How Bad is Plastic, Really?
Plastic is a part of our everyday lives, present in everything from the toys our children play with to the foam cushions on our couches. Chances are good that you likely drink out of a plastic water bottle and rely on the plastic mouse you need to use your computer, and that is why it is so difficult to imagine a world where plastic is not a part of our everyday lives.
Though many of us are keen to curb our plastic waste in an effort to reduce our individual negative impact on the environment, it is hard to understand just how much plastic has changed the modern world and how damaging this modern material really is to the health of the world’s ecosystem.
Where Plastic Goes
For all its valuable functionality, plastic has become the scourge of Earth’s oceans and landfills, contributing to the destruction of fragile ecosystems and creating a monumental problem for countries all around the world. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that 22 to 43 percent of plastic will end up in landfills where they will not be recycled, while a whopping 10 to 20 million tons of plastic makes its way to our oceans every single year.
The Problem with Recycling Plastic
Because recycling has been at the forefront of environmental protection checklists for decades, there are millions of people who recycle much of their plastic materials. For the U.S. and Europe, most of the recyclable plastics disposed of, as much as 56 percent of it, will be routed to China for processing. While these efforts are done to reduce the waste and environmental impact of plastic, the actual processing of this plastic creates another unfortunate environmental hazard – improper disposal of contaminants and environmentally-damaging waste water.
The 2010 Green Fence Operation, a Chinese government program working to improve environmental regulation for facilities that process plastic, has been able to successfully help these plants reduce their carbon footprint, but there is still more work to be done to improve regulations.
A Staggering Amount of Plastic
There is still a long way for all of us to go before we can offset our insatiable plastic use with proper recycling and disposal, and in the meantime, our consumption and creation of new plastic materials goes up year after year.
In 2015, more than 300 million tons of plastic products, from cell phone cases to Styrofoam packaging, was produced worldwide. In the U.S. alone, the average citizen consumes nearly 250 pounds of plastic products each year, most of which comes in the form of product packaging.
World’s Oceans Are Taking the Hit
Though more than 80 percent of the plastic that winds up in the ocean got its start on land and made its way to the ocean, once there, 46 percent of plastic floats while an additional 54 percent sinks. The ocean’s floating plastics create massive plastic islands in oceans all around the world, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California which is two-times the size of the state of Texas. The EPA estimates that billions of pounds of plastic are currently floating in the ocean, making up 90 percent of all garbage that floats in the ocean.
And that does not include the 54 percent of plastics that sink.
Of course, all that plastic is wreaking havoc on the aquatic environment, killing an estimated 1 million sea birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals annually. Plastic in the ocean is devastating to marine life, and it is also devastating to our wallets.
Plastic ocean debris costs nearly 13 billion dollars a year in losses due to damaged marine ecosystems that affect food supplies, fisheries, and the tourism industry. And that is before you tack on the cost of cleanup, from beaches to shipping costs for recyclable plastic.
Plastic is Loaded with Chemicals
In America alone, 93 percent of people over age six have detectable levels of BPA in their systems, and that is only one of the chemicals in plastic that our bodies absorb. Other chemicals like polyvinyl chloride, phthalates, and polycarbonates also find their way into our bodies and have been linked to cancer development, birth defects, skin diseases, and infertility. New research is being done to determine the impact of these plastic chemicals on human hormone levels and functionality.
It’s Not Going Anywhere
Plastic has a life of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years by best estimates, and that means that we are facing a serious uphill battle to tackle the problem that is only growing year after year. While many businesses and industries are changing and evolving away from their reliance on plastics, the damage that is already done requires a global effort to tackle.
As our landfills overflow, our oceans choke, and our planet and its inhabitants suffer in a myriad of ways from the production and overuse of plastic, it is hard to reconcile our continued use and production of unnecessary plastic products. Though there are some tremendous advancements being made to replace plastics in the packaging, food and beverage storage, and disposable product industries, and biodegradable plastics are being introduced, they only account for 0.2 percent of the plastics created today.
What will go a long way toward replacing plastics is the adoption of sustainable, reusable, and environmentally-safe natural materials that are strong, durable, and biodegradable. From opting to purchase products that utilize green packaging solutions to shopping with reusable grocery bags, individual efforts can go a long way to reducing the amount of plastic we use every day and limit its use and effects on the environment.