The plastic plague

Plastics were a boon when they were first developed, like many technologies, but 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 Bakelite, the first true man-made plastic, was synthesised in 1907, just over a century ago. Manufacturers didn’t mass produce plastics, which are synthetic polymers, 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 amplified by the facts that it is cheap, 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 ‘weather’ they simply break down to smaller pieces of plastic which could be 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.

Humans make plastics from fossil fuels

Businesses synthesise plastics from organic oils, mostly fossil oil. The drilling, transportation and processing of this oil is an energy intensive process. For instance, the 50 billion water bottles manufactured in the United States each year require about 17 million barrels of oil.

We don’t recycle most plastics

We don’t recycle most plastics, 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. Society recycles only 0.5-3.0% of plastic bags, meaning people send an estimated 100 billion plastic bags to landfills in America each year. The EPA estimates that the United States recycles only 12 percent of plastic waste overall. 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.

Eating Plastic

A study published in Science magazine reported that eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the marine environment every year.

Plastic doesn’t just accumulate in the ocean and make for an unsightly mess, it is harming and killing marine life all over the world. Estimates indicate 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, impacts the endocrine system which can be detrimental to the immune system, reproductive system, development, neurological responses and overall growth. There is more concentration of toxic chemicals the higher up the food chain you go. At least some of the fish humans eat will be contaminated because humans are at the top of the fish food chain.

Beating the plastic plague

It is best to reduce your consumption of plastic; what you put in the recycling bin may not get recycled. 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

  1. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles – get a washable stainless steel water bottle and fill it from the tap
  2. Use reusable shopping bags
  3. Choose natural biodegradable fabrics – organic cotton, hemp, linen, wool, silk
  4. Buy in bulk and reuse containers
  5. Choose options in glass bottles and jars
  6. Buy unpackaged fresh produce, preferably at Farmers Markets
  7. Avoid disposable products of any sort if possible – only use disposable products made from natural materials if not
  8. Use washable nappies/diapers
  9. If you have to smoke, don’t use filters (which are a type of plastic)
  10. Wash and reuse (or repurpose) plastic containers