Monday, November 23, 2015

The problem with entropy, or: why California's ban on plastic microbeads isn't enough

We all like to see headlines now and then that show our progress in conservation and stewardship for our planet.

It also appears, that lately, Californians really like to ban things.  In the newest movement of such, environmentalists have lobbied to ban plastic microbeads found in cosmetic and other products.  Microbeads are defined as beads that are less than 1mm in diameter, and are often used as agents for polishing or exfoliating (think about your toothpaste or micro-derm skin cream).  They are problematic because of their small size.  Too small to be filtered out of the water system, they are often passed out untouched into rivers, streams and the ocean with waste water.

The numbers presented estimate that 471 million of these beads are washed into San Francisco watersheds and the bay each year, and Californians as a whole dispose of approximate 38 ton of these little beads every year.  Certainly a daunting number.  However, this author would like to argue that the banning of these microbeads may do nothing for preventing our volume of microplastic pollution in the ocean.  In order to understand why I say this, we're going to have to step back into our high school science class, and talk about the laws of thermodynamics.

You remember the three laws of thermodynamics right? I bet you do, even if you don't think so!

The first law of thermodynamics: Energy can neither be created or destroyed.

The second law of thermodynamics: The law of equilibrium.  Heat will transfer from a warm body to a cooler body.

The third law of thermodynamics: Entropy. Chaos.  Everything tends towards disorder.

The third law is my favorite law of thermodynamics.  That is why you can never keep your house clean, why things break down irreversibly over time, why we always have to mow our yards. Let's talk about it a little bit.

What does the Third Law have to do with ocean pollution?  Well, everything, really! Everything we manufacture - from chemicals to plastics, to wooden houses, will eventually break down.  The plastics are particularly troublesome in that respect, because of the length of time (think in the 500-1,000 year range) and also pattern in which they break down.  Take a plastic bag, for instance; that bag will first tear in half, then break up into pieces, and then will disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces until they reach a size that very few processes can break them down further.  The same goes for water bottles, plastic wrappers and other plastic containers.

The harder plastics, like bottles, buckets, baskets etc. will eventually break down into what are called plastic nurdles.  Nurdles are the objects that are often mistaken for food and consumed by birds, fish, invertebrates and other animals .  The nurdles aren't digestible and end up stuck in the digestive tracks of many birds, turtles or fish, and can end up obstructing and killing the animal.

Additionally, larger pieces can be consumed by even the giantest of animals- in 2013, an array of plastic objects were found to have killed a sperm whale, and sounded like an incredibly depressing list from the Very Hungry Caterpillar: a clothes hanger, ice-cream tub, pieces of mattress, plastic bags, nine meters (30 feet) of rope, two flower pots, and a plastic spray bottle all likely contributed to the animal's death.  This is far more common than we realize, because we often don't get the chance to study these animals.

Microbeads are a different story- while they can potentially be consumed by very small animals and work their way into the food chain, they are the very bottom of the problem.  This is because, ANY plastic item, whether big or small, can break down into nurdles or microbeads. So taking the smallest contributor out of the system doesn't do a whole lot when larger plastics can turn into the same thing.

Microbeads are a very small contributor to plastic waste in California alone.

So, all in all,  microbeads contribute 0.02% of annual plastic waste in California, if only plastic bags and bottles are taken into account.  I couldn't even find figures on medical devices, consumable electronics, or the myriad of other things in our society that contain plastics.  This profile is likely similar from state to state.

This all being said, it is admirable that California banned microplastics in products that we don't really need them to be in.  However, there is that weird phenomenon of 'slacktivism'- contributing to a cause with a minor overall personal contribution, but feeling better for having done it, whether or not it made a difference.  A great HuffPost article about Amazon Smile addresses how 'slacktivist' causes could actually decrease overall charitable giving because users already feel that they are contributing to charity.  It is a lot easier to forgo microbeads if the manufacturer doesn't use them than it is to purposely forgo plastic bags and water bottles when they are convenient.

Overall, my evaluation could be harsh, however sometimes it is easy to forget just how much we produce as a society.  To get an idea of how California fits into the nation-wide scale considering just plastic bottles, microbeads quickly fade away. Note that ALL of the combined products in the second chart only contribute to 0.39%- about 1/3 of a percent- of plastic waste in the US.  That means microbeads equal about 0.000094% of plastic waste in the US- 1/100,000 of a percent.  The other 99.00001%? Well, about 10% of that will end up in the world's oceans as eventually...more microplastics.

Tons of plastic waste in California compared to just water bottle consumption in the US.

Tons of plastic water in both California and US for plastic bags, water bottles and microbeads.  Overall, California microbeads contribute to 0.003%, US microbeads contribute to 0.02%, and water bottles in California represent 1.13%.

On a positive note, California is in the process of re-adding a plastic bag ban onto its upcoming ballot.  So the over-arching message of this blog post is to remain positive, but also be proactive.  Americans use approximately 100 BILLION disposable plastic bags a year- that equals 12 million barrel of petroleum product made and disposed of in a matter of minutes.

So be active in persuading your legislators to promote plastic bag bans, or at the least, be conscious of your use of plastic materials! Remember that one plastic bottle can take 1,000 years to degrade, and the end product is ironically what we are trying to prevent in the first place.