In the 80 years since we began mass producing plastic, we’ve made and disposed of so much that we’re now dumping a full garbage truck per minute of it into our seas. At current rates, this number will rise to four per minute by 2050. The picture is very bleak indeed, but momentum for change has never been stronger.
There is probably no more potent or ubiquitous a symbol of the failures of mass consumerism than single-use plastic.
We buy stuff we may or may not need – stuff that is often made from or covered in plastic – and we carry it home in plastic bags. We then use those bags to line trash cans for our waste, much of which contains plastic too. At best, the bags and their contents end up at recycling stations, but in most of the world they’re simply buried in landfills. And in the worst of cases, all that plastic finds its way into rivers and ultimately flows into the sea.
Non-profit organization Ocean Conservancy has been organizing coastal cleanups for over 30 years. In its 2017 operation – where almost 790,000 volunteers in more than 100 countries collected some 9.3 million kilograms of trash – the organization said that for the first time ever, each of the top 10 items it collected contained plastic. Cigarette butts topped the list (measured by number collected), followed by food wrappers, plastic bottles, bottle caps and plastic bags. It’s official: plastic is now the undisputed king of trash.
There are also vast quantities of primary and secondary microplastics (sometimes called “microbeads”) floating in the sea, as well as in the tap water and bottled water we drink. Primary microplastics are deliberately manufactured plastic particles, often found in cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are small pieces of plastic (classified as less than 5 millimeters in diameter) that have been broken down from larger pieces over time. Tyre dust, paint and fibres from synthetic textiles are also sources of microplastic.
Just how bad is it?
There are loads of frightening statistics and forecasts about plastic’s impact on our planet. Here are just a few that stand out:
- Total annual plastic production is forecast to grow almost fourfold between now and 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
- The production of packaging is the largest application of plastic, accounting for some 26% of the total volume of plastic (World Economic Forum, 2016)
- Only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
- 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually ends up in the sea. That’s one garbage truck of plastic every minute (World Economic Forum, 2016)
- At current rates of plastic production, this will rise to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030, and four per minute by 2050 (World Economic Forum, 2016)
- More than 90% of sea birds have plastic in their stomachs (PNAS, 2015)
- One out of two sea turtles have ingested plastic or other human debris (University of Queensland, 2015)
- At current rates, by 2050 there will be more plastic (by weight) in the sea than fish (World Economic Forum, 2016)
The picture is so bleak that it’s hard to fathom how we could have allowed this to happen. How did plastic become so popular? Why do we continue to use it in the volumes we do? And is there anything we can do to reverse this calamity before we suffocate our oceans and ourselves?
The fantastic side of plastic
Plastic is a polymer: a molecule that has reacted multiple times to produce itself into a bunch of similar molecules bonded together as a chain. While plastic as it we know it today is typically derived from oil or natural gas, humans have been molding natural polymers – like rubber and animal horn – for thousands of years. Mesoamerican cultures used rubber to make balls for ballgames, to fashion containers, and for waterproofing textiles. Medieval artisans used thin slices of animal horn to create the translucent sides of lanterns.
But the birth of plastic as we know it today – based entirely on synthetic materials – came in 1907 with the invention of a substance called Bakelite. Those retro telephones with the cradle and rotary dial? That’s Bakelite they were made from.
Bakelite paved the way for the introduction of many types of plastic that are still with us today. Cellophane was invented in 1912; PVC became commercially viable in 1926; and polystyrene, polyester, polythene and nylon all became more widely available through the 1930s and 40s.
Part of the appeal of plastic is that, like other polymers, it can easily be molded into any number of shapes. Chemically, it’s extremely versatile and easy to work with. Adding just one more carbon molecule to polythene (the material used for plastic bags) produces polypropylene (used to make plastic containers). Adding chlorine, produces vinyl. Add fluorine, and you get Teflon.
Plastic production really took off during World War II, when petrochemical companies built plants to turn crude oil into plastic at volume to support the war effort. Come the end of the war, and facing massive over capacity, the industry turned to producing plastic products for the consumer market. Tupperware, for instance, was invented in 1946 by an ex DuPont employee.
Had we stopped there – using plastic only for durable items – our planet may not be suffocating as it is now. After all, plastic is used for many essential medical devices, for coating electrical cables, and to make a lot of the safety equipment we need. Plastic is so useful, so easy to mold into the shape we want, and so cheap (in purely financial terms) that we’ve ended up wrapping, carrying and discarding it in greater volumes than any other substance ever produced by humans.
Are there alternatives to plastic?
Yes. Glass, paper, milk protein – even keratin from chicken feathers – all these and more are alternatives to plastic for certain applications. But none can compete with plastic in terms of (financial) cost or production capacity at the volumes the world is used to. The price of plastic resin rises and falls in almost direct correlation with the price of oil. Plastic, like the oil it’s made from, is still cheap.
There is also work ongoing in developing so-called “bio-plastics” made from crops like sugar cane, corn or tapioca. But again, none of these can compete with fossil-fuel based plastics in terms of cost or capacity, and they often require specialist facilities to be disposed of properly. There is also the moral question of diverting vast areas of agricultural land towards satisfying our plastic addiction. Critics say that bio-plastic still presents many of the same problems as fossil-fuel based plastic, and that attempts to embrace it are simply “greenwashing”.
We could also recycle more than the 14% of plastic we currently collect. There are many reasons this number is so low, including a lack of awareness or the absence of incentives for people to recycle, as well as the inadequacy of recycling facilities in many countries. Manufacturers also often shun recycled plastic as it may be more expensive than virgin plastic, or because it may perform unpredictably and look unattractive when molded.
What is being done to address the situation?
If there is any silver lining to be found in all this, it’s that in recent years there has been a surge in attention to the issue. A growing number of institutions, companies and individuals are now attempting to tackle the plastic crisis.
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags. Since then dozens of countries have introduced legislation to ban or limit their use. Many countries and brands have also committed to eliminating microplastics.
McDonalds has promised to get rid of plastic drinking straws from its UK restaurants by 2019; Starbucks has said it will do so globally by 2020; and IKEA has committed to banning single-use plastics from all its stores and restaurants by 2020.
In the travel & tourism industry, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriot, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Royal Caribbean and Disney have all announced plans to ditch or limit their use of plastic straws.
In 2016, Adidas and environmental organization Parley for the Oceans announced a partnership to create a shoe made of ocean plastic. Each pair of shoes uses an average of 11 plastic bottles for the laces, webbing and lining. Adidas said it sold one million pairs in 2017.
The Ocean Cleanup has developed a system that uses the natural movement of the sea to concentrate ocean plastic so that it can be removed. The system is currently being put to work on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the largest of five such trash swirls in our oceans, at three times the size of France. The organization estimates its system will be able to reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by half in five years.
Is any organization taking global leadership?
While any effort to address the crisis is commendable, what the world really needs is a complete rethink of our entire approach to plastic. We need coordinated policy and action to address the take, make and use paradigm that plastic has grown up in. There are multiple bodies working on this at various levels, but one organization stands out: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Dame Ellen MacArthur is a former professional sailor from England who sprang to fame in 2005 for breaking the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. Upon her retirement from sailing in 2010, she set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in a bid to accelerate our world’s transition to a circular-economy model.
The foundation’s New Plastics Economy and Plastic’s Pact initiatives bring together stakeholders from across the plastics chain to create a system where plastics can be used over and over again. The strength of the approach is that it accepts plastic is here to stay, but that we need a new way of managing it.
In May 2017, the foundation launched the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, with USD 2 million up for grabs. The aim of the initiative is to find new solutions for the approximately 30% of plastic packaging deemed too small or too complex to recycle. This includes things like drinking straws and coffee cup lids. The winners are now getting the support they need to scale up their concepts.
Is it too little too late?
Possibly. But we need to try.
With increased awareness, individual action and institutional change, there’s reason to hope we could slow down growth in the manufacture and disposal of plastics, and at least to some extent unwrap ourselves from the mess we’ve created in just 80 years.
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