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#SummerScienceFriday | Energy-Water Nexus Series: Plastic

“We are being choked to death by the amount of plastic that we throw away. It's killing our oceans. It's entering into our bodies in the fish we eat.”

- Kevin Bacon

Plastic, plastic, everywhere!

We all have heard how bad plastic is. In fact, it is proposed that the plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish in the ocean as soon as 2050. As #PlasticFreeJuly comes to an end, CWH is going deeper into the world of plastics to explore how plastics are wrapped into the water-energy nexus.

What is the water-energy nexus?

Energy production and water use are interdependent. Water is needed to produce energy (think thermal electric power plants, hydropower, and oil and gas extraction), while energy makes it possible for us to use water (think of the energy to transport water to be used in the public water supply, water infrastructure, irrigation, agriculture and food production). Energy production from burning fossil fuels has loaded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and significant driver of climate change. Climate change will increase the occurrence and severity of droughts and alter precipitation patterns, imposing severe threats to water supply around the globe and in the Los Angeles region. So what does this have to do with plastic? Well, the production and disposal of plastic is highly dependent on both energy and water, too.

Oil and natural gas are the major raw materials used to manufacture plastics. Components of crude oil or natural gas are converted into hydrocarbon monomers, which are further processed to make what we know as plastic (3). It takes at least double the water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle (4). Furthermore, plastic ends up in our water supplies in its original form or broken down into microplastics – tiny plastic particles that have a way of evading detection and end up everywhere. Rivers, like the Los Angeles River, can carry up to 4 million metric tons of plastic out to the ocean every year (5). Plastic pollution in water bodies negatively impacts fish, wildlife, and human health. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this video about the life cycle of a plastic water bottle.

What can we do?

Re-using and recycling plastic can be one way to reduce the water and energy consumption of plastic packaging. In 2012, the US threw out over 24 million tons of paper and almost 29 million tons of plastic – both of which are water-intensive materials that can be re-used and/or recycled (4). However, currently we are in a plastic recycling crisis; there is not enough demand for recycled plastic to abate plastic consumption and disposal. We need innovative, low-energy and water use methods to revive plastic recycling. Some companies are finding new ways of recycling plastic products into recycled plastic to make new products that require far less energy and water inputs than traditional plastic recycling methods. A recycling company called TerraCycle is running a project called Loop which sends consumers products in reusable containers. Once the consumer uses the container, they ship the containers back with Loop where the containers are cleaned and refilled for consumer use (6). Organizations like the eco-design firm Quantis are working with plastic producers to identify plastic and microplastic pollution in the production and disposal process of plastic products and define effective actions to abate plastic leakage into the environment.

Innovative plastic alternatives which are not derived from fossil fuels and are less water intensive show promise. Materials like shrimp shells and cassava, a cheap common root vegetable from Indonesia, are being used to produce biodegradable plastic bags. A chemist from UC San Diego, Stephen Mayfield, is turning algae into “plastic” flip flops (6).

Ultimately, buying fewer plastic products in the first place reduces the overall number of products that are made, and, in turn, reduces the amount of water needed to make these products. Calculate your water footprint through direct water use and “virtual water use” using the Water Footprint Calculator.

Check out our previous #SummerScienceFriday for tips to reduce your trash footprint. You can also head over to Plastic Free July’s website for tips about how to reduce your own plastic waste footprint.

Works Cited

Thank you to our #SummerScienceFriday partner!

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