Like many technologies plastics were a boon when they were first developed. However they have quickly become a plastic plague on the environment.
Plastics were the wonder material of the twentieth century. It’s hard to believe that the first true man-made plastic was Bakelite synthesised in 1907, just over a century ago. Plastics, which are synthetic polymers, weren’t mass produced until about the time of the second world war. Plastic production quickly escalated from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014—an increase of more than 2,000 percent – and its still growing.
The factors that make plastic such a desirable material to use are also what make it so unsustainable. Plastics really are the perfect storm of unsustainability. The fact that plastic is toxic, non-biodegradable and uses fossil fuels is compounded and amplified by the fact that it is cheap and easy to produce and extremely durable. It’s a shameful irony that one of the most durable materials synthesised by humans is the one used commonly in disposable goods, packaging and useless junk.
Decomposition rates of plastics
Plastic Water Bottle – 450 years
Disposable Nappies/Diapers – 500 years
6-Pack Plastic Collar – 450 Years
Extruded Polystyrene Foam – over 5,000 years
When plastics do ‘weather’ they simply break down to smaller pieces of plastic which are arguably more dangerous to life than larger pieces.
For a material that is intended to be quick and convenient, there is nothing quick or convenient about the lifecycle of a plastic object. Plastic only spends a tiny fraction of its existence actually serving its purpose. The rest of the time it is a growing plastic plague threatening the health of the environment, animals, and people.
Plastics are made from fossil fuels
Plastics are synthesised from organic oils, mostly fossil oil. The drilling, transportation and processing of this oil is an energy intensive process. For instance, for the 50 billion water bottles manufactured in the United States each year, roughly 17 million barrels of oil are required.
Most plastics aren’t recycled
Most plastics aren’t recycled, even if you put them in your recycling bin. 80 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States each year end up in a landfill. That’s roughly 38 billion water bottles that cost about a billion dollars to make. Numbers for plastic grocery bags are even worse. Between 0.5 and three percent of plastic bags are recycled, sending an estimated 100 billion plastic bags to landfills in America each year. Overall, in the United States, the EPA estimates that only 12 percent of plastic waste gets recycled. The other 88 percent goes to landfill or ends up in waterways and elsewhere where it can take as many as 1,000 years to decompose.
The results of a study published in Science magazine reported that eight million metric tons of plastic waste entering the marine environment every year.
Plastic doesn’t just accumulate in the ocean and make for an unsightly mess. It is hurting and killing a great deal of marine life all over the world. In total, it is estimated that ingestion of plastic kills 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year – through both ingestion and entanglement. Studies are showing that ingestion of BPA from plastics even if it doesn’t kill a fish, impact the endocrine system which can be detrimental to the immune system, reproductive system, development, neurological responses and overall growth. The higher up the food chain the more concentration of toxic chemicals. Humans are at the top of the fish food chain and at least some of the fish we eat will be contaminated.
Beating the plastic plague
Since there is no guarantee that everything you put in the recycling bin will actually end up being recycled, reducing your consumption of plastic is the best policy. It may be difficult to avoid all plastics but you you can find ways to reduce your dependence on plastic.
Ten tips for reducing plastic use and waste
- Don’t buy water in plastic bottles – get a washable stainless steel water bottle and fill it from the tap
- Use reusable shopping bags
- Choose natural biodegradable fabrics – organic cotton, hemp, linen, wool, silk
- Buy in bulk and reuse containers
- Choose options in glass bottles and jars
- Buy unpackaged fresh produce, preferably at Farmers Markets
- Avoid disposable products of any sort if possible – only use disposable products made from natural materials if not
- Use washable nappies/diapers
- If you have to smoke, don’t use filters (which are a type of plastic)
- Wash and reuse (or repurpose) plastic containers