Plastic Pollution How Humans are Turning the World into Plastic
When the gods granted King Midas one wish, he wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Midas was delighted. Trees, rocks, buildings, all gold. However, he found in horror that his food turned into gold as well. When he hugged his daughter to soothe his pain, he realised his mistake too late. The wealthiest man in existence was starving, heartbroken, and alone. Humanity got a similar wish granted when we learned how to turn brown, stinky goo into magic.
Plastic is cheap, sterile and convenient. It changed our lives. However, this wonder of technology has gotten a little out of hand. Plastic has saturated our environment. It has invaded the animals we eat. Now, it’s finding its way into our bodies.
What is plastic? For most of our history, humans used stuff we found in nature to build the things we needed. However, the invention of plastic roughly 100 years ago completely changed our world.
What Is Plastic Made From?
Plastic is made from polymers, long, repeating chains of molecule groups.
In nature, polymers exist everywhere: the walls of cells, silk, hair, insect carapaces, DNA. However, it’s also possible to create them. By breaking down crude oil into its components and rearranging them, we can form new synthetic polymers.
Synthetic polymers have extraordinary traits. They are lightweight, durable, and can be moulded into almost any shape. Not requiring time-consuming manual work, plastic can be easily mass produced. Its raw materials are available in vast amounts and incredibly cheaply.
Bakelite was used for mechanical parts, PVC for plumbing, electric gears and cases. Acrylic is a shatter-resistant alternative to glass and nylon for stockings and war equipment. Today, almost everything is at least partly made from plastic, our clothes, phones, computers, furniture, appliances, houses and cars.
Plastic has long ceased to be a revolutionary material. Instead, it became trash. Coffee cups, plastic bags or stuff to wrap a banana. We don’t think about this fact a lot. Plastic just appears and goes away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
Since synthetic polymers are so durable, plastic takes between 500 and 1,000 years to break down. We collectively decided to use this super tough material for things meant to be thrown away. 40% of plastics are used for packaging.
How Much Plastic Do We Throw Away?
In the US, packaging makes up one-third of all the waste that gets generated annually. Since its invention, we have produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, 335 million tons in 2016 alone.
More than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have become waste since 1907. Piled up in one place, that makes a cube with a side length of 1.9 kilometres.
So what did we do with all this waste? 9% was recycled, 12% burned. However, 79% of it is sticking around still. A lot ends up in the ocean, about 8 million tons a year. That’s so much plastic that it will outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. Because it’s everywhere, marine animals keep getting trapped in plastic and swallowing it. In 2015 already, 90% of seabirds had eaten plastic.
Many animals starve with stomach’s full of indigestible trash. In 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up in Spain. He had eaten 32 kilos of plastic bags, nets, and a drum. While this is tragic and makes for great magazine covers, there’s an even more widespread invisible form of plastic, microplastics.
Microplastics are pieces smaller than five millimetres. Some of them are used in cosmetics or toothpaste. However, most result from floating waste that is continuously exposed to UV radiation and crumbles into smaller and smaller pieces.
How Much Ends Up In The Sea?
51 trillion such particles float in the ocean where they are even more easily swallowed by all kinds of marine life. This has raised concerns among scientists, especially about health risks from the chemicals that are added to plastic. BPA, for example, makes plastic bottles transparent but there’s also evidence that it interferes with our hormonal system. DEHP makes plastics more flexible but may cause cancer.
It would be pretty bad if microplastics are toxic because they travel up the food chain. Zooplankton eats microplastics. Small fish eat zooplankton. So do oysters, crabs and predatory fish. They all land on our plate.
Microplastics have been found in honey, in sea salt, in beer, in tap water and the household dust around us. 8 out of 10 babies and nearly all adults have measurable amounts of phthalates, a common plastic additive in their bodies.
93% of people have BPA in their urine. There is little science about this so far, and right now it’s inconclusive. We need a lot more research before panic is justified. However, it is safe to say that a lot of stuff happened that we didn’t plan for and we have lost control over plastic to a certain extent, which is kind of scary.
But to make sure we should simply ban plastics right? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Plastic pollution is not the only environmental challenge we face. Some of the substitutes we’d use for plastic have a higher ecological impact in other ways.
For example, according to a recent study by the Danish government, making a single-use plastic bag requires so little energy and produces far lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to a reusable cotton bag that you need to use your cotton bags 7,100 times before it would have a smaller impact on the environment than the plastic bag.
How Do We Solve The Plastic Problem?
We’re left with a complex process of trade-offs. Everything has an impact somehow it’s hard to find the right balance between them. Plastic also helps solve problems that we don’t have excellent answers for at the moment.
Globally, one-third of all food that’s produced is never eaten and ends up rotting away on landfills where it produces methane. The best way of preventing food from spoiling and avoiding unnecessary waste is still plastic packaging.
90% of all plastic waste entering the ocean through rivers comes from just 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. The Yangtze in China alone flushes 1.5 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year.
Countries like China, India, Algeria or Indonesia industrialised at an impressive pace in the last few decades, transforming the lives of billions of people. This development was so fast that the garbage disposal infrastructure couldn’t keep up with collecting and recycling all the new waste this brought.
If politicians in Europe and the US want to address this issue, investing in infrastructure in developing countries is just as important as fighting plastic pollution at home with campaigns and redesigning products to minimise unnecessarily plastic production.
The bottom line is as long as we don’t address plastic pollution from a global perspective, we will not solve it. Plastic pollution is a complicated problem. We found a magic material and we had a really good time with it. But we need to be careful or just like Midas, we’ll end up in a world that we didn’t wish for.
Your individual daily actions still have a huge impact. What you do matters. Refuse disposable plastics. Convince your friends and family to do the same. Pressure companies and politicians to take the necessary steps to keep our oceans clean and our food safe.
Together, we can beat plastic pollution.