Plastic is everywhere. Bottled water, grocery bags, shower curtains, garbage cans and kitchen utensils are just a few of the ways plastic has made its way into every aspect of our daily lives. Our throwaway mentality, bred and fed by the mass production of plastics, has created a pollution problem that now threatens the very future of humanity.
You likely do not directly experience the impact of the garbage you create while going about day-to-day life. Much of what is produced every day is picked up by a garbage truck and “magically disappears.” But, nothing could be further from the truth, as most garbage is not incinerated or recycled but simply relocated to a landfill or makes its way down storm drains into nearby waterways.
Plastic pollution is an enormous worldwide problem. An estimated 4.7 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans each year where wave action turns them into a plastic soup, damaging sea life and marine ecosystems. Millions of volunteers participate in cleaning the beaches across the world each year, recording the garbage they find.1 Of the top 10 items found on beaches across the world, seven are made from plastic.
With an increasing production of plastic and plastic products, this problem is only growing. Roland Geyer, Ph.D., from the University of California at Santa Barbara, led a project to analyze the mass production of plastics. Geyer commented on the team’s focus in the study:
“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management. Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact based now that we have these numbers.”
Plastics Are Polymers
From a chemist’s perspective, plastics are polymers. These are extremely long, repetitive molecules primarily made of carbon. But “polymers” are a very broad category that include other compounds such as silicone, from which breast implants and fire retardants are made.2
The shape of the polymer is what gives plastic its flexibility so a product can be molded into any shape. The history of natural polymers dates back before Christ, but it wasn’t until the invention of Bakelite in 1907 that the era of plastics truly began. This was the first synthetic plastic derived from fossil fuel and opened the door to polyester, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and nylon.
In an effort to produce machinery and support for World War II, petrochemical companies began turning out plastics by the truckload to be used in military vehicles and radar insulation. By the end of the war in 1945 there was an abundance of plastic manufactured with nowhere to go. Thinking outside the box, producers turned their attention to the consumer, and by 1948 the first Tupperware product hit the market.3
Today there are hundreds of thousands of different polymers being produced that can be used for products from microfiber in your clothing to plastic grocery bags. These plastics have been mass produced since 1950 and have created an environmental problem that will not go away.
How Much Is Too Much?
Geyer and colleagues published a recent study in Science Advances in which they estimate that since 1950, 8.3 billion metric tons (18.2 trillion pounds) of virgin plastics have been produced.4 This is equivalent in weight to 1 billion elephants5 in plastic that will persist in the environment for at least 1,000 years.6 Another way of picturing the amount of environmental plastic pollution is to imagine the island of Manhattan buried under 2 miles of plastic garbage.7
The researchers estimated that of the 8.3 billion metric tons produced, 6.3 million metric tons are no longer in use. Of this, 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent left in landfills and other areas of the environment.8 Approximately half of the plastic made since 1950 was manufactured in the last 13 years.9 This speaks to the rate of growth of the plastic industry over the last 60 years. In Los Angeles alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.10
Since plastics don’t biodegrade for at least 500 years, and more conservative estimates are closer to 1,000 years, the environment is in grave danger at the rate of plastic production. The estimate is that 12 billion metric tons of plastics will be in landfills, and will have leaked into the waterways and oceans by 2050.11 Scientists estimate that today between 5 million and 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, the primary form of which is microscopic synthetic fibers from clothing.
The ocean is currently filled with 165 million tons of plastic.12 Now, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than there are fish.13 The buildup of plastic is occurring at greater rates in different areas of the oceans. For instance, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located in the North Pacific Gyre is the largest ocean garbage site in the world, where the floating mass of garbage is twice the size of Texas and plastic pieces outnumber sea life 6-to-1.14
Geyer believes his predicted numbers are higher than others since he includes plastics that are woven into fibers and then flushed into waterways after being washed.15 Approximately 35 percent of plastics produced are for packaging, often used once and then discarded.
Plastics in the oceans have been shown to hurt or kill more than 600 species of marine life, including sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds and whales. Nancy Wallace, marine debris program director for the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration commented:16"It's a huge amount of material that we're not doing anything about. We're finding plastics everywhere."
Ditch the Straws
One plastic product you may take for granted, and may not even consider the environmental impact of, is those little plastic straws. They were originally designed to keep your mouth from touching the glass, but today they are more fun than functional. In the U.S. alone, over 500 million straws are used once and discarded every day, or over 180 billion straws each year.17
When straws were first designed, they were made from plant material. Later, paper products were used to manufacture straws and then in the early 1970s, following the explosion of plastic production, the paper straw disappeared. As these little pieces of plastic are not necessary, the amount of pollution they produce — both in landfills and releasing toxins into the air when incinerated — is excessive.
Now, a number of campaigns have emerged to help reduce the amount of straws being purchased and used. Some restaurants have stopped automatically putting them in drinks and others are using compostable straws. On a more international level, Bacardi has joined with the Surfrider Foundation to support a “no-straw movement.”18
In the past, Surfrider has led campaigns against discarded cigarette butts and plastic bags. Their new “Straws Suck” campaign has the same focus: clean water, healthy beaches and accessible coastlines.19 Environmental activist David Suzuki writes:20
“Avoiding plastic straws won't save the oceans or the world on its own, but as we've seen with plastic bags and public smoking, when people start thinking about their habits and making small changes, they can bring about shifts in consciousness that lead to wider societal changes. Ordering your drinks without straws is a small sacrifice but a big step to reducing the amount of plastic we produce and waste.”
The Lifecycle of Plastic
The characteristic that makes plastic valuable to the consumer — near indestructability — is the very factor that makes plastic pollution a blight on the environment. Once in the water, plastic particles act like sponges, absorbing waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides and other persistent organic pollutants.
Those plastic particles are then eaten by fish, who may be eaten by larger fish, before they end up on your table. The concentration of plastics and toxins in marine and freshwater fish will only increase as more virgin plastic is created and disposed of in landfills, oceans and waterways.
Scientists estimate that most plastic will take up to 1,000 years before it decomposes.21 Interestingly, plastics don’t truly biodegrade,22but rather photodegrade after exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Over time the polymer chains crack, which suggests to scientists that the polyethylene bags eventually fragment into microscopic granules.23 However, at this time, researchers aren’t exactly sure how many centuries this may take, estimating between 500 years to 1,000 years based on laboratory testing.
In a landfill, plastics get little sunlight before the next layer of garbage is heaped on top. Even organic material may have a difficult time biodegrading in a landfill where garbage is contained by clay and plastic at the bottom and layers of earth on top to reduce the odor.24This means most of the garbage is exposed to very little light, air or water and even organic based products that readily degrade in your backyard, are more likely to mummify than decompose in a landfill.
Some plastic is breaking down quickly in the ocean, at temperatures lower than scientists expected, leaching toxic chemicals into the water threatening marine wildlife.25 A team of researchers from Japan collected water samples from oceans around the world and found derivatives of plastics used in cutlery, DVD cases and Styrofoam. The scientists then simulated the decomposition of polystyrene and found deterioration began at 86 degrees F (30 degrees C), far cooler than previous tests had indicated.
Does Recycling Work?
Europeans recycle 30 percent of their non-fiber plastics, compared to 25 percent in China and a minor 9 percent in the U.S., and Europeans burn 40 percent as compared to 30 percent in China and 16 percent in the U.S.26 Geyer and his team estimate that the rest of the world recycles and incinerates plastics close to the rate in the U.S.
Geyer cautioned that recycling may not be the cure-all others claim, as the goal of recycling is to reduce the amount of virgin plastic produced and to date there is no research analyzing the impact that recycling may have on plastic production. Geyer warns there is not enough information to determine the long-term consequences of this overwhelming pollution. He said:27
"It accumulates so quickly now and doesn't biodegrade, so it gets added to what's already there. Once we start looking, I think we'll find all sorts of unintended consequences. I'd be very surprised to find out that it is purely aesthetic problem."
Containers used for milk, shampoos and laundry detergent can be recycled to make new containers, plastic lumber, picnic tables and lawn furniture.28 Plastic bags and plastic wrap can be made into plastic lumber used in park benches, decks and playground furniture. These can also be recycled into plastic bags you use at the grocery store. Plastic bottles may be recycled into more plastic bottles and may be used for insulation in sleeping bags and jackets.
Another Look for Recycling Grocery Bags
Groups across the country are also using grocery store plastic bags to create plarn, or plastic yarn. This is then crocheted or knitted into sleeping mats donated to homeless shelters. In the news clip above, Bed of Bags founder Sarah Stolberg, explains the objective behind this movement.
Each mat, often measuring 3 feet by 6 feet, may save up to 1,000 plastic grocery bags from entering the landfill or oceans, giving someone a place to sleep that is easily rolled and carried, water proof and virtually indestructible. Church groups, schools and other civic organizations have taken on this project to help the needy in their community. Check in your local area for places that may need your plastic grocery bags and you’ll help reduce the load in landfills and help give a homeless person a mat to sleep on.
How to Cut Back on Your Garbage
The average American produces 4.5 pounds of garbage each day,29 much of which is plastic. You can help reduce the amount of garbage sent to the landfill from your household by following a few simple steps. It's worth remembering that mankind had a zero-waste lifestyle up until about 100 years ago. There were no plastic wraps around the foods and items you bought, and virtually every scrap, whether it was fabric, paper, wood or metal, was repeatedly reused; creatively refashioned into new products.
Bottled water may be one of the most environmentally unfriendly industries, creating approximately 500 million bottles discarded every week. Recycling responsibly is a step in the right direction, but it may be more important to reduce the plastics we use first. Plastic water bottles should not be reused as the more they are used, the more toxins leak into the water.
Ideally, we need to rethink the throwaway culture that grew from the mass production of plastics and become more sustainable. Purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Another important point is to choose reusable over single-use, which is possible in most instances. Here are a few ideas:
|Use reusable shopping bags for groceries||Take your own leftovers container to restaurants|
|Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water||Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning|
|Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags||Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can|
|Opt for nondisposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels, and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic||Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags|
|Carry reusable utensils to barbeques, potlucks and takeout restaurants, and encourage your family to as well||Carry your lunch, or pack your child’s lunch, in reusable lunch bags|
|If you live near the ocean, volunteer at a beach clean up||Talk with your family and friends about the importance of reducing the amount of plastic used|
By Dr. Mercola