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To What Extent Does Plastic Disposal Adversely Affect the Environment

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This essay has been written to showcase the effects of human behaviour on the environment. In particular, this essay will focus on the effect of plastic on the natural environment, as well as how plastic has made its way into our daily lives, and certain consequences that will result from overuse of plastic. Plastic is a material derived from oil, which is carbon-rich. The abundance of oil on earth has led to the production of a variety of plastic products, most of which have profound effects on humanity, as well as the environment. The main causes of plastic pollution are illegal dumping into the ocean, lack of landfill space as well as neglected fishing equipment. Through the usage of two sciences, those being Geography and Chemistry, this essay will explore the main usages of plastic in Hong Kong, the United States of America, and China. Primary data has been collected through the use of an interview, in particular, interviewing an authority on the environment in Hong Kong. Secondary data has been collected through books, newspaper articles, scientific reports, blogs and journals.

Plastic is a type of material that is made from or derived from petroleum. Due to its heat-resistant properties and ability to be deformed and to stretch back into shape, it is used and found almost everywhere in the world. Through the usage and development of rubbers, plastic was engineered to the form it is now. The invention of plastic came from the first usage of chewing gum, which was made from a natural rubber. This was from the rubber tree, found in the Amazon. Later on, natural materials such as collagen were boiled in a process to create glue. The collagen was obtained from livestock, such as cows. After World War I, chemical technology developments were at a new high. This led to several deliberate and accidental creations of several new plastic materials, such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Polystyrene and Polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The invention of PET has replaced the need for glass bottles, in return providing users with a durable and handy container for liquids. The reason why plastic is such an important topic in the recent two decades is because of its widespread distribution in the world. The fact that plastic is even found in the most remote area of the world just shows how much people throw away and use plastic bottles every day. In areas like Antarctica and the Mariana Trench, even microplastics and microfibers are found in Arctic waters. In a survey conducted by Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign, seven of the nine ice and snow samples had traces of hazardous chemicals called Polyfluorinated Alkylated Substances also known as PFAS.

In Hong Kong, there is a constant presence of plastic on our streets and beaches. Plastic debris, bottles and discarded miscellaneous objects litter our coastlines, to the extent that families with their children as well as sailors coming to Hong Kong for a race could see the plastics in the water from a long way away. The people of Hong Kong must bring around change or our livelihoods, attractions and appeals as a city will be lost. For example, the turtle nesting area in Sham Wan is heavily covered by plastic. Also, the Chinese white dolphins have been experiencing a sharp decline in population. These are all due to the pollution of Hong Kong waters. Hong Kongers throw away 1.36kg of domestic waste every day per capita. This is a staggering amount compared to other Asian countries, such as Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei, 0.77kg, 0.95kg and 1kg respectively. After an investigation done by Green Earth, they estimated that Hong Kong, in total, disposed of 5.2 million plastic bottles each day (2017).

Even worse, the recycling rate of Hong Kong people has decreased from 32% to 11%, from 2012 to 2015. To ensure primary data will be valid, the samples will be from five different areas in Hong Kong, following the scientific guidelines of using a minimum of five samples. The amount of samples collected from each area will be roughly the same to ensure fairness. This essay will look at the different types of plastic in each area, as well as the sizes. A survey will be conducted in five bodies of water. A second primary data source will be an interview, one of from the Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering, from the University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong.

Main Uses of Plastic in the world

The sheer variety of plastic products and products that have plastic integrated into them is staggering. Bottles, machinery, phones, clothing, you name it. The most common types of plastic we see in our daily lives are plastic bottles. Used for drinks, storage or transportation, this type of plastic is separated into seven different categories. The categorisation system used for plastic bottles is the Resin Identification Code (RIC). The most common bottle, used for drinks is made of Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET. This material is malleable, and can be bent back into shape. However, repeated usage of this type of bottle is not recommended as repetitive use or exposure to heat can cause carcinogens to leach into the liquid inside. These plastic bottles are always recyclable. The next type of plastic container is made of high-density polyethylene, otherwise known as HDPE.

Compared to PET, this type of plastic is more resistant to heat and is used to store large amounts of liquid; such as milk and detergent. However, some recycling facilities may not accept them. Polyvinyl Chloride, also known as PVC, is used to make hardy objects, such as children’s play toys as well as pipes. PVC is made from Vinyl Chloride, which is a known carcinogen. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is ranked fourth with the Resin Identification Code, and the uses of this plastic can be visible in the ocean, especially around turtles. In one specific case, a container made for holding a six-pack of soft drink was caught around a turtle’s waist, limiting its growth, and slowed its development. Also, some of its organs were not fully developed. LDPE is used to make six-pack containers and most importantly, plastic bags.

There are a large variety of uses for plastic bags: long-term storage, convenient hand-carry bags for shopping, heat-resistant bags for temporary storage of cold items, collecting rubbish and much more. Some more useful or niche uses for plastic bags include rations for soldiers, a method of holding IV liquid, and biohazard bags. Most, if not every person in the world should be aware of the devastating effects that plastic bags have on our environment. An example of this would be turtles ingesting plastic bags. This is because a turtle’s natural diet includes jellyfish, and thus the buoyancy of the plastic bag imitates a jellyfish, and instead of the turtle receiving the necessary nutrients, it instead feels full even though it has not eaten anything nutritious. Polypropylene, also known as PP, is a type of polymer that can change state after it has reached a certain temperature. This type of polymer is called a thermosoftening polymer, which will be explored in greater detail in the next section. Polypropylene is non-polar, heat resistant, and is chemically similar to polyethylene. Polypropylene is used to make harder, sturdier objects such as chairs, rope and industrial piping. It has an extremely large variety of uses. It is labelled number five by the Resin Identification Code. The way we see plastic in the world is with one use. Most of our drink bottles, plastic bags, do not get reused after they are finished are brought home. They are disposed of without another thought, leading up to the waste dilemma that we have now.

Chemical Composition

The strength and durability of plastics depend on their chemical structure, as well as the bonds involved. Also, the different types of branching will be discussed. First of all, there are two main types of branching in terms of polymers. This particular discussion will be about High-density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Low-density Polyethylene (HDPE). Low-density polyethylene contains several branches, which causes the general structure to be non-linear. This causes the melting point of LDPE to decrease, due to the weaker London Forces holding the atoms together. The chemical structure of LDPE is displayed below: High-density Polyethylene (HDPE) is ranked number two by the Resin Identification Code, and is used in a large variety of construction materials, such as reusable plastic bottles, water pipes for domestic water use.

Biodegradable Polymers

Non-biodegradable polymers are not the only type of plastic. A biodegradable polymer is a distinct type of polymer that decomposes to produce natural substances, such as carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen. These polymers usually are from the amine, ester and amide groups. The differences between normal, slow-degrading polymers and biodegradable polymers is that they are not toxic, they can withstand extensive reuse of the material, as well as being able to control when the polymer will break down. To a certain extent, all types of plastic are biodegradable, but as these plastics shrink in size, there is a high chance that they will enter our food chains and causes disruptions to those who consume them.

Primary effects

The most basic, most visible effects of plastic pollution is in the sea. When travelling on a ferry out to the outlying islands of Hong Kong, plastic pieces are already visible after leaving the harbour. Compared to the streets, plastic bottles and Styrofoam containers litter the streets periodically. The lack of recycling bins in Hong Kong and incentives have led to an even further drop from the Government’s proposed recycling rate in 2015. In the Pacific Ocean, a swirling mass of rubbish only increases in size as time passes. This is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This mass of rubbish is estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometres, and consists of roughly 1.1 to 3.6 trillion pieces of plastic. This survey was done by a non-profit organisation called The Ocean Cleanup, which launched their expedition in 2013 to 2016. They realised that the earlier form of measuring microplastics in the sea was inefficient, so they created a new way to sample. This was called a Multi-Level-Trawl, used to measure level of microplastics at different water levels. This allowed them to measure up to 11 water levels and going down to 5 meters at maximum.

Main forms of disposal of plastic

In Hong Kong, there are four main types of treatment of waste, naturally including plastic. The most common and widely used technique is dumping. With three main landfills for Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and Construction and Demolition Waste (C&D), plastic makes up a total of 21%. (HKEPD, 2016). In 2014, the recycling rate of MSW was calculated through the Domestic Waste generation and the disposal of MSW to landfills: If the MSW generated per capita in 2014 was 2.13 kilograms, And the amount of MSW disposed into landfills was 1.36 kilograms per capita, We can calculate the recycling rate of MSW in 2014. (2.13 – 1.36)/2.13 = 37%99% of our waste is exported to Mainland China for processing. Only 1% is treated locally. The government realised this and set up multiple recycling areas through funding. In 2014, there were 15,000 tons of rubbish dumped at landfills every day. Through the government’s calculations, we will reach the limits of the three main landfills in 2020, if our current recycling rate does not increase and our dumping habits keep increasing. Hong Kong’s recycling rate compared to other Asian cities is dropping, even though there are measures placed by the government to reduce plastic use, such as the Plastic Bag Levy. This levy caused all establishments and stores to charge customers 50 cents for a plastic bag, hoping to decrease people’s needs of plastic bags. From 2011 to 2014, Hong Kong’s recycling rate has dropped even though a government scheme was currently ongoing, from 48% in 2011 to 37% in 2014.

In comparison with other Asian cities, South Korea has a recycling rate of 61%, Taiwan 52% and Singapore with 48%.The frameworks provided by the government showed a goal to reduce MSW disposal into landfills. Originally, they set the goal for 2011 to be 1.27 kg, to 1 kg or lower in 2017, and 0.8 kg in 2022. Contrary to these ideals, the actual disposal in 2018 is 1.41 kg. As bleak as these results show, there are three main components of treating waste in Hong Kong. MSW is sorted into Organic Fractions, Recyclable Materials, and Unsorted Residual Waste. Through sorting, plastic is separated by type and recycled and recovered accordingly. The Organic Fractions undergo biological treatment and are turned into biogas. The unsorted residual waste is thermally treated then it is sent to the landfill where it is turned into energy.

Effect of plastics in Hong Kong

In the streets of Hong Kong, plastic overflows from bins and onto the pavements. Not only does it cause a displeasing look for tourists, residents also have less space to walk on the already limited size of the pavements.In 2016, the Hong Kong government enacted a new law against placing rubbish on the side of rubbish bins, in orIn 2016, the Hong Kong government placed 800 new rubbish bins around the city in an attempt to deter people from dumping rubbish.

Primary data

I have collected samples of plastic rubbish from beaches in Hong Kong. The data presented below will show the type of plastic, the duration taken to biodegrade, as well as the percentage of plastic. This piece of acrylic was found at Deep Water Bay, located on the southern side of Hong Kong Island. Acrylic is not recycled easily, due to its high melting point of 160°C, as well as its uses. The properties of acrylic include resistance to being scratched, does not produce any odor, and is flexible. It is difficult to recycle acrylic compared to other plastics as they can be broken down easily. Due to the high cost and environmental impacts of recollecting the acrylic from shattered pieces, it is more often collected to be reused in the form of train windows or covering certain surfaces. This type of plastic should have washed up onto the shore, since the normal types of plastic found on beaches are bags, bottles and caps. Parts of fishing nets tend to cling towards the shark nets. Hence, the picture below references a part of a fishing net found on the same beach. The main constituent of fishing nets is nylon. The fragment here has probably broken down over a few years, and washed up on the beach. This fragment was found buried under the sand. Fishing equipment including fishing traps, crates and baskets make up 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Ghost nets, which cause the most harm towards sea life, are a main contributor to the deaths of “hundreds of sharks and fish” . As these nets consist of nylon and other tough materials, they require thirty to forty years to fully break down. This piece of plastic appears to be a part of a plastic bottle, also picked up from Deep Water Bay. Surprisingly, plastic bottles require 450 years to fully biodegrade. This provides many opportunities for plastic to present itself in the stomachs of animals, such as fish or birds.

In 2010, a corporation called SuperTextile recycled PET bottles for the purpose of integrating the materials into jerseys for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The material used in these jerseys were polyester. These new jerseys are lighter than the usual fabric, and absorbs sweat better. The process used to integrate these materials takes less energy and have a lower cost than the normal process. This is because in order to reduce the ink and dye used to color the jerseys, colored PET bottles are used to save cost. This is just one of these examples that is used to turn plastic bottles into something different, instead of recovering the materials.

I have interviewed a professor with the intent of finding out how plastic has affected their daily lives and livelihoods. The questions are open-ended questions amounting to a total of 10 questions. The response from a Professor from the University of Science and Technology of Hong Kong, stated the ways in which we could reduce our plastic pollution on the environment include “Using paper straws, bringing your own cutlery, and using your own water bottle.” When asked if the government recognised plastic pollution as a problem in Hong Kong and if the government were doing anything to help reduce the waste, the answer was “The government recognises it as a problem, however they are not doing anything to stop the problem.” Another question was: ‘How has the plastic pellet spill affected coastal communities?’. The response to this was: “The plastic pellets spilled a few years ago have ended up into the food chain, after the small particles were ingested by small fish, then big fish, then finally ended up into our bodies. Since these fish could not be sold, it has affected fishing families because they could not earn as much money as they used to.” Adding on to this, the state of some beaches in Hong Kong have so much pollution and plastic in them that local.

In the process of writing this essay, I encountered many difficulties which could not be solved easily. Through the process of diligence and perseverance, I solved those difficulties and ventured far into the vast world of plastics. One of these problems were finding the right types of plastic to talk about, as if I were to discuss all of them in detail, I would have exceeded the word count by thousands. The way I solved this problem was to instead stick to the core part of the subject instead of going off topic into subtopics I haven’t learnt yet. Also, regarding the collection of plastic on Hong Kong beaches, I originally decided that I would go to five different beaches and collect multiple samples of plastic. However, this was very time consuming and would not necessarily produce results, for example, the beach I went to to collect the acrylic and nylon strings was very clean, compared to Cheung Sha Beach, where there was a sudden increase in plastic. My final decision was to only collect plastic from one beach, and appropriately dispose of it. The opportunity I had to interview the professor from HKUST was by chance, as I had signed up for a summer course that involved several lectures discussing waste and pollution. I took this opportunity to ask the professor for an interview, in which she gladly obliged. I was surprised at the lack of detail provided, as I believed that the government would be very concerned regarding the amount of plastic pollution.

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