Can you guess what I’m talking about?
It’s used every day…
Almost 3.7 million kilos in the UK each year…
Many people use it once and then throw it away…
It can take nearly 1000 years to decompose…
Did you guess? It’s plastic! Used everyday and thrown away without hesitation. Most types of waste have environmental issues but plastic takes it to a whole other level. It’s only recently that we’re really uncovering how devastating plastic pollution really is. Plastic doesn’t simply go away, it remains and contaminates for up to a thousand years and we’re using it more than ever! This is the big plastic problem.
Plastic production began in the 1940’s and has since become a necessity in modern society. Next year, more than 300 million tons will be produced worldwide. That means the amount of plastic manufactured in the first ten years of the 20th century will be more than the total produced in all of the 19th century. If things carry on this way it definitely won’t end well.
Companies package items in plastic without consideration due to it’s low cost and convenience. They’re then able to charge less for there products, which is attractive to customers. In 2018 a consumer survey reported that cost and convenience are the two most important factors when making a purchase.
In almost every supermarket the majority of pre-packaged food is wrapped in plastic, loose items are put into plastic bags, clothes hangers are plastic, the bank cards used to pay with are plastic and the machines used to pay on are plastic. Then at the end it’s all put into plastic bags. It’s in our clothes, it’s used throughout our working environments, it’s used to transport goods, it’s used within industries for equipment and at home for household appliances. It’s everywhere and it just won’t go away.
Plastic has profoundly negative effects on the environment. This is largely due to the fact that plastic materials and objects, like drinks bottles and food containers, are used once and then discarded. What happens to all the plastic that’s thrown in the bin? Well that’s where the major problem arises. Plastic isn’t easily recycled because of its chemical make-up and it’s quite an expensive process. So, plastic takes thousands of year to decompose, it’s difficult to recycle and our plastic production is rocketing everyday. See the plastic problem?
The issues start at the very beginning, as fossil fuels are required in the production process. Around 8% of world oil goes into plastic manufacturing and we should be moving away from fossils fuels, particularly crude oil. Every year the USA makes 100 billion plastic bags, a task which requires 12 million barrels of oil. Such a precious natural resource being used to produce something so disposable is not logical. Not only this but 72 billion gallons of water are required yearly to make plastic bottles. Using the Earth’s natural resources on such a scale is not sustainable.
Then there are the problems after the plastic is produced. It’s estimated plastic currently accounts for 10% of generated landfill waste and there’s 12.7 million metric tons of it floating around in the world’s oceans. The USA alone throws away 50 billion plastic bottles each year (that’s $1 billion worth of plastic bottles). Because of the costs to recycle plastic, it’s often shipped to developing countries where it will be burn’t and melted down. This on it’s own has a horrific effect on the environment as the process emits toxic gases that harm the atmosphere. The burning process increases the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air and is one of the leading causes of air pollution.
As plastic takes such a long time to decompose, when we send it to landfill, where are we expecting it to go? Plastic bags take around 1,000 years to decompose, whilst a plastic jug can take up to 1 million years. Some scientists even argue that plastic will never decompose. Over time the chemicals that hold the plastic together are broken down by UV rays into tiny pieces. These tiny pieces sink into the land contaminating water, soil, wildlife and plants.
Plastic isn’t just sent to landfill, an ever increasing amount ends up in the ocean. Around 90% of all ocean rubbish is plastic and there’s an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic for each square mile. According to the American Environmental Protection Agency 46% of plastics are afloat on the world’s oceans and can drift for several years before later concentrating on the ocean gyres. Once rubbish starts to accumulate in the ocean gyres this is when ‘islands of rubbish’ start to form. These islands threaten biodiversity as they act as a transportation device for bacteria which can spread globally.
“Around 50% of the plastic that people use is used only once. It’s then thrown away as waste.”
Effects on Wildlife
Plastic pollution has become a major problem for wildlife particularly animals that live in and around the ocean. The fishing industry alone dumps 150,000 tons of plastic into the ocean every year, not including plastic nets, buoys, lines and packaging. This contributes to an estimated 14 billion tons of plastic dumped in the ocean annually.
The Great Pacific Rubbish Patch is a vast gyre of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of California. It’s twice the size of Texas, just to put to put things in perspective for you. One plastic bag has the potential to kill an animal once every three months as a result of unintentional digestion or inhalation and with the millions of plastic bags in the sea the potential loss of life is gastronomical.
The Atlantic Ocean is another area which has really suffered from plastic pollution. The 300 million plastic bags are causing havoc to the wildlife who mistake their size, shape and texture for prey and die needlessly after ingestion. These types of deaths are increasing every year. Once ingested the plastic can kill the animals by blocking airways, clogging the stomach or poisoning them with plastic oils.
More than 180 species of animals have been documented to ingest plastic including birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals. Porpoises, small toothed wales closely related to dolphins, are one of the most common victims. As they eat sea nettles and jelly fish they often mistake plastic bags for food. If they survive initially swallowing the plastic bag they’re then at risk of a slow and painful death from toxicity or intestinal blockage. Plastic remains intact even after death and decomposition of the animal which means it’s possible for another animal to ingest it and suffer a similar fate.
The plastic problem continues to affect wildlife as a vast amount of plastic makes its way into waterways and is throwing off the environmental balance and ecosystems. With such a large amount of animals dying, food chains are being disrupted and every aspect of animal life is being threatened.
“In the ocean there are 48 particles of plastic for each particle of plankton”
Plastic and Humans
All this plastic making its way into the ecosystem is also ending up inside humans. As a result of wildlife swallowing plastic, particles are making their way up the food chain to the humans that are causing the problems. The U.S.A’s Centre for Disease and Prevention reported that 93% of 2,751 people studied had detectable levels of BPA in their urine. BPA, or Bisphenol A is a chemical used to make plastic which can alter hormones and can cause reproductive abnormalities. These plastic particles are so microscopic that they are consumed unknowingly. Surely the point at which humans are unknowingly consuming plastic calls for drastic change?
“Currently Americans generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste annually however the recycle only 1 – 2% of it.”
With all this shocking research and statistics you’d think that plastic use was dropping? Quite the opposite in fact, the plastic problem continues and plastic is being used and disregarded at an increasing rate higher than ever before. The annual consumption of plastic has shot globally from 5 millions tons in the 1950’s to around 100 billion tons today. According to research done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the total amount of plastic waste will be greater than the total number of fish found in our oceans by 2050. So the problem of what to do with all this plastic is only going to get worse.
“About 97% of plastic ever made still exists”.
The continued use of plastic we see today is completely unsustainable and rather than address the issue we’re actually making it worse. I’m not suggesting everyone stops using all plastic tomorrow, I mean if you can then great, but for most that’s not realistic. Without even realising plastic is used everyday and then thrown away without consideration or a second thought. We’ve become accustomed to one-use plastic products and sending them off to landfill or worse the ocean. At the moment more animals are dying, more ecosystems are being destroyed and more humans are becoming exposed to plastic chemicals. What we are doing now is destroying this planet and its inhabitants and unless we do something this will only continue and get worse. At Veggie Vagabonds we’re not just going to tell you about problems and not give you any answers. If you want to cut down your plastic use then keep posted for The Plastic Solution coming to you soon.
Are you worried about plastic pollution? Tell us in the comments box below!