Briefing

The consequences of a plastic-filled world

What toll has plastic taken on the environment?

The U.S. is currently the largest generator of plastic waste in the world — and while plastic recycling is falling, plastic production continues to grow. How does the extensive use and disposal of plastic in our lives affect ourselves and our environment? Here's everything you need to know:

How big of a problem is plastic?

Plastic has become a staple of life all around the world, from the water bottles we drink out of to the utensils we use to the packaging we receive products in. However, rampant plastic production only really began 50 years ago. Between the 1950s and 1970s, production was quite minimal and therefore manageable. Beginning in the 1970s, plastic production rapidly picked up, tripling by the 1990s, according to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP). Today, the world produces approximately 400 million tons of plastic waste per year. 

Of the waste, about 36 percent comes from packaging, including single-use plastics like utensils and food containers, and 85 percent of single-use waste ends up in landfills or unregulated. The ocean has also become heavily polluted by plastic, the largest amount being close to 2 trillion pieces in the North Pacific Ocean. Much of that is part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a collection of debris with an area of about 1.6 million square kilometers spanning the west coast of the U.S. to Japan. 

The U.S. is the largest global producer of plastic waste, producing around 40 million tons of plastic just last year, Smithsonian Magazine reports. Only about 2 million tons were recycled, while the majority ended up in landfills and some ended up incinerated. The U.S. also takes part in plastic exports, where it sends waste to other countries to be recycled, the top destination being Canada. 

What are the impacts on the environment?

Approximately 98 percent of single-use plastics are produced using fossil fuels. Based on the rising levels of plastic demand, the UNEP predicts that production will account for 19 percent of the global carbon budget by 2040. The harvesting and burning of fossil fuels is the largest contributor to climate change, accounting for more than 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. The impacts of climate change have long been discussed, such as worsening weather phenomena, rising sea levels, and enhancing the potential for more diseases.

The sheer amount of plastic produced and discarded is also steadily becoming a problem. Plastic contains lots of chemicals and additives making the material durable and flexible; however, plastic's durability lasts far beyond the length of time humans use it. Estimates show that it takes around 400 years for plastic to break down, meaning essentially all plastic ever produced still exists somewhere on Earth, according to National Geographic. That is a staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastic. Much of this ends up in oceans and on coastlines endangering sea life.

Ocean plastic kills millions of marine animals per year, with close to 700 species reported to have been directly impacted, continues National Geographic. While the media often shows images of fish strangled by six-pack rings or turtles accidentally eating plastic straws, a deeper problem is emerging: microplastics.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are often no greater than one-fifth of an inch across that have been broken down by the sea, the sun, and erosion. These tiny bits of plastic sink into the depths of the water. Estimates have suggested that 99.8 percent of the plastic that has entered the ocean since 1950 has actually sunk below the first few hundred feet from the surface, The New York Times reports. 

Because of this, microplastics have been found in the tissues of multiple marine animals, thereby entering the larger food chain. This means that each step of the food chain is consuming prey that is also contaminated with plastic, resulting in contamination by proxy. Microplastics can also carry other pollutants that likewise contaminate an entire food chain, a study shows

Microplastics can have a detrimental impact on the health of marine life including inhibiting growth, harming reproductive health, and causing genetic damage, according to a paper published in the IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science

What are the impacts on people?

Along with impacts on climate change and marine life, plastic can also have a negative impact on humans. Just like marine animals, humans are a part of a food chain where many consume seafood. For example, scientists have found high levels of microplastics in shellfish, which humans often consume. There is also evidence to suggest that microplastics can spread through the air, according to the World Economic Forum. While there is not much information on the specific impacts of microplastics on humans, given their impact on marine life, one can posit that there are likely long-term consequences.

Along with microplastics, developing nations face a disproportionate burden in dealing with plastic pollution. Many rich nations ship their waste to poorer countries in Asia and Africa, leading to some areas being flooded by trash. The influx of waste is largely dealt with by poor and marginalized women, who are hired to be waste pickers, reports The Conversation. These women are coming into contact with the toxins in plastic more often than others, creating an environmental justice crisis.

Developed nations have adopted a "not in my backyard" mentality, in which developing nations have paid the price from an environmental and justice standpoint. 

What steps is the world taking?

Up until this point, there hasn't been much in terms of global action on plastic; however back in March, 170 nations backed a U.N. resolution to end plastic pollution with an international legally binding agreement to be in place by 2024, Forbes reports. Many businesses have joined a coalition to have a voice in the treaty. 

In the U.S., individual states have taken some action. California signed a historic law cutting harmful plastic pollution and implementing recycling operations. Eight states have also banned the distribution of disposable plastic bags, encouraging reusable ones. 

However, more needs to be done on a global scale to cut back on plastic. Strides should be made to encourage reuse and recycling, and most importantly, to reduce the need for plastic altogether. 

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