Eco Explainer: What’s the Problem with Plastic?
Almost everyone knows we have a plastic problem, but looking at the numbers shows what we’re really up against.
We have all, at some point, become aware of the environmental implications our rampant consumption of plastics cause, either through a map showing the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a heart-wrenching photo of a seabird or sea turtle trapped and killed by plastic, or an article encouraging us to ditch plastic straws and other single-use plastics. After all, we just finished Plastic-Free July.
Here’s the deal:
We use a lot of plastic.
Plastic by the numbers
Let’s do some math.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, and every year up to five trillion single-use plastic bags are used around the world. Half of all plastics produced are made to be used only once before they’re thrown away. Scientists have even suggested that plastic waste could be used as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene.
Plastics are convenient, cheap, and lightweight. They serve a variety of functions in our modern society. The problem is, we produce about three hundred million tons of the stuff annually now, which is almost equal to the weight of the entire seven billion plus human population. Since the 1950s, more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic is estimated to have been produced, and most of that has ended up in landfills or the natural environment.
We know that only nine percent of all the plastic waste that has ever been produced has been recycled, twelve percent has been incinerated, and the majority, 79%, has ended up languishing in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment. Plastic takes up at least 25% of dumps by volume. It’s clear that the plastic produced today will still be floating in our oceans or buried underground long after we’re gone.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental non-profit focused on protecting marine wildlife and ecosystems, eight million metric tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans every year. These annual eight million tons join the 150 million tons already circulating through its currents and food chains.
No addition required: All of this adds up to a LOT OF PLASTIC.
But plastic isn’t just an issue when it enters the environment as waste: Its production has its problems, too.
We know that 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. The United States uses an estimated 200,000 barrels of oil a day to produce conventional plastic packaging. If current trends continue, the global plastic industry will account for twenty percent of the world’s total oil consumption by the year 2050.
Converting these fossil fuels into plastic requires chemical processing plants that pollute our air. These factories tend to be located in low-income communities that lack the resources or political clout to fight back despite suffering from higher rates of health problems associated with the factory pollutants.
But are all plastics created equal? Are there some plastics better for the planet than others? Or can we only hope to solve the problem by reducing our consumption of plastic and opting for zero-waste options?
Up next week: We’ll take a look at biodegradable and compostable plastics.
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