Page 1


table

OF

contents

Introduction

7

Chapter One: Beach Toys

8

Chapter Two: Junk Toys

26

Chapter Three: Plastic

34

Source

42

Production

46

Consumption

50

Disposal

54

Chapter Four: Rethink

64

Chapter Five: Reimagine

72

Chapter Six: Redesign

82

Conclusion

93


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AN

introduction

We are living in an interesting world. Our society has achieved enormous advantages in quality of life due to an extensive discovery and availability of plastics derived from petroleum. However, as with any technology, unanticipated negative secondary effects are produced as well. The persistence of plastics in the environment, shortage of landfill space, concerns over emissions resulting from incineration, and hazards to human health as well as hazards to animals, birds, and fish from entrapment or ingestion of these materials have spurred the efforts to find more environmentally friendly alternative materials. The depletion of petroleum resources coupled with increase in environmental regulations have added to this effort of finding new materials and products that are compatible with the environment and independent of fossil fuels. Industries are developing and manufacturing “greener� materials; government is encouraging bio-based product research; academicians are searching for ecofriendly materials; and the public is continuing to value the benefit of environment friendly products and processes, but at affordable prices. Bio-based materials offer a potential solution to this complex problem.

7


chapter ONE

beach toys

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Beach toys have become a staple in a large portion of childhoods in America. They have developed a level of nostalgia throughout the collective cultural conscious because they are tied to some of the fondest parts of childhood: summer vacation, playing outside, and a limitless platform of imagination. Parents remember their experiences with beach toys

and then pass that down to their children. The toy shovel and pail are one of the few toys in American history that have maintained continued use and, in basic form and function, remained unchanged in the last century. From the earliest Victorian examples, to today’s brightly colored plastic versions, beach toys have a permanent place in the toy industry.

11


1.

12

2.

1. Wooden pail

2. Tin pail

Used until the mid 1800’s.

Started being used before the Civil War.

Pail & Shovel

the story of plastic


The history of beach toys in America starts even before the Civil War when wooden buckets and shovels were brought to the beach to entertain children. Tin pails, shovels, and other toys started being commercially produced, oftentimes with some sort of decoration or image lithographed on the

outside, in the Victorian age around the middle of the 1850’s. Most of the American tin pails were made by J. Chein, T. Cohen Inc., U.S. Metal Toy Manufacturing Co. and Ohio Art Co. From the 1870’s to the 1890’s, beach resorts were starting to be founded and that’s when sand toys really took off.

13


The toy industry blossomed and technology improved as demand increased. Workers saw an increase in leisure time as unions, labor laws and better technology paved the way for the notion of weekends and free time. In addition, disposable income and better transportation such as the growth of the railroads made resort communities

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like Ocean City attractive to the growing middle class. Toy companies saw a need and filled it. The material switched from tin to plastic in the 1950’s. Many different brands make different versions of types of beach toys, but the most notable was American Plastic Toys Inc.


1.

2.

1. Painted tin pail

2. Lithographed tin pail

Became popular between c. 1870 – 1890.

Switched from a utilitarian item to a toy. Continued production from c. 1810 – 1950.

15


1.

1. Plastic pails and shovels

Material changed to plastic around 1950 and continues to be produced today.

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Today, plastic toys have become the norm. We hardly think twice about throwing away a broken plastic item to replace it almost immediately with another. This behavior is part of a system known as perceived and planned obsolescence, meaning that objects are created to be thrown away, whether or not they really need to be or should be. This consumer ideology was created in the 1950’s,

when plastic started to make it’s big debut, when economist Victor Lebow said, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual [and] ego satisfactions, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced at an ever increasing pace.”

17


imagine you’re spending a day at the beach. The sand between your toes. the sound of the waves filling your ears...


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You’re sitting at the water’s edge, you’re toy pail and shovel in hand. You’ve decided to make a sand castle. While you diligently work away on your masterpiece, you don’t notice that the tide is slowly creeping in. When you started, the waves were crashing feet down the bank, but now a few of the bigger waves are starting to just roll over your toes as they reach for the shore before retreating. Your mom calls to you, you can’t hear her over the sound of a wave comes in and... the waves, so you start to walk towards her and away from your whoosh! there goes construction site and tools. your toy, floating Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a rogue wave comes in and… out to sea. WHOOSH! Your turn around in time to watch your toys floating out to sea. You start to panic! Oh don’t worry about it, says mom, we can get another set just like it at the corner store, don’t give it another thought. But you do. As you leave the beach with your family, you take one look back at the ocean. What is going to happen to my toys?

21


what happens

TO

beach toys

1. washed into the ocean or left behind on the beach.

2. thrown away to be “disposed of.�

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The main problem with plastic — besides there being so much of it — is that it doesn’t biodegrade. No natural process can break it down. (Experts point out that the durability that makes plastic so useful to humans also makes it quite harmful to nature.) Instead, plastic photodegrades. A plastic beach toy cast out to sea will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic without breaking into simpler compounds, which scientists estimate could take hundreds of years.

whether Plastics ends

These tiny plastic particles can get sucked up by filter feeders and damage their bodies. Other land, they release marine animals eat the plastic, chemicals that end up which can poison them or lead to deadly blockages. Nurdles also back in the food chain. have the insidious property of soaking up toxic chemicals. Over time, even chemicals or poisons that are widely diffused in water can become highly concentrated as they’re mopped up by nurdles. These poison-filled masses threaten the entire food chain, especially when eaten by filter feeders that are then consumed by large creatures, who are then consumed by humans.

up in the ocean or on

23


hundreds of plastic beach toys are lost to the waves or left behind on the beach. Those that aren’t forgotten usually don’t make it past the season and end up in the trash.


chapter TWO

JUNK toys

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Like junk food, junk toys can be fun but are devoid of nutrition. Buying them requires little forethought. They are excessively commercial, and are often linked to cross-marketing schemes. They excite children at first, but that initial flicker doesn’t endure. Also like junk food, junk toys have hidden environmental and social costs for which the consumers pay.

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Besides the materials and energy used in the production of junk toys, these plastic toys end up in landfills and oceans. Only about 10 percent of all plastic containers and packaging were recycled in 2006, and less than that for things like plastic toys, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A toy may become a landfill toy due to breakage. Toys that are poorly or cheaply made are often unable to stand up to hard use by children. Most commonly made from inexpensive plastic, landfill toys may break, melt, or lose pieces. This may either render the toy completely unusable or just less attractive — both leading to children abandoning the toy and dooming it to a landfill.

29


Plastic takes hundreds and hundreds of years to break down. Why buy a child a toy they’ll enjoy for three months, only to have it last for all eternity?

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The worst plastic used in children’s toys is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which creates dioxins in production and often contains phthalates. Considered “hormone disruptors” and linked with asthma and respiratory problems, phthalates can migrate out of toys and onto the hands (and into the mouths) of children. Fortunately, many companies are removing phthalates, and several states, including California and Maine, are initiating legislation that would ban the sale of any children’s products containing these problem chemicals. The safety of toys made in China has been in question lately might make A child happy with the recent rave of recalls. Governor Schwarzenegger signed for a WHILE, but how into law a ban on toys containing happy will it make them phthalates, chemical softeners used to make the plastic soft when their generation and pliable. The Governator is responsible for said, “These chemicals threaten the health and safety of our cleaning up the mess? children at critical stages of their development.” Phthalates have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. This follows a ban last year in San Francisco on toys containing BPA and certain levels of phthalates. Despite such legal actions, junk toys still dominate the toy shelves.

a cheap plastic toy

Many larger name stores, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys “R” Us, are starting to reduce the sale of plastic toys that are manufactured with PVC and phthalates with a goal to eventually phase them out completely. This shows that there is a growing awareness among consumers and an openness to begin rejecting the norm in favor of more socially and environmentally conscious buying decisions.

31


even something as small as a plastic toy can have an impact. But to better understand the impact of the product, we need to look closer at what it’s made of...


chapter THREE

PLASTIC

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No material on earth has been so highly valued for its usefulness, yet so maligned, as plastic. We have ambivalent, contrary, and vacillating feelings about plastics, and have never finally decided whether plastics are the good, the bad, or the ugly. One reason for the ambivalence is probably their newness. The rapid growth of plastics production was a twentieth century phenomenon, and anything less than a hundred years old, on a historical scale, is novel. Among materials, plastics are newcomers, and we simply have Plastics are now not had time to make up our minds so commonplace that about how we feel about them.

they have become

Plastics are so clearly useful that it is foolish not to afford them major respect. They are often not only everyday life. less expensive than alternative materials, but their properties often make them better. Their low cost has undoubtedly had life-saving consequences, as in drought-prone areas of Africa where lightweight plastic water pails, at times the most important family possession, have replaced clay and stone containers, making it possible to bring in water from even distant wells in times of severe water shortage. Plastics are also perfectly matched with the modem information-age uses of cell phones, bank cards, and laptops. And even when mere comfort is at stake, no one can deny plastics are outstanding performers. But do the pros outweigh the cons?

An integral part of

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No material on earth has been so highly valued for its usefulness, yet so maligned, as plastic.

37


BILLIONS OF POUNDS

80

60

40

20

0 1986 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 2000

YEAR

over 80 billion pounds of plastic are produced each year in the united states alone.

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This book tells the story of the recent, as yet tentative, emergence of new plastics with characteristics not usually associated with plastic — plastics made from natural, renewable materials. Plastics that are able to biodegrade totally and completely in an environmentally benign manner. The starting point in the story of these new bioplastics is the simple fact that plastics are now so commonplace that they have become an integral part of everyday life. There are personal use items, like the toothbrush, comb, ballpoint pen, and Past ages of human credit card. There are containers, like the jug of milk and the bag that society have been holds the loaf of bread. And there are called the Stone, the wrappings on all those articles Bronze, Copper, Iron, we purchase, like drugstore items, clothing, and electronics.

and Steel Ages...

Plastic comes in all sizes and shapes. It can be molded, like the comb and toothbrush, or turned into sheeting age of plastics. or films. Some items are only partly made of plastic; others are made entirely of plastic, but of more than one type of plastic, fabricated to make a useful item.

We have entered the

Past ages of human society have been called the Stone, Bronze, Copper, Iron, and Steel Ages, according to the material most used to fabricate objects. Today the total volume of plastics produced worldwide has surpassed that of steel and continues to increase. Approximately 200 billion pounds (100 million tons) of plastics are produced each year, with over 80 billion pounds a year being produced in the United States alone (fig. 1.1). We have entered the Age of Plastics.

39


THE

plastics cycle

SOURCE

Disposal


production

Consumption


source

With the increased use of plastics, people have become concerned over the impact plastics have on the environment. One source of concern is the raw materials from which they are produced. Virtually all plastics are made from petroleum (crude oil), gas, and coal. Those raw materials are the feedstocks of the plastics industry. They are natural resources that have taken millions of years to be formed, and are nonrenewable. Plastics feedstocks account for 4 or 5 percent off oil and gas production; processing energy uses another 2 or 3 percent. Some take these small percentages to mean that the use of fossil feedstocks for plastics represents no independent or additional drain on resources, however, our dependence on fossil fuels for energy goes hand in hand with a dependence on them to provide the feedstocks for the production of plastics. Maintaining plastics markets, let alone increasing them, requires corresponding levels of fuels production, and economic pressures in one area cause pressures in the other; plastics production and world oil prices are often correlated.

42

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43


The United States’ supply of oil may last as few as ten years, AND the impact on the environment from extraction could be irreversible.

44

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No one knows how much oil, natural gas, and coal exist on the planet, but the known reserves and estimates of unknown reserves have been tallied. Petroleum is not so plentiful. Worldwide reserves have been estimated to be in the range of 200 billion tons, Around 8% of the which is enough for only fifty years or so at the current rate of consumption. world’s oil The supply of natural gas is sufficient production is used for approximately the same length of time, barring new discoveries. Moreto make plastics. over, these resources are not evenly distributed throughout the planet; most oil reserves are in the Middle East. The United States’ supply of oil may last as few as ten years, but the impact on the environment from extraction could be irreversible. But the use of our limited and nonrenewable supply of fossil resources for the large-scale manufacture of plastics is a legitimate environmental concern now, because it increases the rate at which we approach a day of reckoning some time in the future.

45


Production

In 2006 the World Wildlife Fund reported that human consumption had been in excess of the earth’s bio-capacity since the 1980’s. “The earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with the demand – people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.” And plastic, which takes hundreds, maybe thousands, of years to break down, is very much a part of that. Plastic as we know it came on to the scene in the 1950’s and has gotten exponentially more popular. This popularity gave rise to an equally exponential rise in production. The more we want it, the more they make it — and then some. But the production of plastics is harmful to the environment. The solid waste created from producing plastics is equal to about 70 garbage cans for every one garbage can of finished products that we throw away. The chemical waste gets released into the air and water, polluting the environment and finding its way back to us in one form or another.

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200 billion pounds of plastics are produced each year, that’s about 40 pounds a year for every person on the planet.

47


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Production of plastics on a very large scale is relatively new. The Dustin Hoffman character in the 1967 movie The Graduate was advised to go into “Plastics� if he wanted a promising career and a prosperous future. That future is now.

In the United States plastics industry over 20,000 facilities produce or distribute raw materials, molds, processing machinery, or products. They employ over one and a half million workers and ship more than $300 billion in products annually.

49


consumption

After 1945, a torrent of products the world had never seen roared into general consumption: acrylic textiles, Plexiglas, polyethylene bottles, polypropylene containers, and “foam rubber” polyurethane toys. Within l0 years, the downside to this wonder substance was apparent. Life Magazine coined the term “throwaway society’, though the idea of tossing trash was hardly new. Remember Victor Lebow, the economist from the 1950’s? He said that for our economy to flourish, we needed to become a culture of consumers. He said, “The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms... These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well.” The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tons in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tons today. This has become the second-nature of our culture. In America, consumerism has changed from a “luxury” to a “necessity”. What started as a form of conspicuous consumption has turned into conspicuous waste. Today around 99% of consumer goods purchased in the United States are disposed of within 6 months of purchase, leaving us the room to keep consuming.

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The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tons in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tons today.

51


Other Packaging

Exports

Furniture Electrical

14% Packaging

Transportation Consumer Products

In the United States over 10 billion pounds of plastic are turned into consumer products each year.

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The phenomenal rise in the use of plastics is the result of their extraordinary versatility and low cost. They make a good match with the needs of our rapidly growing world population. But if 200 billion pounds of plastics are produced each year, that’s about 40 pounds a year for every person on the planet. What do we do with it all? Consumer products include eating utensils, toys, diaper backings, cameras, watches, sporting goods, personal-hygiene articles like combs and razor handles, and much more. In the United States over 10 billion pounds of plastic are turned into Plastics have become consumer products each year.

an important part

The use of plastics has grown so remarkably because of the large number of applications that have are here to stay. been developed for them. Plastics have become an important part of modern life and are here to stay. They have, however, raised the question of reconciling convenient living with concern for ecology.

of modern life and

53


disposal

After production, the second major concern is plastics waste, both managed waste and litter. The concern over plastics waste is not new. In the 1960s it was suggested that so much plastic had been manufactured that the planet could be wrapped in it. It is not the use of plastics, but the magnitude of the use that has been the cause of concern. In the United States over 60 billion pounds of plastic are discarded into the waste stream each year. (In l970 the plastics waste stream was only 4 billion pounds.) Well over half the plastics waste stream is in municipal solid waste (MSW). Municipal solid waste includes common garbage or trash generated by homes, businesses, institutions, and industries. MSW accounts for only a few percentages of the total waste stream, but most people are aware of it more than other wastes because everyone generates it, its collection is highly visible, and people pay for its handling in a direct way. The United States generates over 400 billion pounds of municipal solid waste each year, amounting to more than 4 pounds per day per person, and accounting for 50 percent of the world’s total.

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55


Recycled

Incinerated Landfilled

18%

plastics account for around 18 percent of the volume of municipal solid waste.

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Plastics now make up a significant part of a typical MSW stream, and represent the fastest growing component. In the United States, plastics on average account for 10 percent of the total weight of municipal solid waste—more than metals (8 percent) and more than glass (6 percent). In Europe MSW is about 5 percent plastics by weight, and in Japan 17 percent.

Plastics account for around 18 percent of the volume of municipal solid waste. Excluding organic waste—paper, yard waste, food waste, and wood—plastics make up 30 percent of the remaining weight and as much as one-half the remaining volume.

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what happens

TO

plastics

1. Recycling

2. Incineration

3. Landfill

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Products made from recycled plastics are themselves less likely to be recycled, so that recycling represents a “spiraling down� to some other disposal method. Mass loss during processing also limits recycling. With a processing efficiency of 90 percent, it would take only three recycling to reduce the material to 73 percent of its initial amount. Over 90 percent of plastics waste is not recycled and moves on to later-stage disposal methods. The burning of plastic waste destroys material value and does not reduce dependence on virgin raw materials. Incinerators may be able to function cleanly with the best technology, and the energy generated has value if it is harnessed. But What can we do to incineration is not always acceptable to a majority of voting residents in eliminate plastic a community. Their concern comes from the waste from the toxicity of the potential pollutants, including hydrogen stream? chloride, heavy metals, and dioxins. Landfills are the last stop for the waste stream. Apart from whatever other problems plastics contribute to landfill management, they take up a lot of space, even when compacted. Landfills will fill up partly on account of plastics. As landfills become full, the problems of finding new sites, getting site approval, developing the site for landfall use, and establishing disposal fees have become very time consuming, controversial, and expensive. Since the disposal of plastic is both harmful and expensive, it is not only our duty to the environment, but a necessity for our own comfort that we do what we can to eliminate plastic from the waste stream.

59


As litter, plastics also present problems. Plastic litter is hazardous to a variety of living creatures; birds, fish, and other animals die from ingesting it or becoming entangled in it. It is also unsightly and disturbs our enjoyment of nature. Beach litter is between 40 and 60 percent plastic. Ocean beach litter is often not even of local origin, but floats in from the sea.

Beach litter is

Gathering litter so as to have it enter the waste stream of managed between 40 and 60 programs is always expensive, even percent plastic. for relatively accessible litter and for remote litter it can be prohibitively expensive. The cost of gathering litter makes it likely that there is always going to be a litter problem to some degree or other. So, if there’s always going to be litter, instead of adding to the problem, we should be thinking of ways to change the impact of those items that become litter.

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Will kids BE collecting beach-plastic the way they used to collect beachglass? ROOTING around the sand to find THE pieces of brightly colored plastics of sea tossed beach toys?

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so if we need to stop making it, but we can’t stop using it, and we can’t get rid of it. What do we do?


chapter FOUR

rethink

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The term source reduction refers to the reduction of the amount of materials entering the usage stream by redesigning patterns of production or consumption. Consumer restraint probably cannot be counted on for major source reduction as long as plastics are so inexpensive and versatile. Some proposals to replace plastic with other materials — metals, glass, or paper — become environmentally less attractive after they are given a closer look. Metals are not a renewable natural resource, and they are much more expensive than plastics. Metals are durable and can be reused and recycled, but in many applications the number of reuses and recycling would have to be unrealistically large for metals to be economically competitive with plastics.

proposals to replace Glass is made from sand, which

is abundant and cheap, and glass is reusable and recyclable. On the materials become less other hand, total energy requirement for processing sand into glass is attractive with a much higher than for the production of plastics. Once glass enters the closer look. usage stream, it presents its own problems. Glass, like plastic, eventually ends up occupying landfill space. If it ends up as litter, glass is as unsightly as plastic and may well be as hazardous.

plastic with other

Paper and cardboard contribute less to the waste-management burden, but they are made from wood, which tSo a simple shift away from plastics to other present materials cannot be counted on to eliminate the environmental impact of using plastic.

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a simple shift to other present materials cannot be counted on to eliminate the impact of using plastic.

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alternatives

TO

plastic

Metals

GLASS

Paper

plants

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Can plastics be made from feedstocks other than fossil feed stocks? Can plastics be made that pose less of a waste-management burden than current plastics? The thesis of this book is that environmentally friendly plastics —green plastics, if you will—is not a contradiction in terms. With respect to fossil resources, efforts have been under way for some time to conserve fossil fuels by increasing the use of alternative energy sources, including hydroelectric, Can we look to the solar, geothermal, and wind sources, and—in some parts of the world— renewable planetary nuclear energy. The large-scale biomass as a use of ethanol for energy is being potential feedstock evaluated, for example, because it can be produced from annually renewable for the production agricultural products such as corn syrup or cane sugar. Conversion of of plastics? renewable biomass to fuel presents the possibility of supplying an unending stream of fuel long after fossil fuels have been exhausted. Are there alternative, and perhaps new, materials for present plastics that do not drain our limited—and therefore valuable— supply of fossil resources? Can we look to the renewable planetary biomass as a potential feedstock for the production of plastics, just as we are now looking to it as an alternative to fossil fuels for energy production?

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Composting technologies are developing rapidly, and composting times have been steadily decreasing until times of only several months are now a realistic expectation. Composting could vastly reduce the use of incinerators and landfills, but current plastics, with rare exceptions, are not compostable. There are indications that the public would be receptive to degradable plastics. The seriousness with which waste management is now viewed by the public is reflected in the dramatic change in how municipal solid waste is disposed of in the United States. In 1970 most waste was simply sent to open dumps, 10 percent was disposed of in sanitary landfills, about 10 percent was incinerated, Few people believed and 7 percent was recovered for recycling. By 1990, when the such a change was municipal solid-waste stream had possible by the turn grown by 70 percent, open dumps were no longer legal and most of of the century. the municipal solid-waste stream was landfilled. By 1998 the profile had continued to change, partly on account of great public interest. The percentage of municipal solid waste being landfilled had fallen from 67 percent to 55 percent. The amount being incinerated had remained virtually unchanged, at around 17 percent. The amount being recycled, including yard trimmings composting, had increased from 16 percent to 28 percent. In the same period the number of curbside recycling programs had increased more than eightfold—to 9,300—and the number of yard trimmings programs had risen more than fivefold— to 3,800. Few people had believed such a change was possible by the turn of the century.

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Composting could vastly reduce the use of incinerators and landfills, but current plastics, with rare exceptions, are not compostable.

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chapter FIVE

reimagine

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The term industrial ecology as been defined as the science sustainability, following materials and energy from their source, through their conversion to products, to their final integration into natural biogeochemical cycles. Environmental concerns over resource use, product manufacture and use, and waste disposal are receiving increasing attention on all fronts—from governments, industry, and academia—and the increase in What is needed attention will no doubt continue.

most for bioplastics

What is needed most for bioplastics to find a place in the current Age the Age of Plastics is of Plastics is a paradigm shift. We have grown accustomed to having a paradigm shift. a wide variety of useful plastic materials that are attractive, long lasting, and inexpensive. On the other hand, we are coming to realize, in retrospect, that we may have had too much of a good thing, and have given too little thought about the effect their continually increasing use has on the future. They drain irreplaceable resources and, once manufactured, the sturdiness that has been imparted to them makes them persist long after they have served their useful purpose, causing them to be relegated to mausoleums of discarded waste. There is something downright silly about giving a child a toy that will be used for only a couple years maximum that will last in the environment for fifty or more.

to find a place in

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we have over-engineered our plastics for stability, with little consideration of their recyclability or ultimate fate, and have ended up transforming irreplaceable resources into mountains of waste.

75


In ignoring nature’s way of building strong materials, we have, for many applications, over-engineered our plastics for stability, with little consideration of their recyclability or ultimate fate, and have ended up transforming irreplaceable resources into mountains of waste.

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There is another way. Plants have been producing strong, pliant materials for eons. Plants produce these materials by using energy from the sun. When the plants die, the materials degrade naturally, so that they can be recycled. Atoms are continually being rearranged in this chemistry of nature, through cycles of renewal.


We can take nature’s building materials and use them for our purposes, without taking them out of nature’s cycles. We can be borrowers, not consumers, so that the process can continue indefinitely. Environment-related paradigm shifts have occurred before. Many solidwaste-disposal managers at first considered recycling to be needless interference. A very common viewpoint was that sorting by homeowners over any sufficiently practical period of time was simply infeasible. Incineration and landfills were considered the only realistic alternatives. In time, however, that view has changed. If there is no paradigm shift, bioplastics will only find their way borrowers, not into easy ‘“niche” markets. But then, we will still be left with the question consumers, so that of what to do with the tens of billions the process can of pounds of spent plastics generated continue indefinitely. annually. And when we run out of petroleum, we will not have mastered the technology of manufacturing plastics from nature’s polymers. We will have to look for a makeshift solution, possibly involving the direct synthesis of chemical feedstocks of the type now being used, and requiring large amounts of energy that only nuclear sources can provide. Is that the future we want? It could be the future we get.

We can be

There are many signs, however, that society is becoming more and more committed to the concepts of resource conservation and environmental preservation. We now see environmental questions not merely as technical matters to be left to the experts, but as questions bearing on who we are and what legacy we wish to leave.

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‘Biodegradable’ can be a confusing term when applied to plastics. While biodegradation is defined as the breaking down of organic material by microorganisms, the industry tends to take a wider view: If it breaks down safely, quickly, and completely, it is biodegradable. Despite efforts to standardize the industry, bioplastics are presently found in many forms with various degrees of degradability. Two common types of bioplastics are hydrobiodegradable and oxobiodegradable. Each has its pros and cons. Hydrobiodegradables are made from food or plant starch, yet often contain some percentage of synthetic (oil-based) polymers as well. These plastics are broken down into water, carbon dioxide, methane, and biomass primarily through the enzymatic action of microorganisms. But for many brands, this can only occur within industrial composting conditions with their higher humidity and heat. Starch-based plastics have become cheaper and more durable than their unpopular “bio” predecessors. However, many compostable plastics must be sent to industrial facilities, and will not biodegrade in landfills, backyard compost piles, or open environments. Simply put, they are not “user friendly” in terms of composting and still require some amount of fossil fuels. Oxobiodegradables, like traditional plastics, are often made exclusively from nonrenewable petroleum byproducts. But unlike traditional plastics, they degrade more quickly – after a preset period of time. Exposure to such things as sunlight, heat, and mechanical stress ultimately reduce oxobiodegradables to a mix of water, CO2, and biomass, making them break down faster. Many oxobiodegradables will decompose in industrial plants, backyard compost piles, or open environments. However, as they are made from petroleum byproducts, the manufacture of oxobiodegradables contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions and fossil fuel dependency. Plus, oxobiodegradables will degrade into small fragments of polymer, which then persist in the environment. Simply put, they use just as much fossil fuel and they break down, but never truly biodegrade because the polymers remain at a cellular level, and then find their way back into the environment and the food chain.

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THE

current “green� plastics Plant starch & petrol polymers

Broken down by microbes.

H2O, CO2 & biomass

Hydrobiodegradable

Plastic with little biobased material

Broken down by external stressors.

H2O, CO2 , biomass & polymer chains

oxobiodegradable

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THE

new bioplastic

Renewable corn & bamboo

starch for base & fibers for durability

H2O, CO2 & biomass

Broken down by macro or mico elements

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Product with all the pros of plastic


The current available “green plastics” prove not to be the best solutions in terms of productivity or biodegradability. However, there currently exists research that combines the versatility of traditional plastics with the strength, sustainability, and biodegradability of plant fibers into a new material called biocomposites. These biocomposites are a mixture of petroleum-based polymers with fibers taken from bamboo to replace the traditional fillers that give plastics their strength and shape. However the continued dependence on petroleum as a base product does not address many of the problems that traditional plastics present. The solution to this is to create a new material. One that takes the plant starch-based hydrobiodegradable plastics and combines it with the plant fiber-based biocomposites, therefore eliminating almost all of the petroleum polymers making a truly from the material, making a truly renewable, sustainable, renewable, sustainable, biodegradable “plastic.”

biodegradable “plastic.”

In fiber-reinforced composites, the fibers serve as reinforcement by giving strength and stiffness to the structure while the starch matrix serves as the adhesive to hold the fibers in place so that suitable structural components can be made. Ecofriendly biocomposites have the potential to be the new material of the 21st century and be a partial solution to many global environmental problems. Although most bioplastics cannot compete economically in their present state with petroleum-based plastic, costeffective biocomposite formulations and designs with natural fiber reinforcements can compete at the economic level. The emergence of new applications of biocomposites will spur large-scale demand for bioplastics, which will help the long-range attainment of sustainability.

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chapter SIX

redesign

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Using the new bioplastic material to build toys that end up in the environment just as often as in controlled waste management addresses the outcome of the consumer behavior behind plastic usage and “junk toys,� without requiring the consumer to change the behavior itself. This allows for a short-term solution to the impact

of source material, production, and disposal from traditional plastic, while the long-term paradigm shifts continue to take shape. In time, the bioplastic may even gain enough consumer trust to the point where it could expand beyond the toy industry into other applications that currently require plastic.

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This product is sustainable for the planet in four key ways: It uses little to no petroleum and so eliminates the environmental and economical stresses from sourcing. It is made from a more durable material and so will outlive traditional plastic “junk toys,� allowing for less strain on the need for virgin resources. The change in design from previous beach toys eliminates extraneous material use, and so cuts out significant time, energy, and raw material from the production process. It is made from natural, renewable resources and is fully biodegradable so it doesn’t create lasting waste or hazards in the environment. This product benefits the consumer in three key ways: Natural materials eliminate the release of dioxins and other harmful chemicals inherent in traditional plastics production. The longevity of the material greatly lessens the risk of broken pieces and the need to repeatedly replace the product. The biodegradability eliminates long-term waste and leeching of toxins back into the food chain.

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Petroleum-based that won’t degrade

Excess material in wide edges

Extra parts

Brightly colored toxic dyes

Cheap material that breaks easily

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Non-renewable, harmful source material

the story of plastic


Streamlined form

Biodegradable plant-based material

Minimal soy-based coloring

Natural, sustainable source material

Renewable, durable material

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conclusion

We have an obligation to care for this planet that we inhabit and everything that it encompasses. There is no action too great or gesture too small that we can do for the better when it comes to our environment. “Green” does not have to be complex, or pretentious, or grand. Just because we’re looking at the big picture, does not mean that the little things don’t count. Our daily choices, even something as small as buying a toy set for a summer afternoon at the beach, can and do have an impact on the world around us. If we can take the time to pay attention to what is being put out there, and how it affects us as well as the environment, we can make decisions that will set off a chain reaction of better choices and solutions.

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Shovel & Pail  

Designed by Lauren Hunziker for Print 2. Fall 2010. Academy of Art University.

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