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    Will Banning Plastic Bags Help The Environment?
    By Enrico Dorigo | January 24th 2011 06:16 PM | 34 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I am an Italian student of 19 and I am from Venice. I am intrested in pollution and economical problems in general. I am currently studying Economics...

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    Abstract

    The banning of plastic bags may not be the salvation of the environment, but it could be a useful way to begin reducing waste pollution.
    Plastic bags:

    -  are one of the plastic products produced in the greater numbers, and one of the products most commonly dispersed in the environment;

    -  have a slow rate of decomposition, and are very dangerous for sea life;

    -  are a sources of "microplastic" particles (or "plastic plankton"), which is vastly present in many marine areas around the world;

    -  are able to absorb high concentrations of the toxic substances in water, which can in turn be absorbed by living organisms;

    -  are now one of the most easily reproduced plastic materials (using biodegradable biopolymers);

    -  is the product for which the market can best withstand a relatively high increase in the cost of raw materials, due to their low unit price.



    The banning of plastic bags: Italy and USA


    A vote of the Italian Parliament at the end of December 2010 rejected the attempt to once again postpone Article 1 of Law 296 (paragraphs 1129 and 1130) of 27 December 2006 from coming into effect, which provided the Italy-wide ban of non biodegradable single-use plastic shopping bags (hereafter referred to as "plastic bags").

    Therefore, from 1 January 2011, the marketing of plastic bags in Italy is strictly forbidden: in the coming days shops and supermarkets will only be able to provide customers with  the plastic bags remaining in their stockrooms, giving them to customers free of charge; and only until 31 August 2011 in supermarkets and 31 December in smaller shops.

    From the information I have gathered on the web, I have noticed that in the U.S.A. no state has passed laws as strict as this, although ordinances of the prohibition of, or of fiscal penalisation for, plastic bags have been enforced in some cities. The municipal government of San Francisco, in 2007, issued an ordinance ban of plastic bags in supermarkets and pharmacies with annual sales of over two million dollars, and similar decrees have been promulgated in Los Angeles County, Portland, Oakland, Malibu, San Jose, Manhattan Beach, and Brownsville, among other locations.


    Conference for ban plasticbag in San Jose


    My question is: Is the ban on the use of plastic bags a "political placebo", to quote Hank Campbell, i.e. a useless law passed by politicians as a demagogic pretence, or is it a positive measure which will insome way reduce environmental and sea pollution?


    Plastic waste has invaded oceans


    I have read that many U.S. ecological associations (the Algalite Marine Research Foundation, the Californian Ocean Protection Council, the Sierra Club, and so on), state that 60% - 80% of sea pollution is produced by plastic materials, of which 90% is floating pollution; they affirm that the Pacific Trash Vortex, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is especially composed of plastic, with at least 700,000 km², and possibly more than 10 million km², containing a total amount (taking into consideration only plastic) of many millions of tons of plastic waste.


    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce, in its thematic website on marine debris, has published a section entitled “De-mystifying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch",devoted to toning down excessive or indefinite news about this case.

    ViIn “Demystifying”, the NOAA denies the existence of a "plastic island” in the Pacific, and therefore denies the possibility of defining the exact extent of waste, but states that the ocean currents produce a large spiral in the Pacific that gathers enormous amounts of waste into the “North Pacific Sub Tropical Convergence Zone", mostly composed of plastic waste, which produces myriads of microplastic particles as part of their degradation. 

    Even the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), in their article Action Urged to Avoid Deep Trouble in the Deep Seas of June 2006, states that “in the Central Pacific there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton”, and, referring to the surface ofthe sea, that "over 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of ocean today"
     

    Wiew under floating plastic waste in ocean surfaceThese estimates of the prevalence of plastic wastes over the total floating waste on the sea seem to be consistent with the Final Program Report of the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program (NMDMP) presented by the Ocean Conservancy, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of  Water in September 2007.




    From the summary on page 49 about the types of waste collected between 2001 and 2006 on the coasts of the USA, I calculated that in a total of 238,103 items - between 70% and 80% - were plastic.



     The main source of plastic waste in the sea is land activities


    However the fact that plastic bags are one of the leading solid materials polluting the seas does not seem to have been proven, and I have not found any studies that indicate exact percentages of the amount that the various types of waste contribute to pollution. 



    Nevertheless, I think - at least among the solid floating waste that is gathering in the oceans - that those generated in land activities are more numerous than those produced by marine activities (fishing, goods and passenger transport, military navigation and yachting).

    I have confirmation of this from the report "Marine Litter: A Global Challenge" of April 2009, from UNEP. On page 196, in the final review of data on debris collected in the period from 1989 to 2007 by the annual campaign to clean coasts worldwide, called the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), where it is declared "the dominant sources of debris emanating from land-based sources and activities, globally."


    Volunteers collecting waste on the beach


    By the examination of the types of waste land-based sources, I am convinced that waste from plastic packaging is the most important component, due to both their number and their shorter lifecycle.



    Packaging is the main source of plastic waste



    The statistics published on the Plasticseurope website, the portal of the European association of plastics manufacturers of Brussels, Belgium, indicate a global consumption of plastic materials of 245 million tons in 2010 (including thermoplastics, polyurethanes, thermosettings, elastomers, adhesives, coatings, sealants and polypropylene fibres, PET polyethylene fibres, PA polyamides and polyacrylics), and specify that the highest percentage of these plastics is destined for packaging (37%), which would consequently reach a total annual consumption of more than 94,000,000 tons.

    The above mentioned data seems compatible with the statistics processed by Eurostat, the European Environmental Agency, which calculates that for the 30 member countries of the European Community, 15,000,000 tons of plastic packing waste is produced for 502,737,000 inhabitants, and for Italy alone (in 2008), 2,200,000 tons was generated for 59,619,000 inhabitants.

    It is a matter of huge numbers, and the percentage of plastic packaging that avoids collection and recycling systems is still high, which highlights the great contribution of these materials to global pollution: in Europe, 6,200,000 tons every year are neither recycled nor disposed of! Even in Italy, 850,000 tons each year are neither recycled nor disposed of!

    It is sobering to see that in a continent which has a highly developed culture of environmental protection, more than 41% of plastic packaging waste is still dumped! 



    Plastic bags make up the largest amount of plastic waste


    In the category of plastic packaging waste, plastic bags are certainly an important component, if not in their weight, at least in their number.

    The U.S. International Trade Commission published its own investigation in May 2009 on imports of "Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags" (hereafter referred to as "PRCBs"), which represents the most common typology of plastic bag; they certify that about 100 billion PRCBs are sold in the U.S. per year (102 billion in 2008).

    Many Italian environmental associations (WWF, Legambiente, etc..) state on their websites that they estimate a national annual consumption of 20 - 25 billion plastic bags (called "shoppers" in Italy), against a total European figure of 100 billion, and a total world figure of between 500 and 1000 billion.

    The figure of Italian consumption is consistent with the statements that I found from the Rubber and Plastics Federation, the association of Italian manufacturers, which indicate a production of about 260,000 tons of plastic bags in 2009, against 220,000 tons in 2006.

    Dividing the volume of the total production in Italy by the unit weight of the bags, which, in most formats used, range from 8.5 grams to 15 grams, it obtained afigure of 17 - 30 billion units/year consumed in 2008, which is in line with the estimates above.



    Plastic Bags are widely dispersed in the environment



    Plastic bags disposed of in the environment It is easy to suppose that plastic bags are one of the main plastic packaging waste not recycled or disposed of, because:

    -  they are not industrial packing, which is managed through well-organised recycling systems;

    -  they are not bulky containers,in fact are very volatile, and are not easy to isolate;

    -  they are an individual tool, freely used and transported within the territory during daily mobility, leisure and holidays;

    -  they have avery low individual weight, and therefore a low caloric value and a low recovery value of raw material, and are therefore worth too little money to be of interest to companies that recycle plastic.


    I have found confirmation of the low rate of the recycling of plastic bags in "Plastic waste in the environment - final report” by the General Environment Directorate of the European Commission of October 2010. On page 79 it publishes an estimate of the collection rates of the various types of plastic packaging, where you can see that the rate of collection of plastic bags is the lowest (5%), while industrial packaging reaches up to 100% of the collection of HDPE boxes, because "[...] They are mainly used in the industrial and commercial sectors, where the recoverypaths are better established."




    “Plastic waste in the environment - Final Report”  DG Environment - European Commission


    I do not believe that 95% of all plastic bags are entirely dispersed in the environment, because many “not-collected” plastic bags are reused to pack up household waste, so they are disposed in the trash containers of municipal collection systems.

    However, the Final Report of European Commission may reinforce the suspicion that many plastic bags are dispersed in the environment. These, thanks to their low weight and small size, are inevitably conveyed to the sea by rain, drains and rivers, and, having a very slow rate of degradation, are accumulating in increasing amounts.
     
    I read that the Regional Director for the Southeast Pacific U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has expressed his consent to the banning of plastic bags by the Governor of American Samoa, stating “[…] this action will decrease the amount of plastic waste in the territory and directly protect marine and birdlife in the Pacific.” And that this decision “[…] not only helps the local environment, it helps prevent plastic shopping bags from ending up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous area of floating plastic waste”.



    Plastic Bags are very dangerous


    Moreover, compared to other plastic waste, plastic bags are more harmful to the marine environment because of two distinctive features:

    1)    they have a greater ability to suffocate sea creatures, which ingest them accidentally, especially larger fish and mammals, such as whales, that feed on plankton, as they "inhale" them with the water to filter plankton; and other fish and mammals such as turtles, which eat them mistaking them for jellyfish;

    2)    as a result of their rapid rate of degradation into smaller and smaller pieces, they produce enormous amounts of micro particles, which are inevitably ingested by marine life on a massive scale, and may release toxic compounds that could enter the human foodchain.


    In the Marine Pollution Bulletin n° 58 from 2009 (pages 1437 - 1446), I read the research conducted by Hideshige Takada of the Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry, Tokyo University of Agriculture&Technology, executed with patterned sampling of floating marine debris of polyethylene PE or polypropylene PP, collected from 14 places, from both beaches (near and far from built-up areas) and offshore, and analyses of these samples with a gas chromatograph.

    The fragments and pellets of degraded PE and PP, during their extended period of floating on the sea, had absorbed polychlorinated biphenyls PCBs, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons PAHs, Dichlorodiphenyldicholorethylene DDT, as well as Polybrominated diphenil ethers PBDEs, Octylphenol OP, Nonylphenol NP and Bisphenol BPA, in strengths from 1 nanogram per gram to 10 micrograms per gram, that were up to a million times higher compared to those taken from the sea.

    Source: “Global distribution of organic micropollutants in marine plastics" by Hideshige Takada - Tokyo University


    It is significant to note that PCBs, DDTs and PAHs are chemical compounds which are never used in the chemical industry as additives for polymers, therefore we have to consider they cannot come from the manufacturing process of the original materials of the fragments and the pellets of PE and PP; it is therefore inevitable to infer that those compounds were instead progressively absorbed by the fragments and the pellets of PE and PP during their long permanence in the sea.

    The NOAA itself, on their website about marine debris mentioned above, affirms in their downloadable PDF document "garbage patch(es)" that "Debris found in these areas can easily be ingested by marine species, causing starvation and other impairments. Additionally, plastic debris act as “sponges,” absorbing organic contaminants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). It is possible, though not proven, that plastics could also desorb these contaminants to marine life that ingest plastics." 



    It is true that the fragments and pellets of PE and PP analyzed by Takada’s team did not come from plastic bags, though it is also true that his research admits the possibility that even small fragments of plastic bags, mainly composed of the same PE material, are able to absorb large amounts of toxic compounds in the sea.
     

                                                    Embrittled plastic magnified by a microscope. 


    Plastic bags can be immediately replaced

    There is another reason which has lead me to believe the ban of non-biodegradable plastic bags to be useful: despite the fact that they are not the only source of environmental and sea pollution, they are currently the only polluting plastic products which can be completely replaced with biodegradable materials, which are safe for the environment.










    From a strictly technological point of view, the development of new natural polymers would today allow the replacement of synthetic polymers in many applications, as I also read in the paper "biopolymers in packaging", by Professor Francesco Pilati, of the University of Modena, Department of Materials and Environmental Engineering.

    Biodegradable polymers are those polymers that undergo hydrolytic biodegradation catalyzed by bacteria - there are natural ones, such as polyhydroxyalkanoates PHAs, poly (lactic acid) PLA, cellulose, starch, etc., but there are also completely synthetic ones, such as polycaprolactone and some aliphatic polyesters.

    New tyre produced with biopolymers For example, Professor Pilati states that polymers based on cornstarch or potato starch represent a family of biodegradable "biopolymers" derived from vegetable products that have mechanical and thermal properties which make them comparable with a wide range of traditional materials.

    However, I think that the biopolymers currently in use still have a limited use, because the cost is still too high compared to synthetic polymers, at least for those applications where the incidence of the cost of the material is significant to the finished product: in a car, for example, a plastic dashboard is used in lower-cost models, and replacing it with a biopolymer would probably lead to a rise in the cost of the material, making the product un-saleable at current market prices.

    Instead, for plastic bags, the polyethylene nowadays can be fully replaced by the new biodegradable biopolymers, because the unit price of single-use shopping bags is so low that even doubling it, to repay the higher cost of the production of biopolymers, the cost remains within an acceptable threshold for the market (in Italy the price has changed from EUR 0.04 - 0.06 for plastic bags to EUR 0.10 to 0.15 for bioplastic bags).

    The alternative use of reusable fabric or synthetic fibre bags, which are not “throwaway”, is also available at a lower cost.

    In corroboration of the effective possibility of a substitution, many brands of large retail trade in Europe have removed the availability of plastic bags a long time ago, replacing them with single-use shopping bags made with natural biodegradable polymers, which are used with full effect by millions of their customers


    Plastic bags which are really biodegradable are certified


    Hopefully the prohibition of non-biodegradable plastic bags should dictate the use of products made exclusively from natural polymers, with the exclusion of polymers also called "oxo degradable" or "UV degradable," which are synthetic polymers derived from fossil sources and made degradable with chemicals additives.

    In fact, synthetic degradable polymers do not possess the European requirements of the technical standard EN13432, which, for biodegradability. means:

    "The decomposition of organic chemicals by micro organisms with the presence of oxygen, in carbon dioxide, water and minerals of than any other element (mineralization) and new biomass or, in absence of oxygen, in carbon dioxide, methane, minerals and new biomass”. 


    Even in California have been issued two laws (AB 1972 and AB 2071) which forbid to label the plastics bags as "compostable" or "marine degradable" if they don’t respect the regulations ASTM D6400 (similar to EN 13432) and ASTM D7081.

    CONCLUSIONS  

    As we have seen:

    -      plastic packaging is the main plastic product worldwide (97 million tons / year - 37%);

    -      plastic bags are the least-recycled plastic packaging waste (5% in Europe);

    -      every year about 500 billion plastic bags are produced worldwide;

    -      plastic bags are a waste which is highly dispersed in the environment;

    -      land activities are the main cause of sea pollution;

    -      plastic waste is the main component of waste floating in the sea (70 - 80%);

    -      plastic bags are dangerous, especially for marine life;

    -       particles derived from the decomposition of plastic waste can enter the food chain of living organisms;

    -      plastic waste fragments can absorb high concentrations of toxic substances in the sea;

    -      plastic bags are one of the most easily reproducible plastic materials today, by using biodegradable biopolymers;

    -      plastics bags have a low unit cost, so even great increases of the price of raw materials would cause a per capita expenditure of no higher than a few dollars per year.


    So, as stated above, banning plastic bags is not the salvation of the environment, but can be a way to reduce the environmental impact of human activities.






    Enrico Dorigo  

    24.01.2011




    Comments

    500 billion pb/a * 0,00012 kg co2/pb = 600 million t co2/a
    german annual co2 production ~ 800 million t co2/a

    if everyone would buy a textile bag (0,0017 t co 2/tb) instead of 10 plastic bags and would use it for 1 year, the produced co2 would be higher - but you can buy 1 tb instead of the yearly amount of pbs/person (about 500 billion pbs/a /7 billion people at the end of the year =~ 71 pbs/ person) and use it for at least 2 years (just my own experience!).
    so you could decrease the annual co2 output from bags in general to: (600 million t co2 /a) / (71 pbs/tb*a) * (0,0017/0,00012) / 2 =~ 59,86 billion t co2/a , a cut down to about 10% of the production of co2 by bag production.

    can someone check if there is some calculating error? sure you can try to introduce other thoughts about usage and everything, but overall i think the tolerance is about 10 % of the overall co2 production - still a significant number i guess?

    (sorry for bad language and faults in math, got headache..)

    enricodorigo
    The solution that you suggest is very intresting, I think that textile bags can be a good alternative of biodegradable plastic bags. In fact bpb are useful if you need a bag for only one time, instead tb are useful if you need a case that you will use more and more times. Using them frequently you save up money, they are more expensive than bpb but they can be used loads of times, lowering the yearly expenditure, and you have something more resistant.
    Enrico.......I absolutely enjoyed your piece.. Some years ago a Canadian High School student discovered microbes that actually eat plastic in a landfill.So it appears that making plastic attractive to microbes might be part of the answer in regards to packaging film. Microbes have even been shown to consume oil in our oceans and are right now chopping away at the steel on the Titanic.

    Researchers from the University of Sheffield are doing work on the possibility that the plastic-associated marine microbes have different activities that could contribute to the breakdown of plastics and the toxic chemicals associated with them..

    As surfers in Southern California we are intimately involved with our oceans. We see way too much single use plastic on our beaches and in our oceans. A lot of the plastic out there currently can be recycled, however, the reality is only a very small percentage of Southern Californians recycle their snack food packages. Our research over the last three years shows that 80% of “all” flexible film plastic bags end up in a landfill with no recycling and no composting, a virtual tomb. Environmentalists estimate that more than a trillion square inches of snack packaging end up in American landfills each year where the conditions are not optimal for conventional product breakdown. Many products on the market claim to be biodegradable but are in fact only compostable, and are unable to degrade in a landfill environment. Some simply break down like you say..into small plastic flakes known as ‘Bio Fragmentation”.

    Plant-based plastics appeal to green-minded consumers thanks to their renewable origins, but we found their production carries environmental costs that make them less green than they may seem. Most biopolymers currently used in packaging are commonly derived from agricultural products-predominantly corn and sugar cane-the primary impacts include fertilizers and pesticides use, water and energy use. In addition, the crops, particularly corn, may be genetically modified. Also the food vs industrial use debate raises land use and social benefit issues. Also a lot of these pure biopolymers have limitations in regards to warehousing and the high speed bagging process of bags .

    Another area of concern has been the recent aggressive moves by lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission in regards to products that have the claim “biodegradable” on their products. Legislation has even sought to outlaw all biodegradable products that do not meet a very narrow standard of commercial compostability (a standard that, tellingly, was designed around corn plastic). Frankly, there’s no point in making a bag that is compostable and then sending it to a landfill – where 80% of all plastic bags end up.

    All Bio plastics have a future and we should not limit their uses through legislation but promote their "proper" applications through education.

    enricodorigo
    I completly agree what you said about the biopolymers, nowadays all the controls of these materials are on the finished produts, there are no regulations about the prodution of these polumers, even if this is maybe the most pollutant thing. This is surely a big problem that has to be solved nearly for the reason that biopolymers is a market which is fastly improving, and watching the history we can see how much easy is to make laws before that this product or industry develop, than make it after. On the contrary it would have been a better idea to create laws before about the production of these materials and then about their features.
    " it appears that making plastic attractive to microbes might be part of the answer in regards to packaging film" - just don't show them your household, you might end up with chaos.

    While the thought sounds interesting, the consequences might be unexpected if you're not careful.

    Christian

    enricodorigo
    I agree with you that all the new scientific and technological discoveries must always be examinated and tested to become compatible with the real conditions of production and use, and I think we should produce bioplastics attractive only for specific microbes, which normally can't live in the home, but I'm not able to calculate how much this is achievable today.
    This was a very thoughtful analysis of various credible reports. I'm wondering if the analysis of sources of beach plastic can be extrapolated to ocean plastics. I think further research will shed light on this question.

    Those who want to sign a petition in support of legislation in Oregon banning single-use plastic shopping bags can do so at /www.thepetitionsite.com/5/ban-the-bag-in-Oregon

    enricodorigo
    I envy US also for your petitions, or better for the use of them into your society, something that in Italy we lost centuries ago. About the analysis unfortunately toady these are the best analysis that I found and I think that there isn't something more accurate on what you are intrested in, I looked for all over the internet.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    This is a great article Enrico, I wish my seventeen year old son was doing something like this instead of playing computer games the whole time, though in his defense he is about to start an animation and interactive gaming degree.

    In my opinion I think banning plastic bags completely could accidentally create more environmental problems, depending on what is substituted in their place. A better solution in my opinion would be to only allow biodegradable, compostable, environmentally friendly, plastic bags which should also be used as garbage bags.

    I know that the regulations for what satisfies these criteria is very variable at present, as you mentioned above, but this is the area that I think needs more work and practical enforcement. Even if we ban plastic bags we still need to put our rubbish and shopping in something, so why not ensure that all plastic bags are reusable as garbage bags and also reasonably safe for the environment, instead of just banning them?
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    enricodorigo
    I agree with you using the last plastic bags, that implies a worldwide ban of them, as garbage bags we would solve the problem of their disposition. However I think the use plastic bags instead of bioderadable ones isn't so much ecological for the reson that also into landfills is better if a part rubbish are bpb rather than pb. In fact the decomposition of biopolymers would create more space for other rubbish.
    Aitch
    I, too, enjoyed this piece, Enrico
    As an environment campaigner, one of the things most often overlooked is the 'where it goes' aspect, as so many people believe the lie that it 'goes into landfill'
    I have been shocked, traveling, to find wonderful beautiful countryside mountainous areas, with plastic bags caught on crags, or up trees, noisily disturbing the natural tranquility
    As a sailor, I can also vouch for the plastic waste, as it is quite eerie to sea multiple floating plastic bottles, like a shoal of fish, basking in the sun
    I think regulation is now needed, to deal with, and make responsibilities for, the existing polluting plastics, but go along with Helen's suggestion of making bags of recyclable plastic.
    I was heartened on a recent visit to Germany, that the regulation recycling introduced there, is seen as a community benefit, and done as a socially responsible and  enjoyable event on the daily calendar....to the point of people chatting happily as they sort their plastics into, I believe 7 different type containers, quite apart from the metal, glass, and card/paper
    More information collation, as you have done here, is very valuable, and needs a wider audience, IMO, thanks!

    Aitch  
    enricodorigo
    Surely Germany is one of the most ecological countries of the world, I really like their attitude towards environmental problems. I remember my own experience, when I visited Munich four yeras ago. I went to visit a river that cross the city and I found out, through tests of the "inhabitants" of its waters, the great quality of the water. In addiction I was surprised to notice, watching at the statistics about the quality of its waters, that in 10 years has been reduced the pollution of all the rivers. What's more I also remeber that there they divide glass into two different groups and put them into two different bins.
    The BPI states there are 144 commercial composters in the U.S. There are 30,000 communities. so this means 0.48% of communities have a commercial compost. The FTC stipulates that your claim of Compostablity or Biodegradabilty must be available to at least 60% of communities or you are considered a "Greenwasher.
    Commercial composters want a 3 week turnaround. PLA and Cello take 12 weeks at very low gauges (0.8 mil.) Sun Chips were 2.0 mil so these were screened out and put in landfills. it is way too difficult to make any packaging out of 0.8 mil. especially when these material shrivel up in heat and crack with age. We are using additives that react with microbes to compost in backyards or biodegrade in any landfill or body of water. they are shelf stable, recyclable, reusable and inexpensive. They are organic and cause no harm to plants or insects. This is the answer.

    enricodorigo
    At the beginning I didn't understand comment, though looking on the internet I found an argument like yours in a FAQ page of the business' site of TekPak Solutions - Hamilton, Ontario U.S.

    “ We are on the ASTM committee for biodegradableand compostable standards. Currently this is under review. We have successfullyblocked attempts by the B.P.I., founded by Cargill and Innovia, to make allpackaging subject to their review before being allowed to make any claims. Theyonly consider their products, PLA and Cello to be of any use. ( Not unbiased atall.) However, PLA can only be composted in a commercial composter and the composterswant material to compost in 3 weeks. PLA takes 14 weeks at 0.8 mil. the SunChipbags are 2.0 mil and take 30 weeks. These composters put ads in newspaperstelling people to stop putting the bags in the Green Bins. They have to screenthem out and take them to the landfill. There are 144 composters in the
    US for 30,000 communities. That is 0.47% coverage in the USA. The FTC states your claims must be available to 60% of the communitiesto avoid being a green-washer. Our Green disposal options are available to 100%of communities. We do meet many other ASTM standards: 5338/98, 5290/91, 5511,CEN 261085, ISO 14855 and we are FDA and SCF (E.U.) compliant."
    Source

    I respect your opinion but I read on your site that TekPak produces organic additives derived from petroleum, that can be used only in plastics derived from fossil sources, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyamide, polyvinylchloride, etc. ...
    I think that to replace the Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags
    biopolymers are the best technology, unlike the Cello or rubber, they are also biodegradable, such as polylactic acid PLA and starch-based polymers: these polymers are derived from natural sources obtained from renewable sources, which also have the feature of chemical conversion in[…]carbondioxide, water and minerals of than any other element (mineralization) and newbiomass”.
    I believe that it is not important only the degradation time and the particle size in which it decomposes, and it is not enough that a product is "not toxic", even if this contributes the accumulation of non-natural substances in the environment.
    In my opinion should be always considered the overall environmental impact of a polymer and of its additives, the consumption of non-renewable resources in its production system,
    the ability of all its components to return to their natural state. Therefore it's significant the authorities that certify stating that the greatest ecological value of biodegradable biopolymers can also verify their authenticity, through the ASTM D6866 standard, which allow distinguish of the polymers derived from renewable sources from those derived from fossil sources, measuring the concentration of radiocarbon 14.Confirming the validity of new biopolymers, I have seen in the introduction of ASTM D6866, in the U.S. have been issued many Presidential Executive Orders (13101, 13123, 13134), Public Laws (106-224), AG ACT 2003 and other Legislative Actions all require Federal Agencies to develop procedures to identify, encourage andproduce products derived from biobased, renewable, sustainable and lowenvironmental impact resources.
    Enrico, thank you for your comments. I too am concerned about the overall impact of any new "solution" to the problem of accumulating trash in landfills and oceans. This is why I believe PLA is not yet ready for this job.
    1. American Scientific magazine published studies done by two U.S. scientists which showed PLA used more petroleum energy than the equivalent amount of regular Petro-based plastics. It also used far more water (90 times).
    In addition, corn requires far more Nitrogen than any other crop which is then washed into rivers and down to the ocean where huge dead zones are taking over. The nitrogen prevents oxygen and then nothing grows there. In the Gulf of Mexico there is now a 10,000 square mile dead zone. No fish, nothing.
    2. 25% of U.S. farmland is now used for corn and this will continue to increase. this is not for food but Ethanol and PLA.
    The average Central and South American spends 25% of his income on cornmeal. a few years ago the price doubled and they had to use 50% of their income to feed the family. The price is climbing again. there are shortages of many foods due to many farmers switching to grow corn and get subsidies.. This creates shortages of the crops they used to grow and prices climb all around. Food shortages around the world are creating havoc.
    3. The rain forests are being burned down to create more farmland to grow corn or sugar cane. 90 % of new medicines come from the rainforests but we are losing an area the size of Greece each year. The smoke from the fires gives off more carbon monoxide than all the cars in the world. The loss of CO 2 absorption and oxygen production from those trees is another negative.
    4. PLA shrivels in heat and is difficult to process. It cracks on the shelf and sometimes before it even gets to the store. We hear this from many former PLA users every week. The clock starts ticking once it is made and then if it is not used promptly, it cracks up. Who will monitor this ? Do we put date codes on the bags ?
    How many negatives do we need to see the problem.?
    Our film is Recyclable with regular films, reusable, shelf stable and will not compost or degrade until disposed of in Backyard Composts, Landfills or Bodies of Water.
    R. Pocius

    enricodorigo
    I apologize for the delay but lately I've been very busy. The problems that you mentioned are definitely true but I observe that: 1) Manufacturing systems of the PLA being very latest and still working on small amounts, can be greatly improved if grows the use of this material. In any case, the energy consumption of the systems of production of polymers derived from petrol should be calculated adding the energy consumed from the systems of extraction and of transport of raw materials, however in addition to the energy consumption it has to be examinated the high overall environmental impact of the extraction, transport and processing of petrol activities. Moreover, the problem of pollution of seas caused by the use of fertilizers in agriculture is a significant problem, but that is not determined by type of use, for food or for biopolymers, that is done of agricultural products. 2) Concerning the problem of the human nutrition, I answer that corn and other food products are not the only source of starch for plastic bags, and perhaps they aren't even the best: recently have been developed biopolymers derived from waste materials, such as those made from starch extracted from potato peelings (eg the products of Solanyl Bipolymers Inc - Canada), that seem to have even better performance, what's more biopolymers derived from corn stubble. 3) Such as the pollution problem described in paragraph 1), the problem of rainforest does not depend on the type of use that is done of the products derived from agricultural crops, even if they are the real cause of deforestation, especially if it will be developed biopolymers which use parts of plants not profitable for feeding but waste components, which therefore do not increase the requirements for agricultural products. 4) I have never tried to use a plastic bag in PLA, and therefore I do not want to comment on your criticisms about this, though it is clear that the biopolymers, as all new materials, still have to be improved, and this improvement will be possible with just the increase of the use of these products which will rise the resources available for research and industrial development ... However, it is widespread in Europe, the use of plastic bags made from biopolymers derived from starch, and, in contrast to the PLA, I saw for myself that are already quite handy and reliable. In conclusion, I would remind you that the more important environmental improvement that could come from the ban of plastic bags, will be that of an increased use of reusable carrier bags (made of cloth, jute, etc..), ie prolonging the life cycle of these products, and using the plastic bag made of biodegradable biopolymer only when we have forgotten, or we do not have, the reusable bags, thus reducing the huge number of bags that have to be disposed of, therefore also reducing the demand of agricultural raw material and the pollution problem of production systems.
    This is an extremely informative & impressive article! Both on the scale and the multiple threats of single-use plastic bags. I've been collecting & studying man-made debris washed up or blown in on my local beach here in Maine, USA for a year now. Of course, most of it is plastic, and much of that is bag/film material. Your conclusions are much like my own, and your research & links posted here will help me learn much more still! Well done, and thanks for the time you've put into this.

    enricodorigo
    Thanks and break your leg with your studies.
    I totally agree with you, your arguments are very impressive and convinced . I'm Italian, and I know how pollution is in the center of every politics and social decision in this days, I've also red about the "plastic Island " too, but on the Net I didn't found a useful information... Anyway, good job.

    enricodorigo
    Thanks, also for me the "plastic islands" are a terrible problem, fortunately the governments have started to look at the problem of rubbish more than in the past but their efforts haven't been enough. I wish they will do more and solve the problem as faster as possible.
    The claim that plastic particles at sea may absorb harmful compounds is naive. The study assumes that the toxic chemicals must be attracted to the plastic particles. From where? Why, from the water, of course! And it doesn't think to address whether these toxins might be relatively more dangerous floating free than absorbed. In short, you may actually be making a beneficial aspect sound like a negative aspect. This is just bullshit posing as "science".

    enricodorigo
    I quoted a study completed by the professor Takada of Tokyo that I considered useful to spur a remark on the dangerousness of sea's pollution due to plastics.
    According to Takada the question is not if the toxic compounds are more harmful whether floating free in seas or absorbed by the plastic particles. He underlines instead the dangerousness of the draining into seas through human's activities of enormous quantities of plastic particles forasmuch as many of them are already polluted by toxic compounds.

    However, I do not consider constructive an anonymous and vulgar comment.
    Sorry, Enrico, I should have said "bullkaka"; and "Anonymous" is just the default choice to post a comment. Let me just say that it in no way helps the world to go around by enlisting naivete in the name of science. No one hates it more than I do when folks throw garbage out their car window and leave it for others to pick up. I strongly suspect this correlates to the dirty socks the same folks leave on the floor of their rooms for their mothers to worry about. However, only an idiot would suggest that the solution to this problem is to reduce the use of cotton.

    That is what most of the discussion has become concerning plastic. It's a shame, in my opinion, that the ECO movement has come to fill the void that religion and superstition used to occupy, with no net reduction in the amount of self-righteousness. An honest assessment would require studying whether toxin-absorption could be a net positive. But I am skeptical that, if it were, you and Takada would find it worthy of mention.

    enricodorigo
    I agree with you, David, that plastic is not a diabolic substance and it has greatly improved the quality of life of all of us. I do not assert that plastic should be banned but I claim that it can be usefully substituted with the new bio-plastics in all the applications where efficient recyclable methods haven’t been improved as, on the contrary, in industrial's packaging systems. I do not embrace Takada's ideas but I am certain that it is fundamental and even complex to compare the effects of toxic compounds scattered in seas to the effects of the same substances absorbed by plastic particles. In addition, this study would be interesting and appealing for many people.
    Post plastic film is electrically charged. This charge attracts dust. There are several products designed to use this feature, such as Swiffer mops, the oil booms used in spills, and fibrilated 'mops' that remove fat from soups. I think it's possible the same attribute is responsible for Takada's findings. It is not in the least ominous, but the study and its disemmination were clearly used to suggest dangerous toxins in the food chain. It will take longer for this type of nonsense to dissolve than the plastic bags.
    By the way, the stuff in the ocean is photodegradable. Those minute particles are the molecular elements of the breaking chains, 99%+ of which is natural carbon-derived components. Once they are small enough not to interfere with marine digestion, they are no more of a threat than atmospheric dust. It would be interesting for Mr. Takada to provide a comparative analysis of that.

    enricodorigo
    I take your point that the fundamental issue is the enormous amount of pollution produced from human activities and spilt into oceans through rivers and rains and the fact that these toxic substances are absorbed by plastic particles, which have been analysed by Takada, is only an incidental effect of this problem. However, I believe that the physical saturation of the marine environment with plastic waste is in any case a serious problem and the reduction of these waste to micro particles through photo oxidation and decomposition caused by ocean’s salty water don not solve the problem. If the plastic plankton can be compared to the atmospheric dust, it does not mean that both these phenomenons are not dangerous for human health and the environment.
    Say we have a theoretical equivalent between dust and plastic plankton, neither of which has been proven to be not dangerous for human health and the environment. To be scientific, why not say that neither has been proven to be not beneficial for human health and the environment? Wouldn't that show a bias? If so, wouldn't the original formulation also indicate a bias?
    I don't mean to be overly skeptical, Enrico, but I read that the EU bureaucracy in Brussels ruled last month that bottled water companies may not claim that their product is effective against dehydration. So you now have the burden of proof that it is possible to be overly skeptical.
    This is supposed to be a science blog. It needs more dispassionate skepticism of "the accepted wisdom".

    enricodorigo
    David, it is fair to be skeptical but I still believe that the draining of tons of plastic particles in seas is a problem for human health and the environment. I do not affirm that it is scientifically demonstrated that swallow PE, PP or PET particles is toxic for the health but I think that it has been proved that many marine animals die chocked by pieces of plastic. In addition, if even plastic plankton’s micro particles were totally harmless to the human and animal body, I consider fair believing - even without a vast knowledge of medicine – that their accumulation into the filtering organs of our body (liver and kidneys) would be detrimental even just for the physical effect of “blockage” of these organs.
    Enrico, I am not skeptical about the damage against marine animals. Even if that were not the case, I am morally opposed to disposal of waste by "throwing it out the window". But that is really not what we are talking about here, is it? It is a fact that plastic grocery bags are far superior to paper in terms of greenhouse gas generation, strength-to-weight, and in just about every way OTHER than their visibility in the environment. So rather than ban them, aim your guns at making people clean up after themselves. Add chemical markers to the polymers showing country of origin, and force countries to pay for clean-up in proportion to their markers.
    But most effectively, think about ways to make it pay to recycle. Currently the biggest obstacle is sorting, washing, and transportation costs. Collection bins have PET mixed with PP and HDPE, chewing gum, paper coupons and receipts. Once this is mixed, it costs more to recycle than to make virgin material.

    I am developing a machine that will densify bags at the collection point, eliminating sorting, washing and transportation costs. Since bag recycling and disposal will then be profitable, it won't require legislation or subsidies to make it work. The incentives will be built in.

    The problem is that this is simply not "the way things are done" anymore. From GM foods, to Frakking, to Methanol fueled vehicles, the world seems to have changed over to a business model of legislative mandates, subsidies, and regulations at the expense of innovation.

    But that's a "whole nother story".

    enricodorigo
    David I consider very interesting your idea of a machine that densifies bags at the collection point as it would reduce recycling costs in a simple and efficient way considering that it could be used at the beginning of the chain by every citizen who produces waste. Why don’t you write an article about that on this website? I think that Hank Campbell would turn his intention to it! Moreover, I agree with your criticism towards the way the human community develops new technologies always favouring benefits, bureaucracy and businesses’ control from monopolies! As a consequence innovations are slowed down and money and sources are wasted…
    Can't disagree about plastic bags but of course, we humans also have a few remaining rights - the plastic shopping bag is an indispensible part of millions of our lives and this has to be balanced against a few cuddly vermin that choke on the things. It's not a long-term problem anyway as Darwinian selection will soon cause them to evolve to be a bit more cautious... 
     
    Ok, that was meant to be a postmodern joke. Don't kill me yet.
     
    Seriously now:

    I do not understand the glib assertion by NOAA that it is uneconomical to skim the floating garbage islands. When people see the mess, I'm sure they think in terms of gathering up the rubbish and then disposing of it at great expense, no doubt with an environmental levy on top. However when I see it, I see an open-cast mine of useful long-chain molecules!

    Leaving aside the possible benefits of this rubbish to sessile marine organisms, let us assume it can be shown that it would be a good idea to get rid of it if we can.  Skimming can be a fairly unsophisticated task compared with fishing and would result in a cargo of, say, a few thousand tons of plastic every few weeks. And it wouldn't need refrigerating - unless heavily colonized! It should be worth something ~ $20,000,000 a year after reprocessing.

    Brits have a saying "Where there's muck there's brass (money)".  

    As for the reprocessing, it's not hugely energy intensive compared to making the polymers in the first place. The following is well covered in Wikipedia but, anyway... It would start with optically sorting the plastics where possible. Further individual polymers can be removed from the residue with solvents, mixed polymers can then be melted out. Pyrolysis of what's left successively yields a mix of monomers, a crude oil and finally feedstock gases which can either be used to make things or simply burnt to provide energy for the rest of the process. All of these are known technologies. 
     
    Where's the snag?
     



    enricodorigo
    Thank you for your very stimulating and rich of interesting cues comment.
    I do not have your thorough knowledge on chemistry but I agree that are already available sufficient technologies to solve the problem of the pollution of seas' plastic particles. Furthermore, I believe that the reclaiming systems could become eco-friendly.
    Getting rid of macroscopic plastic is one thing, but I think the microscopic particles are just going to have to be left unless anyone comes up with something new. 

    I'm not a chemist but I'm quite interested in the subject.  As I said, the "perfect plan" for recycling the plastic was a synopsis of the Wikipedia article. 
    enricodorigo
    I take your point that the plastic plankton if it is scattered in all the oceans it is a problem more difficult to solve than plastic’s islands. However, I believe that it would be useful if public opinion urges international authorities to clean up, at least, the floating plastic piled up into the plastic vortex until new technologies will allow us to remove even microscopic plastic particles’ pollution.