The world is drowning in plastic
It is quite ironic – and quite disconcerting at the same time – that something so cheap and useful only in the short-term can have such a detrimental and long-lasting impact on our planet. But this is the reality we have to face when it comes to our overproduction and overconsumption of plastic, and the huge amounts of plastic waste created as a direct consequence.
Plastic is a non-biodegradable substance – meaning that it cannot be decomposed or degraded by natural agents, unlike most paper or food waste. Consequently, plastic waste degrades over an exceptionally long period of time – if at all, with estimates for its durability ranging from 450 years to forever. And yet, more than half of all plastic produced is used only once before being tossed away.
On account of being less expensive to produce than any other alternatives, a material that is meant to last forever is being used to produce single-use items that we throw right away. This leads to creating incredible amounts of plastic waste which are difficult to dispose of and affect our entire ecosystems, contributing to air and water pollution, and negatively impacting the health and lifespan of both humans and animals.
This is by no means a recent realization – however, it is now more important than ever, because at this point in time not only has world plastic production increased exponentially (it has doubled in the last 50 years), but it continues to do so, to an extent that if it continues at its current rate, estimates say that by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in our landfills, and less fish than plastic in our oceans – with at least 937 million pieces of plastic waste and a fish population of only 895 million.
The gravity of this problem becomes all the more obvious when we look at the ways we’ve been dealing with plastic pollution so far. It has been estimated that between the 1950s and 2017, 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been produced, of which only 29% are still in use, and the rest has either been incinerated (9%) or accumulated in landfills or the environment (54%), while only 6% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.
The question that immediately pops into our heads is – why have only 6% of all plastic been recycled, especially since recycling and its importance for the environment have been so promoted over the past decades that this is now considered common sense?
The answer lies in the complexity of the recycling process.
Recycling is a far more complex and nuanced process than what we have been led to believe so far. Again, it all comes down to cost: it is far cheaper to manufacture most types of plastic from scratch than it is to recycle old plastic into something new. This is compounded by the serious lack of recycling centers, so in this instance, the cheaper solution is to ship the waste abroad to other countries rather than invest in building more recycling centers operating locally.
Another equally important reason is the fact that not all plastic products are easily recyclable – if at all. Thermoplastic (which constitutes around 90% of all plastic) can be recycled, while thermoset plastics (10%) cannot be recycled at all. Recyclable plastics often end up incinerated together with other types of plastic which are harder to recycle, because separating the plastic is not always possible: certain products are manufactured using both recyclable and non-recyclable plastic which cannot be separated.
There are also limitations to the number of times the same piece of plastic can be recycled. Recycling an individual plastic product can only be done about 2-3 times before its quality decreases to a point that it can no longer be used, even though each time an additional virgin material is added to help maintain its original quality.
There is also the issue of food residue: any plastic product that is contaminated with food residues cannot be recycled, unless it finds its way into a recycling factory that washes the plastic, which most of the time isn’t the case – instead, such plastic ends up being lumped with other trash to be thrown into a landfill or incinerated later.
Taking all that into consideration, we might be discouraged from making any individual efforts to help the process of recycling, since both recycling and individual efforts have been proven to be less effective methods for reducing plastic waste than we had previously believed.
Still, recycling is an important part of the solution, even if it isn’t enough on its own. And as for our individual contribution, it’s important to understand that we are actually not as powerless as it may initially seem – to the contrary, we as consumers are directly responsible for the way in which we use and dispose of products, which directly impacts their value and their post-use quality. Pressure by consumers also leads to an increasing number of plastic companies searching for better recycling methods.
Ultimately, what we as individuals can do is use this information to empower other individuals, rather than discourage them, to take the necessary steps to deal with plastic pollution and consequently heal our world.