The Plastic Problem

Let’s kick things off by talking about plastics. 

By now, everyone knows plastics are a problem. But what actually are they and how did they become such a problem? At their most basic, plastics are a wide range of synthetic polymers that can be easily shaped and molded into a great variety of products. They were first used over a century ago as an innovative, durable new material designed to make life easier, safer, and more convenient for everyone. Plastics revolutionized the world with life-saving medical devices, global and aero transit technologies, and home gadgets we use every day. They’re used in everything from food packaging to construction materials to large electronics. Plastics made life safer and easier, but they also left harmful imprints on the environment and human health.

The problem starts with the plastic boom after the Second World War, when plastics started becoming mass-produced, especially as disposable products. Today, more than 40% of all plastic is designed for a single use, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, most of which end up littering the environment. Single-use products have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, but they can persist in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years. Disposable plastics are the worst problem, but they are by no means the only one.

Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. By now, we’re producing — and discarding — almost 360 million tons of plastic per year. Every single minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean. Production is expected to double by 2050. 

“One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics.”

- David Barnes

There are three main concerns surrounding plastics. Let’s start with the first one: pollution.

Plastic bag floating in oceanSource: Wikimedia Commons

Pollution & Microplastics

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues today, as rapidly increasing production quickly overwhelms available disposal measures. There are four ways to dispose of plastics:

  1. Landfills. About 40% of plastic products end up in landfills under the ground as a permanent storage solution. However, it’s not a foolproof solution, as the world is running out of land space. It’s not even a safe solution, as the buried plastics can leach harmful chemicals into our groundwater.
  1. Incineration. Plastics can be disposed of by burning, but heating these synthetic chemicals often produces negative environmental and health effects for the local communities. 
  1. Recycling. While great in theory, recycling as a concept is not fully utilized. Only 8% of plastic ever produced has actually been recycled, due to difficulties in collecting and sorting plastic waste.
  1. Biodegradation. This applies only to specific biodegradable plastics, which represent less than 0.2% of all plastic. Biodegradable plastics are also unlikely to actually degrade efficiently in natural habitats and may not degrade fully.

Don’t forget that a third of plastic just ends up as litter in the environment, and this may be the most problematic of all. Plastic kills millions of animals every year, including land, air, and especially marine wildlife. Scientists estimate that over 8 million metric tons of plastic is entering our oceans every year. If we don’t act now, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

You have probably seen images of birds, turtles, and dolphins entangled in discarded fishing gear or six-pack rings, and it’s true that most deaths are caused by entanglement. But ingestion of plastics is actually more common and has farther-reaching effects. Plastics have been found in every species of seabird, all sea turtles, and over a quarter of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world. Plastic debris, which is usually laced with toxic chemicals, is eaten and ends up injuring and poisoning wildlife. The chemicals can then be transferred up the food chain and make their way into our bodies when we eat seafood. What happens to the ocean impacts all of us.

As they degrade, plastics continue breaking down into smaller and smaller particles. These so-called micro-plastics spread throughout the water and have been found all across the globe, from the isolated waters of Antarctica to the highest peak of Mount Everest to the deepest trough of the Mariana Trench. Micro-plastics have been found drifting through the air and floating in our drinking water. Which brings us to the next concern: health.

Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

Health Effects

The same chemical building blocks that make plastics so nice and versatile also harm people, animals, and the environment. Whether from ingesting seafood, drinking out of plastic bottles, or wearing plastic fibers on our porous skin, we have all absorbed plastics into our bodies. 

Phthalates, which are used as plasticizers in vinyl flooring, food packaging, and medical devices, have been found in 80% of babies and nearly all adults. Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in bottles and the linings of food cans, can leach into our food and drink, and has been been found in 93% of people tested. Studies indicate that increased exposure to BPA correlates with increased rates of heart disease and diabetes.

Plastics have been linked to cancers, reproductive abnormalities and birth defects, liver and cell damage, hormone disruption, and impaired immunity. We encounter plastic products every day of our lives. Disturbingly, their negative effects may outweigh their convenience. And more than just affecting our health, they also alter the health of the entire planet. Let’s move on to the last concern: climate change.

Source: Robert S. Donovan, edf.org 

Climate Change & Non-Renewable Resources

Plastics start out as fossil fuels. In fact, 8% of the world’s entire oil production goes to manufacturing plastics. From their birth as non-renewable fossil fuels, to their refining and manufacturing processes, to their eventual incineration, plastics contribute to carbon pollution and overall climate change. In 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic added more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In a world that is rapidly and dangerously heating up, the predicted trend for an increase in plastic production is only going to cause further problems.

So what can you do?

We need to act fast, for the sake of our health and the health of our whole world. Not all measures to combat the plastic problem are foolproof, and we’ll get into some of these concerns later. For now, there are a number of personal actions you can take in the fight against plastic pollution:

  • Understand the plastic system and its local and global impacts.
  • Spread the word. Advocate for local policy change. Make your voice heard!
  • Volunteer with organizations like Ocean Conservancy that aim to tackle the pollution problem. 
  • Skip single-use plastic whenever possible. Invest in reusable containers, bags, utensils — if you can name it, you can probably find a reusable version.
  • Prioritize sustainable materials derived from renewable resources, like organic cotton, glass, or bamboo. Some of these alternatives to plastic have their own environmental concerns, which we’ll get into later, so some due diligence may be required first.
  • Choose items made from recycled plastics, and make sure to recycle as well!

Finally, you can also choose to support brands that are taking the extra step to combat plastic pollution. Here are some of our favorites.

United by Blue creates everything from fashion to home goods out of sustainable materials with ethical manufacturing processes. They also host community waterway cleanups to remove trash and inspire others to do the same. For every product purchased, they remove one pound of trash from oceans and waterways.

Norton Point manufactures sunglasses out of recycled ocean plastic and plant-based materials. They have also pledged to give back 5% of profits to global clean-up, education, and remediation practices, and have promised to clean up one pound of plastic from the ocean for each product they sell.

The Classic T-Shirt Company produces shirts that give back. Their t-shirts are made from 100% GOTS certified organic cotton and employ fair trade practices across the entire supply chain. The brand takes it a step further by pledging 1% of profits, equity, and time to causes it believes in. When you make a purchase, you get to decide which cause you want to support: ocean plastic cleanup, clean drinking water, or tree planting.

MessyWeekend makes a range of sunglasses for summer and snow goggles for winter. For every purchase, they have partnered with 4ThePlanet to clear 2 kg of plastic from the Pacific Ocean. The brand has already removed two tons of plastic. 

Sources

Earth Day

EcoWatch

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Environmental Health News

National Geographic

North, Emily J. and Rolf U. Halden. “Plastics and Environmental Health: The Road Ahead.” Reviews on Environmental Health 28.1: 1-8 (2013).

Ocean Conservancy

Plastic Pollution Coalition

The Royal Society

World Economic Forum

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