So first up, why is plastic so important?
Plastic has revolutionised our way of life: from medicine, to transport, to space travel - it’s a cheap and durable resource that we depend on for pretty much everything. Most plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and coal, which are then converted into molecular chains called ‘polymers’. From there, the polymers can be formed into different types of plastics; all of which are lightweight, strong, and malleable.
Why do we have a plastic pollution problem?
Even though plastic is an extremely useful resource, it’s clear that we cannot continue manufacturing and disposing of plastic at the rate we are now; certainly not in the form of single-use items, and certainly not disposed of in our river systems and overflowing landfills.
To understand why we have a plastic pollution problem, we must first split it into three problematic areas:
- Our throwaway culture means plastic products are purchased, used once and discarded in mass quantities. For example, a single plastic bag is used for about 12 minutes – but it can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Worldwide, every single minute, we’re buying one million plastic bottles and two million plastic bags. Disposable nappies are also a huge problem – the average child will go through 5,000-10,000 nappies before they are toilet trained, resulting in several hundred tonnes of plastic going straight to landfill. That’s a lot of plastic waste!
- Our throwaway culture means plastic products are purchased, used once and discarded in mass quantitie Littering and improper waste management pollutes our waterways and affects the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil we use to grow food. Most trash ends up in river systems. In developing parts of Africa and Asia, the management of wastewaste is hugely inefficient; almost 90% of the plastic that flows into the ocean, roughly 8 million pieces per day, comes from just ten rivers. All of these rivers are inundated with plastic due to large surrounding populations with little to no waste management in place.
- When a piece of plastic enters the ocean, UV rays and wave action break it down into microplastics; fragmented bits of plastic that lurk beneath the water’s surface. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge swirling mass of plastics and microplastics, is estimated to be three times the size of France. These tiny pieces of plastic are also deadly to marine wildlife; studies have found microplastics in 100% of marine turtles and 59% of whales.
Some alarming new research from the University of Newcastle has suggested that humans consume roughly 100,000 microplastics every year, or the equivalent of one credit card per week. At this point, it's not known how this is affecting humans – but the associated chemicals are already recognised to have carcinogenic impacts and endocrine-disturbing behaviours.