Plastic: The Problem And Its Impact
WWF and Impact Hub join forces for the oceans. This blog post is part of a wider campaign aiming to share knowledge about environmental challenges within our communities.
“Plastics have transformed our lives: revolutionized medicine, lighten every car and jumbo jet today, saving fuel—and pollution. In the form of clingy, light-as-air wraps, they extend the life of fresh food. In airbags, incubators, helmets, or simply by delivering clean drinking water plastics save lives daily. Plastic saved wildlife: piano keys or billiard balls were before made of elephant ivory.”
Low-cost, lightweight and resistant, plastic has benefits we can not deny. But, unfortunately, we now see the consequences of our intense use, little recycling and leak into nature, where it negatively impacts rivers, oceans, wildlife and humans.
The key issue is that synthetic materials such as plastics contain chemical combinations which means they don’t undergo decay. A plastic fork used for 15 minutes can take 450 years or more to decompose. What makes it even more challenging is the combination of plastic with other materials and the various types. The main differentiation is:
- Macro-plastics such as bags, cigarette filters, bottles, caps, food containers, cloths or straws are the most visible form of plastic pollution.
- Microplastics are the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch.
To take action we need to understand the wide-ranging, negative impacts of the problem. The challenge begins at production. Let’s take a look at some of the facts:
- Since 1950, there have been 8.3 billion tons of plastics produced: 6.3 billion tons ended up as waste out of which 9% has been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% ended up in landfills and nature. Most plastics can be recycled.
- Annual plastic production of ∼300 million tons of which 8m tons enters the oceans every year.
- 50% of annual production is single-use plastics, 26% by volume is packaging.
- It costs 1-2 euros per kilogram production of virgin plastic and it requires 2-3 liters to produce a 1-liter bottle.
- 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal (non-renewable resources).
Naturally, this leads us to our next challenge: the waste.
- Plastic waste is expected to quadruple from 2010 to 2050 and global recycling capacity will only cover 1/3 of the waste.
- China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam generate more ocean plastic waste than the rest of the world combined.
- 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
- High-income countries generate more plastic waste per person but waste is managed well; thus a small leak into nature. Countries with poor waste collection and management cause more ocean plastic pollution.
- The United States only recycle 14% of its waste, the rest goes to landfills.
The consequences are widespread- and especially the long term impact and the consequences for humans are not yet fully understood.
- By 2050, it is predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.
- 90% of bottled water and 70% – 90% of tap water contains plastic fibers.
- 15% of the sand is actually grains of microplastic on some beaches in Hawaii.
- 617,000sq miles (three times the size of France) = Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, which is 50% caused by fishing nets, ropes and lines.
- Sea animals and birds ingest plastic, leading them to die. Around 600 species are believed to be affected, and 90% of the world’s seabirds have fragments of plastic in their stomachs, compared to 5% in 1960.
Is there an impact on human health?
There is no data yet but a growing concern around microplastics as they contaminate air, tap and bottled water, food and drinks, including salt, fish, honey and beer. All types of sea creatures are ingesting microplastics, and as they move up the food chain, these plastics will inevitably end up in the human gut.
By itself, plastic is not dangerous but microplastic acts like a magnet for a range of other poisons and pollutants we have spilled into the natural world. So organic materials, pesticides and pharmaceuticals that end up in our marine systems will tend to get concentrated in these tiny particles and potentially disturb our hormone system. Effects are unclear.
Not to forget the many lives that depend on and live from plastic. The plastic collectors in Bangladesh who collect, dry and sell plastic. Or those in the plastic recycling industry in the slums of India that melt plastic to create small pellets taking all the health risks on them. The consequences that plastic has on them should not be forgotten.
What does the plastic issue cost us financially?
The economic impact of this man-made predicament is immense. Damage to marine ecosystems is estimated to equate to some 13 billion dollars per year. Related economic costs include those linked to clean-up operations and litter removal. But there is more:
- The fishing industry: Plastic damaging fishing equipment and loss of revenue that culminates from less fish being caught, and the fact that the ones caught nowadays are often of poorer quality.
- The tourism industry: Beaches in the Caribbean and Thailand are lined with plastics, putting many off revisiting these sights. In South Korea, a single marine litter event caused a revenue loss of about €29m in 2011 compared to 2010, as a result of over 500,000 fewer visitors to the country.
Countries in the south often depend on fishing or coastal tourism, which makes them more vulnerable to the economic consequences of ocean plastic pollution.
It’s a mind-bending problem, so embedded into our societies and lives that it begs the question of whether we’ll step up and take meaningful action. Has the problem outgrown our own ability to solve it? WWF doesn’t think so. They’ve set the goal to have no plastic in nature by 2030, counting on circular economy models and system solutions. “The plastics crisis in our oceans was created in a single lifetime and can be ended in a single decade. If we act now, together.”
Action has to be taken on multiple fronts, which is why we are all responsible- not only as individuals, but as entrepreneurs, institutions, and companies. Check back here soon for a blog post where we’ll explore the solutions and people who are part of the Impact Hub network and already taking action. In the meantime, if you want to learn more, check out the links below.
- Planet or Plastic (National Geographic)
- The costs of plastic (World Finance) – The economic impact of the plastic challenge.
- One of the defining characteristics of a new epoch in the planet’s history (The Independent)
- The race to save the planet from plastic (Vox) – Discusses about how to break plastic down, and how a bacterium was found that breaks down PET.
- A Plastic Ocean – A documentary by Netflix that investigates plastic pollution environmental impact
- Plastic Paradise –The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – documentary talking about a large island in the Pacific that has become an enormous garbage dump
- Straw – A short documentary that reviews the history of drinking straws and addresses the present-day issues
- Bag It – A documentary that focuses on the world’s overuse of plastic bags and other plastic items
*Header image: Sam Hobson WWF UK.
3 Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation unless marked otherwise.
4 Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation unless marked otherwise.
5 Jamberk & Geyre, 2017, ‘Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”’. Estimates assume consistent use patterns and project current global waste management trends. And World Economic Forum, 2017, ‘The New Plastics Economy’