Introduction to the Plastic Problem
In the world we live in today, plastic has become so ingrained in our daily life that it can be hard to imagine how we could function as a society without it. However, it has only been roughly 50 years since plastic came into mainstream production. After World War II plastic production quickly rose as “consumers craved plastics to replace traditional materials because they are cheap, versatile, sanitary and easy to manufacture into a variety of forms”(1). The plastics industry exploded, and production boomed.
The popularity of plastic continued to skyrocket until we arrive where we are today, where plastic is used for almost everything. The problem that arose for these plastic manufacturers was that consumers began to become disturbed by the amount of plastic that seemed to be finding its way into the natural environment around them post-consumption. This problem despite many attempts has continued to persist and worsen over the past decade. Today it is hard to go anywhere, even the most remote places on the planet, and not find plastic waste.
Why is Plastic Waste Such a Problem?
Here are the facts, 40% of all plastic made is used as packaging that is discarded after products are opened. On top of that “of the seven billion tons of plastic generated globally so far, less than 10% has been recycled” (2). And “the recycling rate for post-consumer plastic was just 5-6% in 2021”(8). With all this plastic production and resulting waste, more and more of it has found its way into our surrounding environment and ultimately the ocean.
According to research conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Between 4.8-12.7 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year” (9). This means a lot of plastic is entering our oceans each year, and it isn’t going anywhere. Over time it has been estimated that “roughly 70% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean sinks to the ocean floor”(4).
So, if this plastic isn’t recovered before it breaks down to unrecoverable microplastics and then is followed by limiting single-use plastic production then we could find ourselves in a very difficult situation. If we do not make some changes scientist estimate that “At current rates plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. (3). What does all this mean?
Well, the results are, “Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species” and, “In a 2008 Pacific Gyre voyage, Algalita researchers began finding that fish are ingesting plastic fragments and debris. Of the 672 fish caught during that voyage, 35% had ingested plastic pieces” (7).
How’d We Get Here: From the Introduction of Recycling to Modern Day Pollution
Why was recycling introduced? In the 1980’s large plastic manufacturers convened. The goal of their meeting was to figure out how to deal with the excessive waste their single-use products were creating, such as bottles, cans, and cardboard packaging. Aluminum is highly recyclable and it “takes 95% less energy to transform into another aluminum can than it takes to mine the aluminum ore and make a can from scratch” (5).
So, it made a lot of sense to implement can recycling as it could produce quite a bit more revenue. Plastic and paper recycling, however, made much less sense financially. Ultimately, they decided to implement some recycling centers across the country to test their viability and public interest; As they knew if this were to even have a chance at working the general public would need to support it as they would be the ones paying for these recycling centers with their tax dollars.
While these corporations were aware that only two of the many forms of plastic were physically capable of being recycled, they hoped there would be new emerging markets if the material became available. There hasn’t been because it is not economically viable. However, the public was optimistic and encouraged by ad campaigns funded by the very plastic manufacturers themselves. They saw recycling as their saving grace; if people recycled all their plastic waste, they could keep producing high-profit plastic products.
The Truth About Plastic Recycling
The dirty truth about plastic recycling is that the majority of plastic produced is never going to be recycled. But our education in schools and offices across the country for the last 30 years has been, ‘If its plastic, its recyclable’. This is not only a misrepresentation of the facts but also results in significant additional sorting or all of it being put in a landfill as it would be too costly to sort. The US had neither the capability nor desire to do this labor-intensive work at home, so we outsourced it to other countries.
This created a large market, and financial credits (Cash) began to be given to companies who exported recycling from the US. This resulted in a desire to move as much material as possible, adding to the decline in the sorting and export of legitimate recyclable material. So, the system was set up in a way that seems to encourage deception on the exporter's part because there is no follow-up by authorities typically in terms of oversight and checking of contents. This system results in shipping garbage thousands of miles around the globe where it will ultimately end up in a landfill. How crazy is that?
What are our options as consumers?
This can all be very frustrating to hear and see. So, what are our options as consumers? How can we make daily actions to reduce our single-use plastic impact and plastic waste in general? Some of the best things and easiest are: Switching to reusable cutlery, using Tupperware, reusable water bottles, and so on. But mostly just watch your consumption and find where you produce the most waste and decrease that.
If you find yourself going through a 30-pack of plastic water bottles a week, it might be time to consider a nice refillable water bottle. Or if you go through a box of plastic bags a week, consider getting something that is reusable and easy to clean. The most annoying one to hear would be, to try and reduce your online ordering through stores like amazon that tend to use quite a bit of disposable packaging.
Be Part of the Solution
The last thing I will add to this is, to be very aware of what you are trying to recycle. As only a portion of plastic is recyclable, you’ll be doing the workers at the center a big help if you only recycle the right things and just throw away anything that cannot be recycled.
There are a lot of simple things you can do every day that can make an impact on our environment. Start with checking out our inventory of sustainable and waste-free products.
Author: Sam Claytor
- King, Colleen. “Why We Need to Understand the History of Plastic before We Can Tackle the Problem.”Plaine Products, 18 Feb. 2021, https://www.plaineproducts.com/why-we-need-to-understand-the-history-of-plastic-before-we-can-tackle-the-problem/.
- “A Brief History of Recycling.”Northeast Recycling Council, 19 Nov. 2019, https://nerc.org/news-and-updates/blog/nerc-blog/2019/11/19/a-brief-history-of-recycling.
- 3. “Ocean Plastics Pollution.”Ocean Plastics Pollution, The Center for Biological Diversity, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/.
- Le Guern, Claire. “When the Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide.”Plastic Pollution, Nov. 2019, https://plastic-pollution.org/.
- Ratliff, Dondi, and John Brennan. “How Does Recycling Aluminum Cans Help the Environment?”Sciencing, 22 Nov. 2019, https://sciencing.com/how-does-recycling-aluminum-cans-help-the-environment-13652523.html.
- Marazzi, Luca, et al. “Consumer-Based Actions to Reduce Plastic Pollution in Rivers: A Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis Approach.”PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 14 Aug. 2020, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0236410#abstract0.
- Member, Contributing. “The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution.”Clean Water Action, 20 Dec. 2017, https://www.cleanwater.org/problem-marine-plastic-pollution.
- Gammon, Katharine. “US Is Recycling Just 5% of Its Plastic Waste, Studies Show.”The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 May 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/may/04/us-recycling-plastic-waste.
- Jambeck, Jenna, and Rolan Geyer. “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean - Science.”Science, 13 Feb. 2015, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1260352.