What's the Problem with Plastic?

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Plastic is incredible at making life more convenient, but at what cost? Plastic is resilient, durable and doesn't easily degrade. It's a vital part of medical equipment and has revolutionized packaging, especially food storage. Unfortunately, the use of plastic has gotten completely out of control and is being used particularly excessively for single use products. 33% of all plastic is used just once and thrown away. What’s worse, plastic never biodegrades. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces which end up polluting our land and our oceans. Plastic breaks down so small that it's in both bottled and tap drinking water world wide. Did you know that only 9% of plastic waste is recycled?

Mountains of plastic

Petroleum and natural gas are required to manufacture plastics. Even if you don’t use a vehicle to get around on a regular basis, a plastic addiction may still be causing you to contribute pretty heavily to our growing problem with climate change.

Plastic that is not recycled typically ends up in a landfill, which end up leaking a variety of nasty pollutants. Leachate, liquid that forms as materials break down in a landfill, often leaks through the liners of the landfill and can pollute groundwater below. And greenhouse gases like methane are produced from decaying material inside landfills, leaking into the atmosphere and furthering climate change. Plus, plastic has a tendency of finding its way out of landfills and ends up in local waterways.

Oceans of plastic

While difficult to quantify, most scientists estimate that about 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year, in addition to the 150 million metric tons of plastic already circulating our oceans. That is equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic dumping into ocean every minute.

The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP), estimated that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution, 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.

Most of the littered plastic waste worldwide ultimately ends up at sea. Swirled by currents, plastic litter accumulates over time at the center of major ocean vortices forming “garbage patches”, i.e. larges masses of ever-accumulating floating debris fields across the seas.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, in less than 10 years, scientists predict there will be 250 million metric tons in the ocean and by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish.

The plastic problem is not only isolated to plastic bags, bottles and other easily identified items but even more so microplastics, contained in our soaps, beauty products and even nearly all of our clothes.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in more than 60 per cent of all seabirds and 100 per cent of sea turtle species. Plastic can be life-threatening as sea life cannot digest the plastic consumed so their stomachs become full, and they starve as they have no room to consume actual food.

If you thought plastic pollution in the environment was not something that could directly impact human health, you were wrong. And, depending on your diet, you may actually be eating a variety of nasty chemicals as the result of plastic pollution. We eat the fish that eat the plastic, which means we are eating plastic.

Plastic is a sponge for toxins

Many plastics contain chemical additives which can leach back out of the material, getting into our food, our water, and ultimately our bodies. For example, BPA, an endocrine disruptor that can cause big problem particularly for young people, is found in many types of plastic commonly used for food storage. That’s why we prefer not to use plastic for food!

Studies have shown that plastic debris, depending on how long they’ve been floating in the water, may have a variety of chemicals attached to them such as heavy metals, PCB’s and other pollutants, acting like pollution sponges. Once fish absorb these chemicals from ingested plastic, the chemicals are then free to enter the bodies of anything higher up on the food chain, including us.

But I recycle!

While it would be nice to think that all plastic ends up in a recycling plant once it is done being used, that simply is not true. An estimated 91% of plastics actually don’t end up making it to a recycling facility to be manufactured into a new object.

Why are statistics on recycling plastic so negative?

  1. There are many different types of plastic, some of which cannot be recycled. And sometimes plastic can be contaminated by food waste which renders it impossible to recycle. Recycling requirements vary by town and can be complex to understand which further hinders the success of recycling.
  2. Recycled plastic is a globally traded commodity. There must be demand for recycled plastic for it to be processed. As it is often cheaper and easier for manufacturers to use new plastic vs. recycled plastic, the lack of demand results in less recycling.
  3. Unlike glass and aluminum which can be recycled infinitely without loss of quality, plastic degrades in quality during the recycling process. Most recyclable plastic can only be recycled once before it ends up heading to a landfill or for incineration.

We cannot rely on recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution problem. We should recycle better and depend on it less. Remember the “5R’s” of zero waste and note they should be followed in order. If we refuse what we don’t need, reduce and reuse what we consume, there ideally should be very little left to recycle and compost.

Can one person really make a difference?

YES! Every day we are faced with many options that could allow you to positively impact the planet. How do you get to work? How do you buy your groceries? What are you eating? What are you buying? Everything is connected. Every purchase you make is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. The zero-waste lifestyle is not all or nothing. It does not require perfection. It just requires everyone to do their best! Do what you can, where you can, in your circumstances. Everyone can contribute.

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