the problem with plastics

Every year, the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste. That's as much as the combined weight of every human on earth.  Worse, about half of this waste comes from "single-use" plastics like plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic bottles.  After all of the precious resources consumed to make them, these products are used just one time and then tossed away, ending up in the landfill, or often, in the world's oceans. This is a problem for human health and the marine ecosystem because:

  • Plastic destroys ecosystems by obstructing habitats and harming wildlife, when animals ingest or become entangled in it. Seabirds, turtles, whales, and seals are just some of the affected animals in the marine environment.

  • ​Plastics persist in the environment for centuries, but they break down into tiny plastic particles ("microplastics") which are very easily ingested by wildlife, and have a devastating impact on them.

  • Relative to durable, re-usable products, single-use products not only create more waste, but they also require more natural resources and fossil fuels to produce. 

  • Recycling isn't working.  You may toss your household plastic into a separate bin, but in 2015, less than 20% of global plastic waste was actually recycled.

Is your plastic bottle really worth all this? Cutting down on single-use plastics is only one part of a sustainable lifestyle, but it is one of the fastest, easiest changes to make. 

effects on marine ecosystems

Plastic waste impacts marine ecosystems in multiple ways.

  • The sheer bulk of plastic waste dumped into our oceans obstructs habitats and physically prevents the free movement of organisms through them.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, covers at least 1.6 million square kilometres, and is growing every year. That's an area twice the size of Texas that is no longer a naturally functioning marine ecosystem.

  • Animals frequently eat plastic, either directly, or by consuming prey that has eaten plastic.  One recent study found that 60% of marine mammal species showed evidence of ingesting plastic. And the effects are not benign. Ingesting plastic leads to a variety of adverse health effects in wildlife, including death.

  • Organisms are injured when they collide with or become entangled in plastics floating in the ocean currents.  For example, collision with plastic objects abrades and damages coral reefs, and entanglement in fishing line injures and kills a variety of species, including sea turtles, birds, and fish.

  • Plastic promotes disease in coral reefs.

  • Many discarded plastics contain Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxics (PBTs), which are harmful to wildlife and humans. Polystyrene, polyethylene, PVC, and polypropylene are just a few of the common plastic types that contain endocrine disruptors or other potentially toxic chemicals.

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the problem is getting worse, fast

As the human population expands and economic development spreads, plastic production has continued to increase. And critically, the world's biggest plastic producers (big oil companies like Shell, Dow Chemical, and Exxon) are counting on increased virgin plastic production across the next several decades to drive their profits for the foreseeable future.

  • As shown on the left, since its mass production began in the 1950's, global production of plastics has doubled about every 11 years. The plastic waste stream has increased along with it.

  • The size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is increasing exponentially , as ocean currents continue to direct plastic material into ever larger concentrations here, and in other waste gyres in the Atlantic ocean and elsewhere.

  • If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. That's too much plastic for marine wildlife, humans, and the natural environment to handle.

  • At the current rate of emissions growth, macroplastics in the oceans will more than triple by 2050, to over 3.5 million metric tonnes.

Recycling is not the answer

Recycling isn’t working. You may toss your household plastic into a separate bin, but in 2015, less than 20% of global plastic waste was actually recycled. In the United States, the recycling rate for plastics is <10%. But even if we could improve these statistics through an overhaul of the recycling system, there is still a more fundamental problem: most plastic can only be recycled one time until the quality of the material degrades enough so that it must go into the landfill. This is in contrast to materials like steel and aluminum, for example, that can be remade into new products a potentially infinite number of times. And you may have heard of new plastic recycling technologies called “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, but as a recent report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives outlines, these technologies are not yet providing much more than a PR boost for plastic producers.

the good news: we can kick the plastic habit

The good news is that single-use plastics are mostly unnecessary. Plastic has some great attributes as a material: It is durable, low-cost, and easy to manufacture.  Because of this, it would be difficult to completely eliminate the use of plastics in industry, healthcare and manufacturing. But most household single-use products are totally unnecessary and can be quickly and painlessly eliminated from our lives.  We thoughtlessly grab single-use plastics to wrap our food, scrub our face, and sip our cocktails every day. Reducing our own household plastic waste can make a difference. Future generations will view single-use plastic products as selfish, frivolous excesses.  Shop here for alternatives to the most common single-use plastics in your household.

Recycled Plastic

references / further reading

Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C. M., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P. G., & Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e111913.

Fendall, L. S., & Sewell, M. A. (2009). Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: Microplastics in facial cleansers. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58(8), 1225–1228. 

Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R., & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), 768–771. 

 

Kühn, S., Bravo Rebolledo, E. L., & van Franeker, J. A. (2015). Deleterious Effects of Litter on Marine Life. In M. Bergmann, L. Gutow, & M. Klages (Eds.), Marine Anthropogenic Litter (pp. 75–116). Springer International Publishing.

Lamb, J. B., Willis, B. L., Fiorenza, E. A., Couch, C. S., Howard, R., Rader, D. N., True, J. D., Kelly, L. A., Ahmad, A., Jompa, J., & Harvell, C. D. (2018). Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs. Science, 359(6374), 460–462.

Lamb, J. B., Willis, B. L., Fiorenza, E. A., Couch, C. S., Howard, R., Rader, D. N., True, J. D., Kelly, L. A., Ahmad, A., Jompa, J., & Harvell, C. D. (2018). Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs. Science, 359(6374), 460–462.

Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sainte-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., Hajbane, S., Cunsolo, S., Schwarz, A., Levivier, A., Noble, K., Debeljak, P., Maral, H., Schoeneich-Argent, R., Brambini, R., & Reisser, J. (2018). Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 4666. 

Marine plastics. (2018, May 25). IUCN. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics

Oakes, K. (n.d.). Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191030-why-biodegradables-wont-solve-the-plastic-crisis

Publishing, H. H. (n.d.). Is plastic a threat to your health? Harvard Health. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/is-plastic-a-threat-to-your-health

Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2018). Plastic Pollution. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch | The Ocean Cleanup. (n.d.). Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/

This is what the world’s waste does to people in poorer countries. (n.d.). World Economic Forum. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/this-is-what-the-world-s-waste-does-to-people-in-poorer-countries/

United Nations Environment Programme. (2018). Single-use plastics, a roadmap for sustainability.

Worm, B. (2015). Silent spring in the ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(38), 11752–11753.

Zimmermann, L., Dierkes, G., Ternes, T. A., Völker, C., & Wagner, M. (2019). Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products. Environmental Science & Technology, 53(19), 11467–11477. 

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