Where would we be without plastic? Look around. Virtually everything we use has plastic parts.
In 1967, young Ben Braddock has just graduated from college and seemed at a loss for where to aim his future. At a party for him, a family friend cornered Ben and said one word to him. Plastics. That was the future, and in many ways, spot-on. That famous scene is from The Graduate.
Plastic was in many ways improved our way of life. Better living through chemistry as the saying. The list of uses and products is endless.
In 50 years, plastic has gone from savior to potentially destroying life on the planet. Despite new forms of biodegradable plastics and increased recycling, plastic is choking the oceans, being infested into an increasing number of wildlife species and releasing dangerous toxins into ecosystems. And it is being breathed in by humans.
Globally, around 20 percent of plastic is recycled, which doesn’t sound impressive, but that’s double the rate of recycling in the U.S. Over half of all plastic is discarded. Plastic recycling is in flux after China stopped taking our plastic.
I look around and see most things in my home and car have some plastic element or polymer derived from petrochemicals. Granted, synthetics have more sources other than oil, but mostly they degrade slowly and stack up in landfills or occupy thousands of square miles of ocean. Plastic manufacturing doubles every 15 years. That’s bad news for certain kinds of plastics that can take hundreds of years to degrade. In the ocean, as plastics begin degrading more quickly in the sun and water, poisonous chemicals are released, and there do they end up? In sea creatures and their ecosystems.
There are many articles about plastic pollution. It is estimated that eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year.
According to the Conserve Energy Future group, ocean pollution kills over one million seabirds and one hundred thousand mammals annually, and three hundred thousand dolphins and porpoises die each year as a result of becoming entangled in discarded fishing nets and other items. Do a Google search and you find tons of articles about sea life dead on the beach with plastic inside of them, or tangled in nets or plastic products.
By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight), according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
There are five massive patches of plastic in the oceans around the world. These huge concentrations of plastic debris cover large swaths of the ocean; the one between California and Hawaii is the size of the state of Texas. This is according to the National Geographic.
There are a number of initiatives underway, including efforts to attack the Garbage Patch.
More Plastic Dangers
The ocean is not the only place where plastic pollution is a concern. Mircoplastics are being studied in land locations around the world. Microplastics, small particles of plastic are present in the air, even in faraway places usually devoid of plastic waste.
According to an April 15, 2019, National Geographic article, “What is known is that microplastics smaller than 25 microns can enter the human body through the nose or mouth and those less than five microns can end up in lung tissue.” The article went on to talk about even smaller plastic fragments, nanoplastics. “Lab experiments have also shown nanoplastics cross cell walls in samples of human intestines.”
Now that’s a scary thought
What can we do? Buy less plastic if possible. I have this crumpled plastic bag on my desk. In it is my lunch. I bring that same plastic bag to work everyday, people asking why I do that. I have a small lunchbox but I prefer the plastic bag because it reminds me to be mindful of getting any more plastic. The lady asks me if I want my groceries in paper or plastic. I have a reusable bag of recycled material, I use that sometimes, or I decline a bag all together. It’s a small act, but it’s an act.
We can’t live without plastic but can we consume less, reuse and recycle more? Yes. If life in the ocean dies, how far behind are we? If the air we depend on is full of plastic particles that potentially can cause illness or disease, we ma have signed our death warrant. Plastics.