The plastics crisis is increasingly urgent and solving it requires major economic and environmental shifts.
For most of human history, our ancestors used whatever they could find to fashion basic tools and other products. We used metals to make swords and knives, plants to build houses and paper, and ivory and bones to make sculptures and jewelry, among many other things. These represented major advancements for our species, but we depended entirely on naturally occurring materials to facilitate our ways of life.
Up until roughly the last hundred years, polymers fell into that category as well. We’ve been making things like balls and figurines out of naturally occurring polymers—substances or materials made of very large molecules that are repetitive multiples of simpler chemical units called monomers—for thousands of years. That all changed in 1907 when a Belgian-American chemist named Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic polymer, which he humbly named Bakelite. Baekeland coined the term plastics to convey the versatility of his innovative product. In Greek, plastikos means “capable of being shaped or molded.” Plastics are both durable and malleable, which is a rare combination in nature.
For a while, plastic production was curtailed by both the lack of source materials and limited chemical knowledge of how to reliably make synthetic polymers. That all changed with World War II as production nearly quadrupled from 1939 to 1945, coinciding with rising oil production and a postwar economic boom driven by an abundance of new consumer products.
Plastics were the perfect product for a new consumer culture centered on speed, convenience, and disposability. They’re cheap and easy to both make and dispose of, they’re a byproduct of oil refining (meaning they kill two birds with one stone), and they can be used to make just about anything, as their name implies. From televisions and cars to packaging and clothing, plastics have become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Since large-scale production began in the 1950s, global production of resins and fibers (source materials for plastics) has skyrocketed from two megatons in 1950 to 380 megatons in 2015. It’s simply staggering to consider just how much plastics have dominated all sorts of industries and changed the world.
It’s hard to imagine a day going by without plastics touching some aspect of our lives. Plastics have improved our society in many ways. Modern life and plastics go hand-in-hand, but this rosy picture obviously ignores the ugly truth of our global plastics addiction: it’s choking us.
The chemical makeup of plastics is great in many ways—they’re versatile and easy to source and make—but terrible in others, most notably for what happens after you’re done using them. The flipside of their durability is that plastics decompose very slowly in nature; it might take a given plastics product like a disposable diaper hundreds of years to fully decompose. And even when degraded, plastics never fully leave our ecosystems. The only way to permanently erase plastic waste is through destructive thermal treatment, a process that uses extreme heat to break down polymers, but it’s both economically impractical and environmentally destructive.
The result of our addiction to plastics and their chemical resilience is a lot of harmful waste. Of the estimated 9.2 billion tons of plastics made between 1950 and 2017, about seven billion tons became plastic waste. It’s in our air, our water, and our land. Plastic waste is so common that it has become an irreversible geological marker of our harmful impact on the planet. When the aliens come, they’ll find a planet full of plastic.
Scientists have found so-called microplastics—small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long—everywhere from the polar ice caps to the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the ocean (where scientists have measured concentrations of 2,000 parts of microplastics per liter of seawater). According to one 2016 study, a normal washing machine cycle may release up to 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the environment.
There’s even a giant area of the Pacific Ocean twice as big as Texas that has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is largely composed of plastic waste. For every pound of plankton present within the patch, there might be an estimated six pounds of plastic. You can’t see most of the trash with the naked eye, but it’s there, and it’s killing our planet. By 2050, there might be 12 billion tons of plastic sitting in landfills across the globe and more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish.
Only a fraction of disposed of plastic is recycled, and recycled plastic is downcycled every time it’s reused, meaning it gets less and less useful because of its chemical properties. 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled; it’s either incinerated or ends up in a landfill. One engineering professor who researches plastic pollution says that the annual amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean is equivalent to five grocery-sized plastic bags for every foot of coastline. Every minute, two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic enters the oceans. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped, either. The excessive use of single-use plastics (including consumer packaging and personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves) throughout the pandemic will have long-lasting environmental impacts.
Plastics can cause major environmental harm in three fundamental ways: physically, chemically, and biologically. Animals can become entangled in plastic and/or ingest it. We’ve all seen pictures of turtles or birds trapped in plastic. Plastic waste kills legions of marine animals: 100 million every year, according to some estimates. Ingested microplastics often end up in the digestive system, negatively affecting reproduction, growth and development, and dietary intake.
Chemically, the chemical additives used in plastics manufacturing can be highly toxic. Plastic waste can release harmful chemicals into soil, affecting drinking water for humans and non-human species alike. Plastics contain compounds called persistent organic pollutants (also known as POPs) that pass from animal to animal in the natural food chain. When top predators in a food chain (like sharks) eat, they ingest everything that their prey have eaten, leading to amplified concentrations of harmful chemicals.
This so-called bioamplification is perhaps most widely known as the reason why some seafood products contain warnings about high mercury content. It happens with plastic, too; examples of plastic-related POPs that are bioamplified in nature include DDT, a pesticide which was developed to combat insect-borne diseases but became infamous for its environmental impacts. While DDT was banned long ago (which saved many species like the bald eagle), POPs persist around the world and will affect the natural world for centuries to come.
When plastics decompose, chemical additives like phthalates and bisphenol A (widely known as BPA) also leak out. These additives disrupt various aspects of human health, particularly hormones. In fact, microplastics are recognized as a major threat to human fertility. Nowadays, you increasingly see consumer products like shampoos and reusable bottles labeled phthalate-free or BPA-free as their dangers are publicized.
Biologically speaking, microorganisms like viruses and bacteria can use plastic particles to hitchhike quickly, thereby spreading through existing environments or finding new ones. They might not necessarily cause the next global pandemic, but it’s a distinct possibility, and we certainly don’t want to supercharge the spread of harmful microorganisms. Plus, there’s evidence that plastics facilitate the transfer of harmful invasive species across ecosystems.
And as if all of this isn’t bad enough, the plastics crisis and the climate crisis are intertwined.
Today, about four to eight percent of global oil production is associated with plastics. That figure may rise to 20% by 2050 as our plastics addiction worsens. At every step of the plastic supply chain, greenhouse gases are emitted. Extracting and transporting the fossil fuels needed to make plastic is carbon-intensive. So are refinement and manufacturing along with waste disposal. Plastic sitting in landfills emits methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And incinerating plastic is also terrible for the atmosphere, causing multiple forms of air pollution.
As such, if plastics were a country, they’d be the world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter. By 2050, plastics could use 10-13% of our remaining carbon emissions budget. Furthermore, our dependence on plastics is literally restricting one of nature’s most effective carbon stores: phytoplankton. As they ingest more and more microplastics, their ability to absorb greenhouse gases is compromised.
Overall, it’s hard to understate just how destructive plastics are in every sense of the word. And as with many other aspects of environmental degradation, the impacts are unequal. For decades, wealthier countries—which use most of the world’s plastic—have practiced waste colonialism, dumping their plastic waste on their poorer neighbors, many of whom often lack the physical and regulatory means to properly dispose of it.
In addition, plastic-related health problems disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities (BIPOC). Plastic waste treatment facilities (collection, sorting, processing, recycling, incinerating, and landfill sites) are placed disproportionately in or near communities of color. This is a prime example of environmental injustice and yet another glaring reason why we should ditch plastics.
One of the easiest ways to greatly diminish your plastics footprint is to stop buying water bottles and other disposable bottles. Reusable bottles have a number of benefits over their disposable counterparts, including affordability, durability, and greenhouse gas emissions. You also have more control over the quality of the fluid you put in your bottle, and you can avoid the chemical contaminants that are all too common in plastic bottles. Along the same lines, try using reusable bags when you go to the grocery store and avoiding single-use takeout packaging when you can.
Purchasing some second-hand items also helps alleviate plastics use. New products (and their packaging) often contain excessive plastic that you can avoid by buying perfectly good alternatives that are often cheaper than what’d you pay for a newer version.
Buying in bulk is another fantastic option to cut your plastics use. Think about the ratio of packaging to product for items you buy on a regular basis. You can probably buy bigger containers of the toiletries or grocery products you use each and every day. In doing so, you’ll get a better bang for your buck while reducing your plastics use.
Speaking of toiletries, they often contain microbeads, a type of microplastics that refers to manufactured solid plastic particles of less than one millimeter in their largest dimension. Many beauty products use microbeads as cleansing agents and exfoliants, but they are enormously harmful to the environment. If you can, opt for toiletries that use natural products rather than invisible plastics that don’t help you look as good as you might think while degrading the environment.
These are just some of the simple personal lifestyle choices you can make at home to reduce your plastics footprint. If nothing else, they can help you feel better about your everyday choices and the planet around you. But in the end, solutions to any environmental crisis must come at a bigger scale.
A litany of organizations and companies are looking to diminish their use of plastics. For example, technology giant HP uses the equivalent of one million plastic bottles per day in its products. But instead of letting all of that plastic go to waste, the company upcycles much of it. While most of us have heard of recycling, upcycling isn’t as widely known. Upcycling entails transforming something that might be considered useless (like waste materials or byproducts of an existing process) into materials or products of higher quality. HP upcycles much of its plastic from Haiti—one of the world’s poorest countries with no municipal garbage collection and uneven access to clean water in addition to abundant plastic waste—to make high-tech products like printer cartridges, desktop fans, and even entire laptops.
In Germany, three co-founders were compelled to create a social enterprise focused on mitigating plastic pollution after witnessing major pollution along the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. They founded Plastic Fischer in 2019 as one of the world’s first companies aimed at tackling marine plastic pollution. Plastic Fischer works as locally as possible, using simple technology that isn’t dependent on expensive imports and can be maintained and repaired quickly and cheaply with local labor. Their core technology, called TrashBoom, is a swimming barrier that effectively stops most floating plastic in rivers like the Mekong. And there’s nothing secretive about how TrashBoom works; blueprints and construction manuals are available open-source on Plastic Fischer’s website.
In addition to companies big and small, nonprofits around the world are working on cutting plastic pollution. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) is a nonprofit consortium that unites governments and big companies among other key stakeholders to help end plastic waste. The AEPW is run across three regions—North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia—to find and grow startups working on advanced plastic waste solutions. Other groups looking to leverage the power of collaboration to tackle the persistent plastics problem include but are not limited to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, and The Ocean Cleanup.
As you can see, there are ways to lessen plastic pollution at all levels of society. While it’s good to be optimistic, a bit of clear-eyed caution is needed to properly understand the plastics crisis. For instance, industry executives have touted recycling for decades as the best way to alleviate our plastic waste problem. But they haven’t done this out of the goodness of their hearts. Recycling encourages the public to turn a blind eye to their collective plastics addiction, and it’s not nearly as effective as you might assume. Low recycling rates have plagued the plastic industry since its inception. Unlike paper, glass, and metal, many types of plastics simply cannot be recycled because of cost constraints or because of how they’re made. Furthermore, virgin plastics are usually cheaper to produce than recycled plastics. In short, we cannot recycle our way of the plastics crisis.
Bans on single-use plastics have become a popular way for governments to claim victory points on plastic waste prevention. But their existence is spotty, as is their effectiveness in the big picture. And we can invent all sorts of technological alternatives to plastics, but that likely won’t go far enough. The root of this crisis is overconsumption. In order to fix the plastics crisis along with many other environmental crises, we need to stop overconsuming and transition toward a “zero-waste” culture.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth an ounce of cure. We need to rethink our linear and wasteful ways of life in favor of more environmentally friendly and sustainable ones. We ought to eschew the throwaway mentality that motivates us to buy things that we barely use and then toss them when they’re no longer convenient. We can adopt concepts like circular economy principles, which entails reusing products as long as possible with a focus on helping the environment rather than hurting it. These ways of thinking restore and regenerate nature rather than exploiting and degrading it, which is the approach we take with plastics and many other pieces of modern life.
Fortunately, there is some recent good news. The United Nations has begun negotiations on a legally binding global plastics treaty that could set rules for the production, use, and disposal of plastics. This agreement may be as transformative as the Montreal Protocol, which saved the ozone layer three decades ago. If enacted, it will prove far more important for the environment than you and I cutting our individual plastic consumption here and there.
As with any environmental issue, solutions to the plastics crisis will come from harnessing the power of the collective to come together and bring about changes that help ourselves, each other, and the natural world. Plastics are one of the greatest innovations of the modern era, but as we increasingly recognize the devastation they wreak upon us and the planet, it’s time for us to move past them wherever we can.
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