Plastics in the Environment

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The manufacture and proliferation of plastic products has exploded over the last 70-odd years. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic were produced worldwide—enough to cover the entire surface of the planet in clingfilm, according to one study recently published in the academic journal Anthropocene. Of this, only an estimated 9 percent was recycled, while another 12 percent was incinerated, creating further problems through air pollution and the greenhouse effect.

Consider just a few of the following facts:

  • Packaging is the largest end use market segment accounting for just over 40% of total plastic usage.
  • Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide.
  • More than one million bags are used every minute. A plastic bag has an average “working life” of 15 minutes.
  • According to the Container Recycling Institute, 100.7 billion plastic beverage bottles were sold in the U.S. in 2014, or 315 bottles per person.
  • 57% of those units were plastic water bottles: 57.3 billion sold in 2014. This is up from 3.8 billion plastic water bottles sold in 1996, the earliest year for available data.
  • The process of producing bottled water requires around 6 times as much water per bottle as there is in the container.
  • 14% of all litter comes from beverage containers. When caps and labels are considered, the number is higher.

In these and practically innumerable other ways global industry now produces almost 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, roughly the same weight according to the Anthropocene researchers as all the people on Earth put together. By the end of the century the cumulative figure for plastic production is expected to rise to around 30 billion tonnes—an ominous fact considering how slowly plastic degrades.

Since plastic is so slow to degrade, a good percentage of if will, without concerted efforts to change our ways, end up in our oceans. As it stands, a full half of the annual production of plastic is for single-use products—more than 8 million tonnes of which is then dumped into our oceans. Single-use plastic waste collects in areas like the Great Pacific garbage patch that now exists between Hawaii and California, a vortex of 78,000 tonnes of single-use plastic waste roughly the size of Texas. It consists of an estimated 1.7 trillion pieces.

Suffice it to say then that plastics are an endemic source of environmental pollution. While plastic is a cheap and unusually versatile industrial material with ideal properties for innumerable applications, our tendency to regard the Earth as infinite research and infinite garbage dump, combined with a disposable lifestyle directly informed by assumptions of this kind, means that these qualities have also turned into a major catastrophe for the environment. Plastic pollution reaches to all four corners of the globe, from the peak of Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench, 11 kilometres beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

We have come to be dependent on plastic in many ways. In the UK alone, more than 5 million tonnes of plastic are consumed each year, of which only an estimated one-quarter is recycled, with the remainder going to landfills. This large amount of plastic waste, once in the environment and the waterways in particular, breaks down into microplastics that inevitably enter the food chain. Some studies now suggest that the bodies of 90% of seabirds contain plastic debris.

What to do 
A good start in responding to the problem of plastic waste pollution is to reduce our personal use of plastic products in the first place to as little as possible. We can reduce our personal plastic waste in a variety of ways:

  • Take a reusable shopping bag with you when you go out, or keep one in your car. By refusing to use plastic bags, not only at the supermarket checkout but also when picking up your takeaway from local restaurants and food outlets (many supermarkets are phasing them out anyway; if they are not, you can start an online petition or organise a campaign to make sure that they do).
  • Buy your fruit and vegetables loose from independent retailers and avoid buying them prepacked from the supermarket. If you can get loose fruit and vegetables from the supermarket, don’t put them in the small plastic barrier bags on offer; make sure you have your Reusable Produce Bags with you.
  • Choose products that have as little plastic packaging as possible. If you buy rolled oats, for example, look for brands that use cardboard packaging rather than plastic. If you can buy products in bulk or from wholefood vendors who don’t use plastic packaging, take that option instead.
  • If you’re already encumbered with a collection of plastic bags, use them to line your bin instead of buying bin liners.
  • Also remember to recycle your plastic waste where possible.

Addressing the source of the problem
In some areas, significant efforts have been made to reduce the prominence of plastic pollution, through reducing plastic consumption and promoting plastic recycling. Recycling on its own however simply isn’t the answer, as it fails completely to keep pace with production. As of 2015, only around 9 percent of the 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste generated globally had been recycled, and 79% had ended up in landfill or the environment.

Similarly, personal changes to consumption are absolutely necessary to solving the problem of plastics and the environmental crisis more generally, but they are not enough on their own to address the source of the problem—arguably the nihilistic tendency to produce plastic products for short term convenience, regardless of the long-term consequences for the planet as a whole. There can ultimately be no individual solutions to collective problems; for those we need more profound cultural changes to how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of nature and societal changes that reflect those. In the meantime, however, we can start by being the change we want to see in the world and cleaning up our own acts.

To help reduce your waste be sure to check out our online Eco Shop of environmentally friendly products.

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