Life-choking plastic garbage

By: Engr. Edgar Mana-ay

THEY’RE everywhere, plastic garbage that we indiscriminately throw.

Since a lot of plastic items we use are low cost and disposable, we create an awful lot of plastic trash. Hundreds of tons of plastic rubbish have been removed during the cleanup of Manila Bay and this is just along the seashore, up to 30 meters in the bottom of the bay, most likely just the tip of the iceberg of the plastic heap.

Even the North Pacific Ocean is not spared by man’s plastic garbage. The great Pacific Garbage Patch is a giant lake of floating plastic garbage made up mostly of plastic bottles. You see it on your TV, the plastic heap in the oceans and seas that reaches uninhabited islands, some ingested by whales, fishes, and turtles, causing death in some cases.

We cannot live without plastics. It is the most versatile material in the modern world, used to build/manufacture computers, car bodies (as in the Toyota Fortuner), replacement human body parts, toys, toothbrush, paints, medical adhesives, water pipes, drinking bottles and the everyday grocery bag to name a few.

Of the 311 million tons of the world’s annual plastic production, a third of it ends up in the environment, of which 8 million tons go to the seas and oceans every year. But we can solve this horrible problem of plastic garbage by:

  1. Better education – if people are aware of the problem, they might think twice about littering the environment or maybe choose things that have less plastic packaging. (This author brings his own fashionable buri bag or libon when going on a grocery trip).
  2. Re-cycle more plastic which is already the program of local business and government by providing separate garbage bins for recyclable items.
  3. Develop bioplastics and biodegradable plastics that can breakdown more quickly in the environment.

Plastics are mostly synthetic (manmade) materials in the form of polymers which are long-chain hydrocarbon (a combination of hydrogen and carbon atoms) compounds. Its source is mostly petroleum, natural gas and coal. It is the oil industry through its refineries and chemical plants that provide almost all of the basic materials (called resins) for plastics manufacturing.

Most plastics deteriorate in full sunlight but never decompose completely when buried in landfills. Some bioplastics decompose to carbon dioxide and water in specially designed composting facilities only. They do not biodegrade in any other circumstances.

Could a new plastic-eating bacteria help combat this pollution scourge? Nature has begun to fight back against the vast piles of filth dumped into its soils, rivers, seas and oceans by evolving plastic-eating bacteria.

A team of Japanese researchers described a species of bacteria that can break the molecule bond of one of the most used plastics – polyethylene terephthalate also known as PET or polyester. The Japanese team shifted through hundreds of samples of PET pollution before finding a colony of organism using the plastic as a food source.

Further tests found out that the bacteria almost completely degraded low quality plastics within six weeks. The plastic is being hydrolyzed (broken down) by bacteria. If this is successful, bacteria could be sprayed on the huge floating trash heap building up at Manila Bay or at the ocean, just like what the oil companies do in combating oil spills in high seas.

Malls and other establishments here at the Ungka, Pavia’s new growth center, is effectively using bacteria to breakdown its sewage into clean water and fertilizer like solids. The process is called Sewage Biological Reduction (SBR).

Has plastic garbage in the form of microplastic contamination reached our drinking water? Research team from the University of Toronto says it has! But unfortunately there is not yet much information to validate this new threat.

How much of microplastic in drinking water influences human health? Again there is no hard evidence or research on this. When plastic pieces become small enough, that a microscope is required to see them- anywhere from a few millimeters to a few micrometers, they are referred to as microplastics and most of these “plastic soup” are drained from sinks and washing machines then widely dispersed in the environment!

A team from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto has extracted microplastic from the bodies of fishes for sale in commercial markets. They also took samples of tap water from around the world and found microplastic in most of their samples.

The traditional approach in dealing with drinking water contamination is for scientists to determine a target threshold below which the risk to human health is considered minimal. Hence the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water (PNSDW) have established MAXIMUM limits for drinking water contaminants such as microbiological (e coli), inorganic (fluoride), organic (benzene), disinfectants (chlorine) and a host of others so that bulk water processors are guided accordingly.

As of now, there is no existing threshold for microplastic in drinking water and developing one will be complex because plastic interacts differently with the body depending on how big the pieces are. In animals, the larger pieces just get excreted but the micro ones can leave the gut and go into the tissue. Even the WHO and PNSDW have not yet established a standard method for testing levels of microplastic in drinking water before establishing the maximum allowable limit.

Meanwhile to protect our environment, we have to reduce our plastic imprint such as: avoid use of plastic drinking straw, adopt a re-useable shopping bag just like my buri or libon bag, bring your own glass water bottle which you can refill and avoid personal care products that contain polyethelyn.

Even the Holy Bible in Revelation 7:3 says: “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.”