Plastics are amazing products. Their name stems from their best trait: moldability. Plastics can be molded or shaped into just about anything, and their combination of durability and malleability is exceedingly rare. As such, they have quickly become a ubiquitous part of the global economy. And we’ve certainly made a lot of plastic; global production has risen from two megatons in 1950 to 380 megatons in 2015.
The chemical makeup of plastics is great in many ways but terrible in one major one: they decompose at a snail’s pace in nature, and they never fully leave our ecosystems. 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.
Let’s focus on plastic waste in our water, specifically in the oceans, which cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface. 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. And while estimates vary as to how much plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the bottom line is that it’s a lot - likely somewhere around 10 million metric tons per year. On our current polluting trajectory, that figure is expected to nearly triple to 29 million metric tons by 2040.
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 has exacerbated this issue.
There’s even a giant area of the Pacific Ocean twice as big as Texas 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.
It’s critical to appreciate that most of that plastic is out of sight. As visual creatures, we tend to focus on things we can see. Most of us don’t see tons of plastic waste in our everyday lives, and last time I checked, most of us don’t live in the oceans. Even if we did, almost all of the plastic floating in the ocean would be invisible to the naked eye. But it’s there, from the ocean surface to the bottom of the ocean, where scientists have measured concentrations of 2,000 parts of microplastics per liter of seawater. You’ve probably seen images of turtles or seabirds choking on big pieces of plastic, but it’s so-called microplastic that you should really be worried about. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long that can easily spread across ecosystems and through bodies, affecting a host of bodily systems and functions in humans and other species.
That last part is key: plastics aren’t just a threat to other creatures. They harm and kill us. When we eat animals (like fish) that have ingested plastics, the toxins enter our bodies and cause all sorts of issues. And when we use plastics products that contain harmful toxins like phthalates and BPAs, the same applies. A new study published in the journal Environmental International found evidence of microplastic particles present in the human body for the first time, and pediatrician Leonardo Trasande, who directs the NYU Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards, estimates that the human health cost of plastic in the U.S. alone is around $100 billion a year. It’s hard to precisely quantify the global impact of plastic waste on human health, but suffice it to say that it harms just about all of us and kills far too many of us. If nothing else, we all have a shared interest in doing away with plastics for good.