How bad for the environment

Environmental hazards from plastic

Where does the plastic waste in the sea come from?

The plastic litter in the ocean, which is currently being widely reported, has several causes. In many countries around the world, waste is simply disposed of in the sea or in rivers. Various studies of garbage finds in the sea and in the water show that plastics make up the largest part of marine litter.

On the one hand, there is waste generated by ships illegally into the sea be disposed of or order lost loads of cargo ships. Another part consists of plastic products that over rivers get into the sea. For example, waste that was left on the bank or objects that were swept away during floods. Also through the wind plastic waste (especially thin Plastic bags) into the seas.

Car tire wear is also a very large source of microplastics. The Fraunhofer Umsicht Institute estimates that around 1 - 1.5 kg of microplastic are rubbed off during the entire usage phase until replacement. A lot comes together in Germany as a car country. A study by the TU Berlin estimates that it is around 120,000 tons per year.

Another source of the finest plastic particles, however, is that Sewage of our washing machines. Textiles made from synthetic materials give off tiny fibers during washing that end up in the wastewater. Sewage treatment plants do not hold these back completely and they end up in the sea or with the sewage sludge on the fields. Another source, unknown to most people, is tiny plastic particles that are purposely Cosmetic products be added. The abrasion of car tires also pollutes rivers and seas with small plastic particles.

Globally, around 80 percent of plastic waste ends up in the sea from land, the remaining fifth comes from ships and fishing. Large amounts of plastic waste are dumped into the sea in Asia - in tourist areas, vacationers contribute significantly to the littering of the environment with their western lifestyle.

The Effects on marine animals and birds are already visible. In the stomachs of many seabirds, there are tons of pieces of plastic that were mistaken for food. The animals starve to death with a full stomach. Plastic particles have also been discovered in the smallest of crabs. There is a risk via the food chain that the plastic particles will end up on our plate again as mussels or fish.

Marine animals can get caught in larger pieces of plastic - such as power supplies or plastic rings, but also bags. They are left injured or die in agony.

Due to the ocean currents, plastic waste accumulates in certain areas of the world's oceans. It not only forms plastic islands on the surface of the water, but also reaches deeper layers and the sea floor. The term plastic soup therefore describes the situation better than plastic island. The largest warehouse is that Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Big Pacific Garbage Speck) in the North Pacific.

Since plastic is very stable, more and more plastic accumulates in the oceans. Plastics break down into smaller and smaller parts, but there is no real breakdown, i.e. no decomposition of the plastic. This creates so-called microplastic particles, i.e. plastic particles that are smaller than 5 millimeters. The consequences of this for nature and people cannot yet be properly assessed. Above all, the international community of states is called upon to stop the littering of rivers and seas with plastic waste.

Why do cosmetics contain plastic particles and can they be recognized?

Plastics are used, for example, as abrasives in peelings or toothpastes. There is an environmentally friendly substitute for both. Chalk powder can be used for toothpaste, and ground nutshells or kernels of olives and apricots can be used for peeling. In other cosmetic products, plastics are used as very fine particles to influence the consistency or color of the products. The plastics are not really necessary for the desired use of the product! The manufacturers could do without them. Plastics are given under different names on the packaging. However, they are often very small and difficult to read.

Names for plastics

PETPolyethylene terephthalate
PESPolyester (Polyester-1; Polyester-11)
PAPolyamide (nylon-12; nylon-6; nylon-66)
PUREPolyurethane (polyurethane-2; polyurethane-14; polyurethane-35)
EVAEthylene vinyl acetate copolymers
PIPolyimide (polyimide-1)
NOTE Copolymers of acrylonitrile with ethyl acrylate / copolymers of other acrylates

The BUND has put together a list of cosmetic and personal care products that contain plastic particles.

How quickly does plastic degrade in the environment?

Plastics are chemically very stable. They do not decompose, or only very slowly, or are poorly broken down. Plastic products only break down into smaller and smaller particles. If plastic items end up as wild garbage in the environment or in bodies of water, decay can last for many decades; A plastic bottle can be assumed to take several centuries to break down. Only incineration ensures that the products decompose more quickly.

This is why the imprints on many plastic bags are misleading from the point of view of the consumer advice center, since the plastics, especially when they break down into smaller and smaller particles, still have unforeseeable environmental consequences.

Here are two examples:

Imprint: "100% recyclable" = If this bag is disposed of correctly, namely via the yellow or recyclable waste bin, the plastic can be melted down and transformed into new products.

However, if the bag is thrown into the environment, it decomposes into microplastic particles. If you throw it in the trash can, it will be incinerated; Even plastics that end up in the yellow bin are often incinerated because they are heavily soiled by other rubbish and the recycling of plastics is often more expensive than making new products from petroleum.

Expression: "groundwater neutral" = The bag does not emit any harmful chemicals when it is in the environment. But it also hardly degrades. This is not an argument that a bag is environmentally friendly.

Imprint: "degradable" = The control is only carried out visually, i.e. if nothing can be seen of the plastic, it is considered degraded. Nevertheless, it can still be present as small plastic particles that can no longer be seen with the naked eye.

What happens to plastic waste that is simply thrown in the bin for residual waste?

Plastic waste that is thrown into the residual waste is incinerated. In these systems, plastic burns almost completely to form carbon dioxide and water vapor. In some systems, the resulting heat is used to generate energy.

Plastic waste that is thrown into the yellow bin or recycling bin is first sorted and separated exactly according to the different types. Since some types of plastic, such as PET, are easier to recycle, they are preferably resold to recycling companies. There they are processed and used to manufacture new products.

Plastics for which there are no mature recycling techniques are processed into so-called "substitute fuels". This means that they are pressed into briquettes and then burned in cement works, for example, as a substitute for coal and gas. This is euphemistically referred to as "thermal recycling".

Overall, more than half of the plastic waste produced is incinerated. As this type of waste treatment is not beneficial to the environment, plastic waste should be avoided as much as possible.

How well can plastic be recycled?

How well plastic can be recycled depends very much on the type of plastic. How much is actually recycled also depends on the oil price. If it is low, it is often cheaper to burn old plastics and manufacture new ones from petroleum. In the case of plastic waste from packaging, it can be assumed that around 50% is recycled. This is not ideal, but it will get even better thanks to stricter laws.

Almost two thirds of plastic waste is packaging - and it is most often recycled back into plastic products because it is relatively easy to collect via the yellow bin and the one-way bottles via the deposit machines.

In the sorting plants into which the waste from the yellow bin / sack ends up, the waste is mechanically separated according to the type of plastic and then rinsed. Nonetheless, the single-origin plastics still contain various additives such as colors, plasticizers and UV protection. Because of these many additives, it is difficult to obtain a uniformly high-quality recycled plastic.

PET and PE (polyethylene) can be processed relatively easily and converted into new plastic products. In the case of other types such as PVC, however, recycling is so complex that it is worthwhile to manufacture new plastics from crude oil and burn the old ones as substitute fuel. So there is still a need for research.

Even if the recycling of packaging - especially the many single-use PET bottles collected by type - works better and better, avoiding plastic packaging should come first. It makes more ecological sense to refill returnable bottles 15 to 25 times and only then recycle the plastic.

If drinks are transported over longer distances, returnable PET bottles are often more ecologically advantageous than returnable glass bottles due to their low weight. Glass is only better ecologically if you buy locally bottled beer or mineral water that is then not transported very far (less than 50 kilometers).

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