Edward Haarman - June 9th 2020
Plastic: silver bullet or silent assassin?
This year, 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans. That is one garbage truck every minute.
This increases to 64 million tons per year by 2050.
Courtesy of © Ferdi Rizkiyanto (Pepey)
Plastic... An ingenious invention has become one of the major environmental problems in just 50 years. How is this possible? It is not the material itself but us humans. We can't deal with a product that's so widely used in our lives, but which is so cheap that there is almost no urge to reuse it.
Leo Baekeland was one of the first American inventors of plastic as we know it. His "bakelite" was used in many home products in the 1900s. WWII increased plastic production exponentially. After the war, the enormous demand for plastic continued due to the American food industry. After the '50s plastic bags were invented and companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé started using plastic as packaging material. Today, most pieces of plastic found during clean up projects anywhere in the world originate from such companies.
After 2000 more plastic has been produced than all the years before.....Almost all of the plastic ever produced still exists today......
The visible price of a plastic world
Plastic is a great invention. Nowadays our houses, cars, clothes, packaging, and medical devices are made of plastic. But it comes with a price...
Plastic is a synthetic product; in a natural environment, it degrades very slowly. It takes 10-20 years to decompose a regular plastic grocery bag in landfills, plastic bottles take 450 years, while most other plastic products take 1000 years.
Between 50 and 70% of plastic products are used only once. What happens after you discard plastic in the garbage can? In the USA, 8% is recycled, 16% is combusted, and 76% ends up in a landfill. During recent years the US exported between 4.5 and 1.4 billion pounds of plastic to Asian countries with a poor waste management system. 88-95% of plastic waste in our oceans is transported by rivers originating in or passing through such countries, most of them in Asia.
Our oceans and nature are suffering from plastic waste. Nature cannot keep up with the rate we humans pollute our planet with plastic scrap. Animals die from getting tangled in plastic, the chemicals in plastic, ingesting micro-fibers, and of choking.
Five massive areas in the oceans are covered with plastic waste captured by ocean currents. The Great Pacific garbage patch is one of the largest. Its size is estimated greater than the size of Texas.
The invisible price of a plastic world
Only one percent of all the plastic that is made has a known location. Scientists don't know where the other 99% has gone. Presumably, most of the plastic scrap ends up in very small particles all over the earth's ecosystems. From the ocean surface to beaches, mountains, and forests, plastic is everywhere. We are now faced with a phenomenon called nanoplastics: plastics that have broken down to sizes below a thousandth of a millimeter, smaller than a single cell. These particles end up in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Laboratory tests prove that nanoplastics make it to the bloodstream and cell structure of organisms, causing toxic effects and neural damage.
The second invisible price we pay is the effect of the production of greenhouse gasses as the result of the plastic lifecycle. It is estimated that 4 to 8 percent of the world's oil production is used to make plastic. An example: every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic bottled water. With the reduction in the demand for oil due to the transition to electric cars, and alternative energy sources, the petrochemical (plastic) industry becomes the largest driver of global oil consumption in the near future. Currently the coronavirus pandemic causes low oil prices due to less demand for oil. This results in the fact that it is cheaper to use oil to fabricate plastic than to use recycled plastic. Now, many recycling companies cannot sell their recycled plastic, which means more plastic will be combusted and more greenhouse gasses will be emitted.
"In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred megawatt coal power plants operating at full capacity." *
The making of plastic requires extraction and transport of natural resources which considerably adds to the production of greenhouse gases. The refining and manufacturing of plastic are among the most energy-consuming and emission-intensive industries. Plastic waste management and particularly the combustion of plastic scrap also leads to extremely large amounts of emissions and last but not least the plastic waste that ends up in our ecosystems leaks methane gases as it degrades which contributes to the greenhouse effect. Microplastics in our oceans degrade the ocean's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide according to recent studies.
What can we do?
It seems obvious that if we don't do someting the problem is going to get worse. Some countries recognize the urge to ban the use of disposable plastics. Kenia imposes a fine on the production and use of plastic bags. India imposes a total ban on disposable plastics by 2022. The European Parliament approved a law to ban single-use plastic products by 2021. Member states will have to achieve a 90% collection target for plastic bottles by 2029, and plastic bottles will have to contain at least 25% of recycled content by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
What about the US? In the US a battle on plastics is currently going on. A few states have banned various types of plastic, but the majority have no regulations, and many states have a ban preemption that prevents new legislation against single-use plastic. The plastic industry is winning to oppose future plastic bans. Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, the ocean, and the environment.
What can you do?
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!
Be conscious about what you buy, and what packaging is used.
Do you use plastic grocery bags?
Do you buy new soap bottles or refills?
Do you drink from plastic water bottles?
Do you use plastic straws?
Do you use plastic to-go cups?
Do you use plastic wraps?
Do you use plastic to pack your lunch?
Do you use plastic utensils?
Start your plastic-free life now!
Here are some tips to reduce your single-use plastic waste.
- Bring your own water bottle. Use your own reusable bottle
- Refuse plastic grocery bags and bring your own reusable bags
- Use reusable straws
- Use your own reusable lunch box
- Use your reusable (coffee) mug to-go
- Use reusable (bamboo) utensils to-go
- Put plastic products with the recycle logo in the recycle bin
- Recycle plastic bags at the appropriate location in your area
- Do not buy single-use plastic products
Check out our reusable products and our other Blogs to start your eco journey
This text provides general information. Thegreenbundle.com assumes no liability for the information given being complete or correct. The following sources were used and are considered reliable. Data may be subject to changes.
- https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/ whatischemistry/landmarks/bakelite.html