The Problem with Plastic

The Problem with Plastic

  Plastic is a substance the earth cannot digest.  

Plastic Netting

Scientists estimate over 50% of plastic is used only once and then thrown away.

Plastic pollution is becoming one of the most critical environmental and social issues of our time. Given the continued and increasingly large-scale production, use, and mismanaged disposal, plastic easily leaks from our landfills into the environment. Plastic often gets dumped directly into the ocean or pulled along as if on conveyor belts, dragged by wind, rivers, and streams; it has now spread everywhere. It has become trapped in rotating currents called gyres. The most famously known is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). A massive vortex of marine debris accumulation in the North Pacific Ocean. These gyres form into smog-like clouds, heavy with microplastics, which sink into the underlying deep sea and cause disastrous effects on entire food webs of marine and land species. Every year thousands of seabirds, sea turtles, fish, and other marine mammals die after consuming plastic or becoming entangled in it. Plastic, a substance that never completely deteriorates, destroys ecosystems and has become a burden to the world.

It is a daunting problem and one that high-income nations are mainly responsible for. Just in the US alone, the EPA estimates we are only recycling plastic at a rate of 8.7 percent as of 2018. Most of this plastic tonnage comes from containers and packaging, with over 14.5 million tons added in just one year!

How did we get here?

The truth is plastic is relatively new and invented in the 1950s. Made from fossil fuels and cheap to produce, plastic manufacturing proved simple, with a rapid production rate that quickly outpaced many other human-made materials. In the beginning, the benefits of plastics revolutionized the health care industry with life-saving devices, made our transportation lighter and more efficient, and protected food from spoiling and contamination. However, the easiness of plastic production and its widespread accessibility also led to a throwaway culture. Big industries dodged the responsibility to deal with the waste and instead laid that burden on the consumer. But asking individuals to recycle more will never be the solution for the magnitude of this problem. It is notable that only a fraction of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled at just 9%, and there are even more complications.

The Issue

The real trouble with single-use plastic (items like plastic bags, which we use on average for only 12 minutes before discarding) lies in the fact that these things can persist in the environment for half a millennium and do not biodegrade. Instead, the plastic breaks down into just micrometers in size and accumulates and contaminates the environment. Scientists estimate that 710 million metric tons of plastic waste cumulatively have entered aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems with well-documented effects. Scientists have recorded almost 700 marine species and over 50 freshwater species to have consumed or become entrapped by plastic, and new evidence shows terrestrial wildlife ingest plastic as well. One study from World Wildlife Fund found that humans eat 5 grams, or 2000 tiny pieces of plastic per week, the equivalent of one credit card of microplastics. That is approximately 21 grams a month and over 250 grams a year. Yuck! Even worse, these particulate plastic contaminants potentially have adverse effects on human health at the cellular level, and the single-use plastics crisis is only intensifying.

Since its inception, scientists have calculated the world has produced an incomprehensible 8 billion metric tons of plastic. Nearly half of that was manufactured just after the year 2000. If we continue our current course, the statistics become far more staggering. Researchers have projected over 26 billion metric tons of plastic will be produced by 2050. According to a study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in this business-as-usual scenario, ocean pollution will grow by 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025. And in 2050, there will be more plastics than fish (by weight). 

Pollution Solution

Ultimately, real change will be driven by major legislative changes demanded by the people. 

Right now, you can Sign and Support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. 

Congress is now considering a piece of historic legislation that seeks to address the plastic pollution crisis by:⁠

  • Shifting the financial burden of waste management and recycling off municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of this waste⁠.
  • Spurring massive investments in domestic recycling and composting infrastructure⁠.
  • Phasing out certain single-use plastic products that aren’t recyclable⁠
  • Establishing minimum recycled content standards⁠.
  • Launching a national beverage container refund program to bolster recycling rates.⁠
  • Placing a temporary pause on new and expanding plastic facilities until the Environmental Protection Agency updates and creates vital environmental and health regulations to protect frontline and fenceline communities.
  • Prohibiting plastic waste from being exported to developing countries⁠.
  • And more proven policy solutions!⁠

The choices you make are powerful. Perfection is not required to change the world. Even little things can make a difference. When many people take small actions, it can create one enormous positive impact. Join us, and together we will find alternatives to plastic and strive for a healthier planet.

Here are some easy zero waste swaps to try.

  


 

 

1. “Our Planet Is Drowning in Plastic Pollution. This World Environment Day, It's Time for a Change.” #BeatPlasticPollution This World Environment Day, United Nations Enivronment, www.unep.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/.

2. Egger, Matthias, et al. “First Evidence of Plastic Fallout from the North Pacific Garbage Patch.” Nature: Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-64465-8.

3. “Plastics: Material-Specific Data.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 5 Jan. 2021, www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data#:~:text=While overall the amount of,plastic containers is more significant.

4. Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made. 2017 (https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782) 

5. “Plastic Bags.” 5Gyres.Org, www.5gyres.org/plastic-bags.

6. Lau, Winnie W. Y., et al. “Evaluating Scenarios toward Zero Plastic Pollution.” Science, vol. 369, no. 6510, 2020, pp. 1455–1461., doi:10.1126/science.aba9475.

7. Hwang, Jangsun, et al. “Potential Toxicity of Polystyrene Microplastic Particles.” Nature: Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-64464-9.

8. World Wide Fund For Nature, 2019. No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People, wwfint.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/plastic_ingestion_web_spreads_1.pdf.

9. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).




1 comment


  • Jim Sunderland

    Kudos for a very informative posting. Pretty scary!! And thank you for the link to the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act petition site. You are 100% correct – we need to be taking both big and little steps toward solving this major environmental and health hazard affecting us and the planet too!!


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