We Created Plastic. We can't do without it. Now, We're Dying in it: A Study of how Degrading Plastic Emits Greenhouse Gases

in stemng •  2 months ago

We will be talking about the recent study of how degrading plastic produces greenhouse gases, as it was published in PLOS ONE titled "Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment."

Recently, The tranfer price of the world best footballer (Ronaldo) was activated by a football club based in Italy, and in no time he celebrated his debut with a goal as a player of Juventus few days ago. The success and accomplishments of Christiano Ronaldo popularly called CR7 has made him a celebrated celebrity among his fans and others globally.

Kindly permit me to use personification to convey my ideas by saying "plastic is a celebrity and we are all its fans". What I want you to know in essence is that; I don't think there should be someone, somewhere on earth who doesn't make use of plastic or plastic materials on a daily basis.

bottle-2349126_1280.jpg

Image Source: CCO Creative Commons

If you think that am wrong, then you probably do not know that those nylon bags you carry everyday is made from plastic, neither do you know that you might be carrying a gadget made from plastic in your hand right now, because the parts of some phones, laptops, or even cars are made from plastic.


Plastic have been a very important part of our society since their production at a larger quantity started in the 1950s. The additives and molecular structure of plastics makes it capable of doing a lot of things in a competent manner, and it have various uses and can perform a lot of functions to make life much easier for humans.

Irrespective of the positive applications of plastic, they do not react chemically and are non-biodegradable relatively. As a result of this, they have been a problem to a greater extent in the treatment and disposal of solid waste management in urban areas. The uncontrollable use and disposal of these non-biodegradable materials have been known to negatively affect our environment and the diversity of the life of plants and animals in our society.

Image Source:CCO Creative Commons
The rate of production of plastics and its products are increasing day by day, the rate at which they are used by man is also on the increase, but the method required for their treatments and disposal are quite limited, which is not good enough for our environment and even our lives consequently.


Most of the underdeveloped and developing countries do not have a proper and efficient engineered means of disposing the wastes gotten from these plastics. Due to this, some gases that are poisonous and dangerous to us and our environment are released by these plastic wastes. Most of these countries make use of unaccepted methods of disposal such as uncontrolled incineration, open dumping, composting in a nonscientific manner and landfilling in an unaccepted way.

The problems and dangers posed by this non-biodegradable plastics has made people develop interest in studying about the degradation of polymers which include and not limited to polystyrene and polyethylene.




Can we Discuss about the Recent Findings of Greenhouse Gases out of the Plos one article, Now?

Yeah, sure let's do that, but did I just say now? Yeah I did say that! Because, just as much as non-biodegradable plastics have been known for long to be a problem to humans, the composing or degrading of plastics have just been proved of recent by a team of scientists to be harmful and dangerous.

iPhone 5c, a smartphone with a polycarbonate unibody shell. Image Source: Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic
In 2017, findings showed that not less than 6.9 billion tons of plastic turn to waste out of the staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastic that have been produced since inception, of which 6.9 billion tons out of the waste cannot be recycled or reused. Researchers also showed that Only about 14 million tons are recycled or reused out of the 140 million tons of artificial polymers that are produced every year.


When plastic are degraded, they release some poisonous gases. It has been known since a longtime ago that these gases emitted are harmful to our environment, as they are dangerous to marine life and can contaminate the supply of foods and water.

Additionally, degrading plastic have recently been unexpectedly proved to release greenhouse gases in a study published not quite long ago in PLUS ONE. The commonly found plastics that was tested in this case were found to produce methane and ethylene when they were exposed to sunlight. This test was conducted in Hawali by a team of researchers. The plastics tested by the team of researchers are stated below:

Repeating chemical structure unit of Polycarbonate made from bisphenol A. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domains

Polycarbonates
Polycarbonates are a group of polymers softening when heated and hardening when cooled, in which their structure is made of groups of carbonates. The wide usage or applications of polycarbonates is due to their durability, toughness, low-scratch resistance, high transparency to visible lights, and their ability to become brittle and withstand large plastic deformation without breaking or cracking.

Due to the safety characteristics of polycarbonates, they are suitable for use in making products connected with telecommunications and electrical hardwares. They are also used in the production of construction materials (such as corrugated sheets, domelights etc.).

A bottle made from polycarbonate. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, released into public domains
Polycarbonate have a wide range of usage in the production of compact discs, Blu-ray discs and DVDs. Some components of aircraft, security, railway and automotive are produced with polycarbonates. Many grades of polycabonates are also used in phones and medical applications. They are also used for making containers which are popularly used for the storage of foods.


However, Before the test in Hawaii was conducted, thermal degradation of polycarbonates wastes have been known to lead to the formation of pollutants in the liquid, solid, and even the gaseous state. Polycarbonates wastes can be found in many dumping ground in our environment, and their readiness to evaporate is very low. As a result, they remain in the air of that environment.

Skeletal formula of the polymethyl methacrylate repeating unit (Perspex, (C5O2H8)n). Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, released into public domains

Acrylic
Acrylic also known as poly(methyl methacrylate) is a transparent plastics that softens when heated and hardens when cooled. Its light weight and shatter-resistance properties makes it suitable as a replacement for glass in the production of sheet forms. In 1843, the first acrylic acid was brought into existence.

Acrylic materials are tough, strong and lighter in weight. The density, and the strength of impact of acrylic material is less than and greater than that of glass respectively. It Is the mostly used material for outdoor applications due to its condition of being stable in various environments. They are used as rear-lights for vehicles. Glass lenses, office chairs, deal toys, lighthouse lenses and roofs can be made with acrylic material.

Polypropylene isotactic ball-and-stick model done by chem3D program with 3 countable monomers. Image Source: Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 4.0, International license

Polypropylene
This is a thermoplastic polymer which is gotten from the addition of propylene monomers, and propylene was first polymerized in 1951. It is often used in labelling and packaging. As a result, after polyethylene, it is the second commodity plastic with the highest number of production globally.

Polypropylene is flexible, tough, and it is the least dense of all forms of commodity plastics. It is highly resistance to fatigue and its thermal expansion is quite large. When polypropylene are exposed to a temperature greater than the boiling point of water (I.e 100°C), they are bound to undergo chain degradation.

Most systems of piping and plastic living hinges are produced from polypropylene material. Due to their ability to withstand heat, they are suitable for the production of laboratory and medical items, kettles, food containers, clear bags, packaging materials. When colors are applied to propylene material, they can be used for the production of carpets, rugs and mats. They are also used for ropes and clothing purposes.

Ball-and-stick model of a section of the polyethylene terephthalate polymer, also known as PET and PETE, a polyester used in most plastic bottles. Image Source: Creative Commons, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Polyethylene terephthalate
This is often abbreviated as PET. PET is the most common and widely used thermoplastic polymer resin and they are from the polyester family. Most of the plastic bottles used for soft drinks are products of PET. PET materials are also used for thermal insulation and nonrigid packaging for foods due to its permeability, opague and reflective ability.

PET in its natural state is very light in weight, colourless, rigid or semi-rigid, strong and resistant to impact. It has the ability to absorb water from the surrounding. The degradation of PET leads to discoloration, production of acetaldehyde, formation of gel and reduction in molecular weight.

Polystyrene ball-stick model with 11 countable monomers. Done with Chem3D software. Image Source: Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Polystyrene
Polystyrene is a synthetic aliphatic polymer consisting of only hydrogen and carbon atoms, which can either be foamed or hard. in 1839, Polystyrene was brought into limelight by Eduard Simon. They are transparent in colour, hard and are liable to break or snap easily under stress or pressure. The biodegradation of polystyrene is a very slow process.

The waste of polystyrene are widely discarded in the environment, especially along waterways, a land adjoining a non-flowing body of water and also in the Pacific Ocean. Carbon dioxide and water vapor is produced when polystyrene is consumed with fire. Polystyrene are used for the production of smoke detector housings, test tubes, disposable plastic cutlery and microplates. Polystyrene are known for their high flammability.

High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
This is a form of polyethylene plastic which soften when heated and harden when cooled, and it is gotten from petroleum.The identification code of its resin is 2. HDPE can be reused. It can be used for the production of pipes, plastic bottles, geomembranes and plastic lumber. The ratio of strength to density of high-density polyethylene is of relatively great size.

When HDPE is compared to Low density polyethylene, HDPE is harder and has a higher strength than LDPE. It can withstand a higher temperature ( of about 120°C), when compared to LDPE. It is also applied in the production of bottle caps, banners, folding chairs and tables, electrical and plumbing boxes, plastic bags, boats and so on.

LDPE branching structure. Image Source: public domains

Low-density Polyethylene
LDPE is a thermoplastic which is created from a relatively small molecule of ethylene which can be covalently bonded to other monomers. It was produced in 1933 as the first grade of polyethylene. The identification code of its resin is 4. LDPE can only react at a temperature of 25°C when it is aided by an oxidizing agent. It is tough and capable of being flexed or bent without breaking. It has a lower density when compared to HDPE.

LDPE is used in the production of wash bottles, plastic bags for the parts of computers, general purpose containers and dispensing bottles. It is also used in making plastic wraps, snap-on lids, trays and packaging for hardwares of computers such as screen cards, hard disk drives etc.


We can see as stated above that, all of the plastics that was found to release greenhouse gases are those plastics we use on a daily basis. Polyethylene is the most widely used type of synthetic polymer. Due to its high demand, it's automatically the most produced and consequently, the most discarded plastic over the entire planet. Coincidentally, Polyethylene was found to be the plastic that emits the highest amount of the greenhouse gases methane and ethylene.


Moreover, The team discovered that the virgin pellets of Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) emits methane and ethylene at a higher rate when the experiment was conducted for 212 days. They also revealed that greenhouse gases are produced when scattered remains of destroyed LDPE that are found in water that belongs to an ocean are subjected to sunlight.

High density polyethylene pipe installation in storm drain project in Mexico. Image Source: Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
The lead author, in the person of Sarah-Jeanne Royer mentioned in her statement that "The increase in the rate at which the virgin pellets emits or produces greenhouse gases with time is due to photo-decomposition of the plastic and also the formation of a layer of turbulent fluid which is influenced or changed in a situation whereby the fluid and the surface of a solid act upon each other; with noticeable fractures, microscopic cracks and pits."


Small particles of plastics ( which is usually less than about 5mm), which are found in our environment especially in the Marine environment have been revealed to be able to quicken the production of gas.

There's a change in climate when greenhouse gases are produced, and the major effects which in turn bring about a rise in the level of drought, erosion and flooding, includes but not limited to the followings:

  • It affects the nominal height of the ocean's up-side which serve as a reference for the measurement of features pertaining to geography and levels of aircraft flight.

  • It has an influence on the distured state of the atmosphere.

  • It affects the temperatures of all parts of the world.

  • The state of well-being of the ecological community and its environment on land and in the oceans are also affected.



    Conclusion

In conclusion, Royer said in his statement that; there's need for us to put a stop to the production of plastics at the source, most particularly the production of single use plastic when we take into consideration the large number of plastics that are brought onto the shore by a moving disturbance in the boundary, shape and outline of our coast.

Royer is looking forward to keeping the production of greenhouse gases within close bounds in the light of his current research on the estimation of the amount of plastic that are present in the environment in regions that are composed of land and relating to oceans.


Thank You All




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Production of a large number of the single-use plastics should be stopped...but I seriously doubt that we will stop producing plastics all-together. I'm not really surprised that they produce these gases, but it is interesting. This is part of the natural breakdown process. Similar happens with carbon waste.

What I must adamantly disagree with you on is that recycling technologies are complex. You can sort plastics by hand with the recycling label, or by weight and density after shredding. Shredding plastics can be done with common equipment, like a wood chipper. You can just put the pieces in water to sort them by density. They can then be melted down and reformed easily.

We can also very easily turn them back into oil, with something as simple as a gasifier, which is basically just a wood burning stove with a cooler on the exhaust, that then collects the oil that falls out from the fumes. That oil can then be easily refined by cooking it at high temperatures, in a process very similar to distillation.

These things are not complex. People actually do them in their backyard when they have a need to. We just need to educate people on how they're done, and put people to work cleaning up the plastic that we have littered everywhere.

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I think that's good. We should just try to do more by making people understand the dangers and the simple ways to get rid of this plastics or recycle them.

Thanks for your comments... Have a nice day

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What I must adamantly disagree with you on is that recycling technologies are complex. You can sort plastics by hand with the recycling label, or by weight and density after shredding. Shredding plastics can be done with common equipment, like a wood chipper. You can just put the pieces in water to sort them by density. They can then be melted down and reformed easily.

Technically, the biggest issues that come sup at scale, like at a MRF, is contamination and commingling. There are also market volatility issues, largely driven by acceptable reuse - it's difficult to make a a foodsafe container when there's no way to tell if the milk jug on the line was discarded after use or was reused when someone changed their oil.

We can also very easily turn them back into oil, with something as simple as a gasifier, which is basically just a wood burning stove with a cooler on the exhaust, that then collects the oil that falls out from the fumes

Easy in the backyard, very complex at a industrial scales that require profitability, stability, and air pollution control. Analogous to 'you can make energy by burning refuse to power a steam driven generator."

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You're right that you absolutely can run into problems when dealing with industrial level. One of the major ones when dealing with trash is contamination. But these are not insurmountable problems. The primary difficulty is education.

We also need to get more recycling plants built more places, even if we start using less plastic, because we still have so much out there.

Easy in the backyard, very complex at a industrial scales that require profitability, stability, and air pollution control.

If you build a gasifier correctly, you shouldn't have any problems with pollution, as it should be collected. Of course, if you don't build it correctly you can get carbon monoxide poisoning.

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a gasifier correctly, you shouldn't have any problems with pollution, as it should be collecte

Well, yes, of course. But such a small statement contains a huge amount of capital expenditure and engineering expertise.

Very nice work. Its always good to see summaries of modern scientific papers on Steemit and you've done a nice job of explaining the importance of the work and the findings of the researchers. My one suggestion would be to include figures from the paper itself. Its open access so I don't think including a figure like the one below:

demonstrating gases released by the pellets over time would be a problem. Either way great work overall and thanks for contributing to SteemSTEM.

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Thanks very much.. I would look into that for a next time

Well written article

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Thanks for stopping by

Useful topic. I would spend time to present similar material to students in my lab. It's very important to understand that all plastics aren't alike! Also, I talked about solvent effects on plastic labware.

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Ask me some day about how one of my labbmates found out that methanol attacks acrylic.

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I always used this rule (weak > strong vs most common plastics):
H2O < 70% isopropanol < methanol < ethanol < acetonitrile < ether, THF < acetone < benzene, toluene, hydrocarbons << dimethylformamide (DMF), N-methylpyrolidone (NMP). I broke a gallon jug of NMP and it turned the special lab floor tiles to semisolid putty!

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I'm going to have to mention this. One of our lab mates did not understand the difference between denatured and non-denatured. Some of the denaturants in that batch were benzene, toluene, and naptha. There's now some plasticware we no longer need to disinfect...

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Thanks for the comment..You should have a nice day

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Nicely written. From your title, you say we can't do without them. I think that's the problem. Our everyday life is just so dependent on plastics. I think the solution is to stop the production of this plastics while getting another alternative.
Samminator once made a post about the production of edible plastics as a solution instead of producing the non biodegradable plastics. Have a great day..

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Yeah you are right, I also read through the post by samminator.

Thanks for the comment

Well written article. I believe the solution to the menace of plastic to our environment is to stop its production and focus mainly on recycling the old ones. If demands cant be met with recycling, focus should diversify into production of more environmentally friendly alternatives.

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I do agree with you. The Engineered means of plastic waste disposal should do the magic but the issue is most of the developing and underdeveloped countries find it very difficult to practice this because it is out of their reach. We just need to get things right and make sure things are taken care of properly.

Thanks for the comment, Good to have you stop by

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"Polyethylene is the most widely used type of synthetic polymer. Due to its high demand, it's automatically the most produced and consequently, the most discarded plastic over the entire planet. Coincidentally, Polyethylene was found to be the plastic that emits the highest amount of the greenhouse gases methane and ethylene. " ...I read this and thought, "because of course it is!" Humans live by Murphy's Law way too often.
I think as far as plastics go, we need to make a shift to keeping them around for really necessary applications (medical stuff, for example), and work to phase them out for unnecessary applications (lots of single-use plastics for things like to go cups and plastic cutlery). I know "peak oil" has been bandied about for decades and was pushed back with fracking, but it will still happen eventually. The pollution combined with the fact that one day we might not have cheap and easy base material to make those really necessary medical devices, I think is a big case for treating it like the precious resource it is. We should also be working to recover and recycle as much as possible. I know recycling plastic means downcycling, but we should really use what's already here up as much as we can. It's rather how I feel about animal products: if you're going to kill an animal, you should use all the parts (say, the meat for food, the bones for gelatin, the hide for leather, whatever) instead of this wasteful industrial ag system so often in force where you just know the factory farmed cows (not to speak of the cruel and inhumane conditions inherent in that), which are slaughtered at absurd speeds (which is also unsafe for the workers), they aren't saving those hides for leather too, they're frikkin' mutilating them for speed in processing. NTM instead of getting useful fertilizer from all those animals, they are creating toxic waste pools because it's too much concentrated in one place. It's slower to use up all the useful things, but so much better for the environment.

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That's a very good contribution, thanks for stopping by

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So much truth in this post bro. I wrote once on the negative impacts of plastic wastes on aquatic organisms (that was my first ever steemstem post, in May). One of the conclusions arrived at was that plastics should be made to be very expensive, from production to consumption. That way, people would be forced to take up the habits Reuse and Recycling.

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I think that idea makes a lot of sense.

Thanks for stopping by