Plastic is a modern environmental epidemic. It's everywhere, and it's permanent.
Plastic is a relatively recent invention. Developed in in the early 20th century and popularized in the 1960s, plastic is now incorporated in nearly every industry in the world: clothing, home goods, food products, cars, consumer goods.. the list goes on.
- The total amount of plastic produced in the world: 8.3 billion metric tonnes
- The total amount of plastic waste generated: 6.3 billion metric tonnes
Plastic isn't going anywhere; it's cheap and easy to make things from plastic. But also, it isn't going anywhere - plastic takes over 500 years to degrade. Of the plastic that is no longer in use,
- 9% has been recycled
- 12% has been incinerated
- The rest (assumed 79%) has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment
At the current rate of production and disposal, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050.
Plastics are so new to the world, there's no natural way for it to break down. Whereas organic, biological matter (e.g. plants) will be broken down by microbes, and the components be reincorporated into new organisms, plastic will not. Microbes don't know how to break plastic down, so it can't be integrated into an ecosystem - it's just a pollutant.
Plastic does "break down" with exposure to UV light, which exacerbates the pollution problem. Plastic water bottles, bags, straws, fishing nets, etc. break down into microplastics: minute particles of plastic that float on or below the surface of water.
Marine animals from the bottom to the top of the food chain ingest these microplastics because they resemble food. Seagulls, fish, and even whales have been found dead with stomachs full of plastic. Turtles especially have problems with plastic bags that haven't disintegrated, confusing them for jellyfish (food) or becoming entangled in them. It is estimated that plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fish.
Not only does plastic clog the digestive system of these animals, they also release toxic compounds (Bisphenol-A aka BPA) which bioaccumulate in their tissue. In instances that the fish survive ingesting plastic, the toxic compounds become more problematic because humans tend to eat a lot of fish. We're essentially poisoning ourselves with our own pollution.
Specific Causes of Plastic Pollution
Studies have found that 95% of plastic waste reaching the oceans via rivers travel through only 10 waterways. The Yangtze River in China is the worst perpetrator, joining 7 other Asian rivers and 2 African Rivers (Nile and Niger). The countries that these rivers flow through do not have adequate infrastructure for managing waste - especially plastic.
The most common type of plastic waste is the single-use plastic water bottle.
480 billion water bottles were sold in 2016
- 110 billion were made by Coca Cola.
- Less than 50% were collected for recycling.
- 7% were recycled into new bottles.
A silver lining to the black cloud of plastic pollution is that the sources are so concentrated. Because nearly all of the ocean-bound plastic comes from 10 waterways, mitigation of additional plastic pollution has the potential for high-efficiency: fix those waterways and we've pretty much stemmed the flow.
Other groups are working on solutions to cleaning the oceans of plastic, but extremely limited progress has been made. The oceans are vast, and plastic is essentially everywhere.
What you can do: start paying attention to the amount of plastic you use and what you do with it.
Stop using single-use plastic.