Image: Richard Carey - stock.adobe.com
Over 250,000 metric tons of plastic cover the world’s oceans. Image: NOAA
The world is dominated by plastic. The global plastic industry produces over $600 billion in revenue, annually. But what do we use this plastic for? Virtually everything, from car parts to toy dolls, from soda bottles to the refrigerators we store them in, to packaging of food and other goods. Over 40 percent of global plastic use, and almost 45 percent in the United States, is used for packaging. Plastic helps make our lives better, but it also is making the environment that we depend on for resources worse.
Americans alone throw away about 33.6 million tons of plastic each year. Only 6.5 percent of this is recycled, and only 7.7 percent is combusted in incinerators (Worldwatch Institute). Where does all the rest of this plastic go? Most of it winds up in landfills, where it can take over one thousand years to decompose, often leaking pollutants into the soil and water.
In fact, over a quarter of worldwide plastic is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, and where it takes up valuable space and land. Many plastic scraps from western countries are shipped to China, which receives 56 percent of global waste plastic imports. In addition, landfills contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, mainly methane and carbon dioxide, as materials decompose. In 2010, landfills accounted for 16.2 percent of methane emissions in the United States (Environmental Protection Agency). This is the equivalent of 107.8 million tons of carbon dioxide, as methane is more potent as a heat-trapping gas.
This is alarming because global plastic and waste production still continues to grow, requiring more land for landfills, and as a result emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, impacting the earth’s climate.
That 250,000 metric tons, and a minimum of 5.25 trillion particles of plastic that winds up in the ocean, whether it be whole water bottles or small pellets, greatly impacts marine ecosystems. According to a 2009 study, organic chemical pollutants can also be absorbed by these plastics and become ingested by organisms and cascade through a food chain.
These impacts are further exacerbated by the presence of floating plastics, such as large nets, resin pellets, docks, and boats that can bring microbial communities (algae, invertebrates, and fish) to non-native regions. Furthermore, marine organisms can become entangled in plastic debris. In the last decade, fatal entanglement and ingestion of marine debris has increased by 40 percent, killing organisms as small as zooplankton to whales, to seabirds and turtles.
Global consumption of plastic has skyrocketed in the past half-century, soaring from an estimated 1.7 million tons in the 1950s to over 299 million tons in 2013 (Worldwatch Institute). The amount of plastic used grew an average of 8.7 percent per year, and still continues to rise.
Over 250,000 metric tons of plastic float in the world’s oceans (Marcus Eriksen, “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans”), negatively impacting marine ecosystems and killing wildlife. 250,000 metric tons seems like a big number, but let’s visualize that a little bit more. Eriksen used the analogy of stacking plastic water bottles on top of each other to the moon and back, twice, to describe how much plastic this really is.
We use so much of it, and most people don’t really even know what it is. Plastics are also known as polymers, or long chains of repeating molecules. They are derived from oils, mainly petroleum, as well as natural gas, and natural materials, and are usually based around carbon or silicon atoms due to their bonding tendencies. Here’s a basic overview of the path from the oil field to a finished plastic product:
Petroleum is drilled and shipped to a refinery
Crude oil and natural gas are refined into ethane, propane, many other chemical products derived from petroleum refinement, and of course fuel for automobiles.
Using high-temperature furnaces, the ethane and propane are cracked (broken down into simpler molecules by breaking bonds) into ethylene and propylene.
A catalyst is combined with these simpler chemicals in a reactor, resulting in a powdered material called a polymer, which resembles laundry detergent.
The “fluff” is combined with additives in a continuous blender
The polymer is then fed to an extruder where it’s melted
Melted plastic is then cooled and fed to a pelletizer that cuts the product into small pellets
Pellets are shipped to customers, who then manufacture plastic products.
Dead turtle among plastic garbage from ocean on the beach. Image by Dmytro Sukharevskyi - stock.adobe.com
The discovery of plastic has made all our lives easier, and allows us to enjoy our television shows, take food on the go, drive in our cars, and many other conveniences. We live in a plastic paradise, but life is not a fairy tale. It’s time to wake up.
These conveniences we enjoy have a cost and we need to start paying attention to it. Why? To start, more than 100,000 marine organisms are killed by ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris, including plastics every year. This has a significant impact on marine ecosystems, which we and our economy rely on. Furthermore, as plastic production continues to grow, so does our waste and the land needed for landfills, which means less habitat for the critters we love and more greenhouse gas emissions and leaching of pollutants into the soil and water.
So what can we do? We can start by reducing the amount of plastic we use by not using plastic bags, bottles, or other containers, by recycling instead of throwing things out, and by helping to clean up the beaches and other habitats so organisms don’t become entangled or ingest these plastics.
A species that is intelligent enough to create an invention like plastic is intelligent enough to make informed decisions to keep the world they live in and rely on for food—and to live—healthy. It’s time for us to take action. It’s time for us to use less plastic.