The Risks and Rewards of Plastics

Professor Sally Rocks utilizes the Roots of Knowledge stained glass windows to share insights on the impacts of plastics. Photo by Shantelle Erskine.

As a part of The Roots of Knowledge speaker series, Dr. Sally Rocks, a chemistry professor, presented on the use of plastics in modern-day civilization, and their impact on the world today and in the future.

The Roots of Knowledge stained glass art panorama in the Fulton Library tells the story of events that have shaped humankind from the beginning of history to now, and speakers use this unique feature to illustrate their knowledge. “This gallery represents the many evolutions of materials we have used to improve our lives,” says Rocks. “All of these materials have helped progress civilizations: plastic has been a major part of this.” 

An article from Science was shared by Rocks reporting, “8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date. Around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” Rocks also shared that about 4.5% of total greenhouse gasses are generated by plastics.

“The highest percentage of plastic that we use is in packaging, such as plastic water bottles, which take about 400 years to decompose,” said Rocks. “It’s also the percentage that gets discarded the quickest, ending up in landfills, our water, and everywhere else.”

Rocks mentioned the giant garbage patches accumulating in the ocean, which are composed mostly of garbage that is littered or disposed of improperly. “Most of the plastic in these garbage patches are microplastics, which are the most damaging,” says Rocks. “Microplastics are what is in our water and food, we each eat about 40,000 particles of plastic a year, closer to 100,000 if you drink out of plastic water bottles.”

“Scientists haven’t really figured out just how bad this is for us, but we’re pretty sure it isn’t good,” says Rocks. “Research shows new minerals are going to be created that have plastic in them, we are seeing sedimentary layers of plastic from improper disposal.”

“There isn’t anywhere you can go to get away from this,” said Rocks. She shared articles about the discovery of plastics on Mount Everest and in the Arctic from National Geographic.

Disposal methods we are using right now have negative consequences. “Most of the plastic you recycle doesn’t actually get recycled, due to one unrecyclable thing in a batch causing the entire batch to be taken to landfill,” says Rocks. “Incineration creates energy and disposes of the plastic, but it increases greenhouse gasses and can release harmful toxins into the air.” 

Rocks stated that the utilization of biodegradable bioplastics from corn, grass, or algae can help, but these products still utilize fillers and additives that are used in mainstream plastics. “There are several additives we use to change the shape, color, or texture of plastic,” says Rocks. “As these plastics get smaller, additives leak out, many of which are carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to our health.” 

“I think what surprised me most about this presentation is the fact that biodegradable products aren’t actually that biodegradable,” said Austin Miller, a junior at UVU studying botany and Spanish. 

“Plastic isn’t going anywhere: we need to keep working on solutions,” said Rocks. “Right now, consumers can help by limiting their use of single-use plastic, and recycling responsibly. If we can recycle more and reduce less, we will come out ahead.”

The Roots of Knowledge speaker series will feature several more speakers touching on many different topics. More information regarding the speakers and their topics can be found on UVU’s Roots of Knowledge Events website.

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