The Plastic Problem

We live in a plastic era. We know it’s a problem, but do we know exactly how big of a problem?


We’ve seen the images of the floating garbage patch in the middle of the ocean, turtles with straws up their noses and seagulls with beer holders around their neck. The warnings from David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg are weaved into our subconscious.


This is just the surface waste problem though – what we see is plastic at the end of its eternal life.


Did you know that 60% of the environmental damage from plastic happens in the production stage? The most harm is done before plastic even hits our shelves.


And as for recycling? A comfort blanket weighing us down.


It can feel like an overwhelming and hopeless situation, but knowing the facts is essential. A different world is possible. Let’s find out what we’re dealing with so we can get there.


Back to basics: what even is plastic?


It’s a material used across nearly every industry: from packaging to furniture, construction to textiles. We produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. That’s equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.


According to Plastics Europe, it’s an organic material, just like wood, paper or wool. Funnily enough, when you research ‘how is plastic made’, the top sites are all from plastic producers equating plastic to being a natural material. It’s a nice image… just not quite accurate.


99% of plastics are made from chemicals rooted in fossil fuels: crude oil, coal and natural gas. Even if these raw materials occur naturally enough, getting them into a usable form is far from organic. What ends up wrapping our lettuces is entirely synthetic with detrimental impacts throughout its whole life cycle. Yes, even that plastic boasting it’s “biodegradable” sticker.


Destruction from start to end


Right at the very beginning of its life, the extraction of materials for plastic causes mass destruction of wilderness and environments.


Then in the process of transforming it into a usable product, it contributes collosally to the greenhouse gas problem. By 2050, at our current binge rate, plastic production will be responsible for up to 13% of the total “carbon budget” – that’s the equivalent of 615 coal-fired power plants, 2.75 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, or the weight of 40 million blue whales.


As well as the environmental damage, the chemicals released have a great human toll too. For each piece of plastic we consume, someone somewhere is battling cancer because of it.


There is an area in Missouri, U.S.A, called Cancer Alley: the cancer rate is 50 times higher than anywhere else in the country; it is also the place with the most chemical plants, many of them producing plastics. It’s a trend seen across the world where plastic and chemical plants are located. And we are only at the beginning of the plastic pandemic. More plants are being built. As pressure is mounted on governments to switch to greener energy supplies, big oil is facing an uncertain future. Except for when it comes to plastics.


Since 2010, in the U.S. alone, companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects,including expansions of existing facilities, new plants, and associated infrastructure such as pipelines, says the American Chemistry Council


Greenpeace Executive Director, Annie Leonard, explains why companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and Saudi Aramco are obsessed with plastic: “Single Use Plastic is their Plan B. They’re not going to be able to drill that oil and gas and burn it for energy anymore, because the climate can’t sustain it. So, this is their lifeline. They are going to double down on single-use plastic like we have never seen.”


It is why plastic is so hard to escape. It’s not for our convenience. It’s for other people’s profit.


It’s also why plastic producers love recycling. It eases our guilt about consuming more of their polluting gold.


The lie of recycling

How many times have you soothed yourself with “I’ll recycle it” when purchasing a single use plastic water bottle? A crisp packet? Or a plastic bag?


The reality is only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled. Only 12% has been incinerated. So, most of it is filling up the earth. Add to this fact that plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, and never to more than microfibres which ultimately end up in our marine life and waterways.


Let’s sit with that for a minute: nearly all plastic ever made still exists.


So, what happens to everything you put into the recycling bin? It’s difficult to really trace. What we do know is that plastic can only be recycled once or twice. By recycling you are merely only delaying your wrappers journey to the great garbage dump by a year.


And here’s the thing: Recycling is intentionally difficult to understand. Former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry said: “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment”.


The flip side is that if we don’t even know what “working” means, how can we not end up feeling hopeless and overwhelmed? What alternatives do we have?


Solutions


We need a different world. And it is entirely possible.


As individuals we need to cut demand for plastic by changing our consumption habits. Choosing plastic free options when possible and