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It’s no secret, plastic pollution is out of control. It’s filling our oceans, rivers and spilling out of our landfills. We made this plastic. We depend on it. And now we’re drowning in it. But plastic itself is not the problem. It is the excess of single-use plastic specifically, that is polluting our planet, and we need to do something about it, fast.
How did we get into this mess?
Plastic was actually invented way back in the late 19th century. Back then it was made from a synthetic substance called celluloid. It was used as a substitute to animal products like ivory and tortoiseshell, and plant products like linen to create anything from jewellery and false teeth to toys and ornaments. This type of plastic was tough, flexible and mouldable, resistant to water and oils but also highly flammable.
After the end of WWII, in the early 1950s, plastic production really took off when it was discovered that it could be made from petroleum gases. This was much cheaper and easier to produce, and meant that anything and everything could now be made of plastic. With this new technology, came a wave of fast, lightweight plastic products, providing a new level of convenience to people around the world, transforming their daily lives in a dramatic way. It lightened cars and planes for travel, extended the life of fresh food, revolutionised medicine, allowed the transportation of fresh clean drinking water and had many other practical uses.
So, what’s the problem?
Plastic production has grown so fast that half the plastic ever manufactured has been in the last 15 years. World production has increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015. Over time, consumerism has created a massive demand for cheap, convenient products, meaning that more companies are producing plastic, and many more are using it. Today, roughly 40% of all plastic that is created is used as single-use packaging, which has a very short lifespan, intended to be discarded within hours or minutes of first use.
This exponential growth in plastic production globally has meant we haven’t even come close to dealing with this plastic at the end of its lifecycle. In fact, almost 90% of plastics produced have never made it to a recycling bin, and of those that do, many don't even qualify for recycling. We now have an estimated 9.2 billion tons of discarded plastic that we urgently need to figure out what to do with.
Where is all this plastic?
Throughout overcrowded urban areas across Asia, where people are struggling with basic health issues and waterborne diseases, they are also massively struggling with the management of plastic garbage. Countries such as China, Indonesia and Malaysia have become plastic dumping grounds for much of the Western world in recent decades. These poorer countries don’t have efficient garbage collection and waste management systems as well as a massive shortage of landfill space. This means that plastic rubbish litters the streets and waterways, spills into our oceans and is being burnt to cope with the oversupply.
This is a global problem, on many occasions, plastic from one side of the world has been reported to have washed up on the other side. Ocean plastic kills millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species are known to have been affected. Some are harmed visibly by being strangled by plastic shopping bags or discarded six pack rings, but many more are harmed invisibly by microplastic. Smaller than one-fifth of an inch across, microplastics are small fragments that can come from larger plastic pieces worn down over time by waves and sunlight. They are also produced as microbeads and plastic pellets found in clothing and consumer beauty products. It is estimated that the sand on some beaches is made of up to 15% microplastic.
Marine species of all sizes from plankton to whales are consuming these tiny bits of plastic. And we could be too, although due to the microplastic size it is unclear whether or not they pass from the gut of a fish into the flesh we eat. There is new research coming out to suggest we are now breathing these in our air too. Another concern for human health is the chemicals that are added to the plastics which can be extremely toxic in some cases. One study of over 500 fish collected, showed more than one-third had microplastics in their stomachs. It is unclear how long it will take for the plastic to completely biodegrade, but is estimated to be more than 450 years.
Plastic and Climate Change
Ocean plastic is a looming catastrophe (summarised well here by National Geographic), however there is a key difference between this and climate change. Ocean plastic is not as complicated, we don't need to remake our whole planet’s energy system to solve it. Cutting down our demand for plastic, particularly single-use, by using reusable containers, water bottles and shopping bags is one way to help reduce the need for mass plastic production. Then, and only then, will we have a shot at being able to clean up the plastic that is already here.