Plastic Waste, A Global Concern
Plastic Waste, A Global Concern
By William Jones
What is Plastic?
Plastic is a synthetic organic polymer made from petroleum. Plastic is ideally suited for a wide variety of applications. Packaging, building and construction, household and sports equipment, vehicles, electronics, and agriculture; the uses are endless. It is cheap, lightweight, strong and malleable. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. Half of plastic products are designed for single-use; such as shopping bags, cups, and straws. While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic — with severe environmental consequences.
Oil, Natural Gas and Coal
More than 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas, and coal — all of which are dirty, non-renewable resources. If current trends continue, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
We produce about 300 million tonnes (metric tons) of plastic waste each year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. We’re seeing worrying trends. Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. We’ve also seen a shift away from the production of durable plastic, and towards plastics that are meant to be thrown away after a single use. These single-use plastic products are everywhere. For many of us, they’ve become integral to our daily lives.
Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away. Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene Era.
Plastic is Toxic
Only a tiny part of the plastic created is being recycled, or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. A large portion of plastic waste ends up in landfills, where it takes up to 1,000 years to decompose, all the while leaching potentially toxic substances into surrounding soil and water.
The main sources of marine plastic are land-based. The waste originates from urban and storm runoff, sewer overflows, beach visitors, inadequate waste disposal and management, industrial activities, construction, and illegal dumping. Ocean-based plastic originates mainly from the fishing industry, nautical activities, and aquaculture. Plastic pollution is the most widespread problem affecting the marine environment. Waste from plastic threatens ocean health, food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism.
Plastic Debris Biggest Marine Litter
Rivers carry plastic waste from deep inland to the sea, they are in fact, major contributors to ocean pollution. Rivers serve as direct conduits of trash from the world’s cities to the marine environment. About 60% of plastic waste has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. Floating plastic debris are the most abundant items of marine litter. A staggering 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year.
Where’s the Other 79%
Waste plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Plastic has been detected on shorelines of all the continents, with more plastic materials found near popular tourist destinations and densely populated areas. Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps, the oceans, and the natural environment.
The impact on marine environment and marine life is stratospheric. The most visible and disturbing impacts of marine plastics are the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species. Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fishes and turtles, mistake plastic waste for prey, and eat the plastic. Most die of starvation as their stomachs are filled with plastic debris, rather than food and nutrients. They also suffer from lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim, and internal injuries from debris, including nets. Floating plastics also contribute to the spread of invasive marine organisms and bacteria, which disrupt ecosystems.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Recycling and reuse of plastic materials are the most effective actions available to reduce the environmental impacts of open landfills and open-air burning that are often practiced to manage domestic waste. Sufficient litter and recycling bins can be placed in cities, and on beaches in coastal areas to accelerate the prevention and reduction of plastic pollution, but that is just a token of what is needed worldwide to reverse this dangerous trend.
Start With Product Design
Governments, research institutions, and industries also need to work collaboratively redesigning products, and rethink their usage and disposal, in order to reduce microplastics waste from pellets, synthetic textiles and tires. This will require solutions which go beyond waste management, to consider the whole lifecycle of plastic products, from product design to infrastructure and household use.
To effectively address the issue of marine plastics, research and innovation should be supported. Knowledge of the full extent of plastic pollution and its impacts would provide policy-makers, manufacturers and consumers with scientific evidence needed to spearhead appropriate technological, behavioral and policy solutions. It would also accelerate the conceptualization of new technology, materials or products to replace plastics.
Reusable Sustainable Products
Reduction in the amount of plastics you use is another remedy to this menace. If you have a choice at the grocery store, aim for foods that come in larger single packages rather than individual ones. And try to avoid produce wrapped in plastic bags or packaged in plastic trays. Individuals can also eliminate their single-use plastics and opt for reusable sustainable products in their place. Bring your own bags, and pass on the store provided single use sacks.
Finally, try to be mindful of how you dispose of plastic to reduce the chances it may endanger an animal after it leaves your hands. Cut those plastic drink holders so the rings won’t entangle an animal. Yes, slowing the flow of single use plastic at its source is critical, but we also need to improve management of plastic waste. Right now, most plastic waste is ending up in the environment. Modern life would be impossible without plastic – but we have long since lost control over our invention. We need to take on this mounting threat head on, sooner, than later. It needs to be an international priority, not just a U.S. problem.