Plastic, plastic, everywhere
September 01, 2018
The production of plastic has grown 8 percent a year for decades, much more than any other manufactured material, because plastic is just so useful. We use it for packaging (43%) and construction (20%); we have plastic in our clothes, our cars, our computers. "Plastic is resilient, durable and doesn't easily degrade. It's a vital part of medical equipment and has revolutionized packaging, especially food storage." NPR
Plastic really is everywhere.
“Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says no one had tallied how much plastic people have manufactured since its invention. When he did it, he was shocked at what he found. 'Eight point three billion metric tons of plastics produced so far. That's just really a staggering amount.' He did some calculations to understand that number. 'And it turned out that it can cover an area the size of Argentina,' he says, 'which is the eighth-largest country in the world.'
A team of scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association “found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billon tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste total, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” American Association for the Advancement of Science
"So, is that a problem? Well, for one thing, Geyer, says, 'Virtually all the plastic we ever made is non-degradable. (It) will be with us for hundreds of years.' Much of it ends up in the soil, in smaller particles, or in the ocean, or in our water." NPR
Every year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. There is one patch of plastic debris floating between California and Hawaii, known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," that alone contains about 79,000 tons of plastic (an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic) and stretches over an area of the ocean that is double the size of the state of Texas (and Texas is a really large state).
But the pieces of plastic that we an see are only part of the story. Much of the plastic ends up in tiny pieces called “microplastics,” pieces smaller than 5 millimeters. These microplastics are found in rivers, lakes and oceans. They’re also found in the soil, and we are now finding microplastics in drinking water, beer, sea salt, fish, and shellfish. In other words, plastic has worked its way into the food chain. You can even find microplastics floating in the air.
An analysis, done by the World Health Organization, found that more than 90% of the world's most popular bottled water brands contained microplastics. The long-term effects of all of this plastic are still largely unknown. What are the health risk of ingesting microplastics? What is the impact on marine life, other wildlife, and the environment? Where is it all coming from? Once it gets into the ocean, where does it go? With the global production of plastic expected to triple by 2050, these are important questions to answer.
Another important question is, "What can we do?" Well, so much of the disposed plastic is made up of "single-use" plastic products like water/beverage bottles and plastic bags, so we can begin to help by lessening our reliance on these disposable products. Try keeping reusable grocery bags in your car and taking them with you to the store (or ask for paper bags instead of plastic). Try a reusable bottle filled with tap water rather than disposable bottled water.
Every little bit helps.