friendly.
Scientists Thought It Took Thousands of Years for Plastic to Decompose – It May Only Be Decades
Degradation Rates of Plastics in the Environment
An aside - A question that came to my mind - Should we consider burning plastic waste as an energy source or fuel? At what environmental and energy cost? (Note: We may expand this idea into a future post.)
I do not have an answer, but here are some thoughts from Harvard:
Converting Plastic Waste into Fuel
“Using a combination of ruthenium metal (a rare precious transitional metal) and carbon as the catalyst, they can convert 90% of plastic waste into jet fuel or other hydrocarbon products in just one hour, at a lower temperature of 220°C.”
Just because we can do something does not mean we should or that is it cost effective (environmental, financial, or public safety) The current cost of Ruthenium is $620.00 per ounce, but from late 2013 to 2017 it was less than $100.00 per ounce with a price peak in 2021 of $800.00 per ounce the year the Harvard Study was published.
Also, the study did not estimate the cost per gallon to convert plastic to jet fuel, but I did find the following: “Although pyrolysis (burning) has the potential to efficiently recycle post-consumer plastics, the economic feasibility of this method in the United States presents a challenge.”
Economic feasibility of plastic waste conversion to fuel using pyrolysis
No. Metal and glass are terrible for the environment. The solution is to keep increasing recycling rates for plastic, which many countries have already done.
From the EPAs website:
National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling
The total MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) recycled (in 2018) was more than 69.1 million tons equivalent to 32.1% recycling and composting combined removal from the waste stream, with paper and paperboard accounting for approximately 67 percent of the recycled amount (or ~46 tons). Metals comprised about 13 percent (or ~9 tons), while glass, plastic and wood made up between 4 and 5 percent each (or about 3.5 tons each).
In addition to there not being a significant difference between glass and plastic in terms of recycle rates, the additional concern is the added energy costs for glass and metals in particular because of shipping weight, potential environmental concerns because of break and spills, and finally the greater potential for physical injury. It appears a better approach would be to develop more plastic products that can be reused or recycled, promote and encourage recycling of all materials, and get humans to stop littering. We need to stop burying plastic waste in landfills, and maybe develop some better compostable plastic products.
The Main Conclusion
We have technology and ways to recycle plastics – we need people to recycle them to take advantage of these opportunities for reuse and recycling.
• Recycled plastic lumber contains 50-100% recycled plastic. One square foot of plastic lumber weighs between 1.5-3 pounds and costs $10 - $15/square foot.
• Of the 3.5M (3.5 million) tons of plastic recycled annually there are 2,000 pounds in a ton or 6.9B (6.9 billion) pounds of recycled plastic annually (as of 2018) in the USA.
• These 6.9B pounds of recycled plastics, if used 100% to create 100% plastic lumber, would account for 6.9B pounds of plastic lumber at a value of $69B on the low side (not including installation!) and about 4.6B square feet – this would cover about 96,000 decks the size of a football field.
• This is a humbling example when we consider 35.7 million tons (71.4B pounds) of plastic was generated in the USA in 2018. That is new plastic created in the USA entering the use-stream.
• Of that newly generated plastic it means we only recycle 10% of what was generated and, added to the mix in that year alone just in plastic manufacturing in the USA (not to mention generation from outside the USA brought in as products sold in the USA), it is miniscule!
• If we were to recycle just 50% of what was generated (35.7B pounds) in the USA in 2018, this would equate to 23.8B square feet of 100% recycled lumber – or close to 500,000 football-field-sized decks at a material value of $238B.
• That’s 5.2 times the number of potential football-field-sized decks that could be built at 50% recycling annually of new material added to the USA via USA-sourced generation of plastic vs. what is currently being recycled.
• To think there is over $238B of potential recycled lumber material out there annually in the environment potentially going to waste puts into perspective the economics of this problem and the opportunities. That's a $169B opportunity per year at 50% recycling of what’s being added compared to what is currently recycled annually. The economics win with this rate of recycling.
• A significant source of plastic entering the oceans is from the fishing industry and Greenpeace claims this may be the largest source.
Bonus Question by KnowYourH2O
Reportedly based on a claim made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the oceans are expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, (there will be) more plastics than fish (by weight) (page 17 of pdf file)”
There is a full webpage dedicated to the answer. I suggest you review and read it.
To be honest, this is one of the reasons we created the KnowYourH2O Webportal in an attempt to bring facts and discussion back to the forefront. Brandolini's law has taken over the discussion on plastics and facts have been pushed to the side for the sake of ideology, politics, and control. We must get back to facts, science, and an educated and informed public that relies on facts and I am sorry this does require some reading.
I think we have highlighted the main problem with plastics. It is not the plastic, but littering and the fact that we bury the plastic and have not bothered to develop a process or a circle of Recycle and Reuse. The big problem with recycling plastics is that there are many different kinds of plastics, all of which need to be separated by type in order to recycle them. Most plastic these days does have a recycling type number which, although it makes separation possible by the consumer, does not make such separation practical and economic. Rare is the municipality that even tries such separation. While many municipalities may require residents to separate plastic from other materials, pretending that the plastic will be recycled, the mixed plastic types usually end up in a landfill. Even when sorted, some plastic types are very difficult and uneconomic to recycle.
We need to stop blaming the stuff humans create and instead blame how we create, use, and dispose of plastics. For that we all share the blame, but if properly informed we all can be part of the solution.
1.Try to avoid using consumer products that use microplastic beads in health and beauty products, like: soaps, acne products, cosmetics, facial cleansers, toothpaste, and bodywash. Their primary role was to help to exfoliate skin or act as an abrasive.
2. Buy clothes made from natural fabrics like cotton, linen and hemp, instead of from synthetic materials like acrylic and polyester.
3. If you are concerned about microplastics in your drinking water, I might suggest adding a whole-house particle filter, a carbon block filter, and/or a point-of-use particle filter or reverse osmosis system to reduce your microplastics loading. (Boiling the water does NOT remove microplastics).
4. Since a significant source of particles may be air-borne, I might suggest an Air Filter that uses a Hepa filter.
5. Try going “Bottleless” – I do not say Bottomless, I said go “Bottleless”. Consider installing a point-of-use water cooler that can filter your tap water. To be honest, this is also how we should address the issue and concern of lead in schools and daycare facilities.
6. Stop burying the plastic in landfills and let us figure out a way to reuse or repurpose it.
7. If you purchase bottled water, please consider buying water from a local source that is classified as “spring water” and not “purified water”.
8. If you are concerned about microplastics and the environment, you could consider adding a system to your clothes washer to capture some of these microplastics, such as: a cora laundry ball. Purchase and use products that do NOT contain microplastics.
9. Get the facts and learn more about the source of plastics in the ocean and the environment. To be honest, it appears that we need to hold ourselves accountable, but also the fishing industry.
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