Plastic is a big, trashy, non-biodegradable problem in our world.
Plastic is filling up our landfills and recycling centers at obscene rates. It’s floating in our oceans, poisoning our wildlife, and polluting our environment. Plastic is even harming humans - the creators of this dangerous material.
Why is plastic so bad? And if it’s so bad, how come everywhere we look - the grocery store, our homes, the streets - we see this material?
We’re diving into the big picture plastic pollution problem to give you a solid understanding of the definition of plastic, how this toxic material is made, why plastic is a problem, and how you can help rid our world of plastic.
Let’s get started with an overview of how plastic is made.
What is plastic and how is it made?
Plastic is a synthetic material derived from petroleum that can be molded into convenient, everyday use objects. Humans love plastic so much that we produce over 380 million tons of this material worldwide every year.
Plastic Production Process
In this quick, comprehensible video, the life of a plastic bottle is explained in seven simple steps.
Plastic starts with petroleum. Raw materials like oil, coal, or natural gas are refined into ethane and propane.
Ethane and propane are treated with high heat in a process called cracking, which converts these compounds into monomers, like ethylene and propylene.
A catalyst is added to the monomers to form a polymer.
The polymer is melted and sent down a pipe.
The polymer cools down into hard plastic.
The tube of plastic is cut up into small pellets.
The pellets are shipped to factories, where they are melted and molded into everyday plastics parts, like water bottles or food packaging.
Plastic is cheap, easy to make, and convenient to use, so we continue to mass produce this toxic material. But the consequences of ease and convenience are severe.
Why is plastic a problem?
Plastic is a huge problem. Let us break it down for you.
The pollution produced during plastic production leaches chemicals into the atmosphere.
Plastic is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable, chemical-rich material. Through the plastic production process, toxic emissions are released into the air, polluting our environment. These chemicals include benzene, ethylene oxide, ethylbenzene, and nickel, which form toxic gas clouds around plastic factories.
Additionally, accidental chemical spills, fires, explosions, and fatalities sometimes occur during production. The solid waste formed by these disasters is normally incinerated, which moves the chemicals higher up into our atmosphere.
Microplastics poison wildlife and humans.
Plastic causes pollution during use, too. Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic debris that break off of larger plastic products. As consumer products and industrial waste break down, microplastics pollute our natural ecosystems.
For example, microplastics flood our water systems and oceans. Microplastics break off of our synthetic clothing when we wash it and pollute our water systems. These tiny toxins enter our groundwater and are swept into rivers that lead to the ocean.
In the ocean, microplastics threaten wildlife and ecosystems. Plastic has the ability to absorb more pollutants along its journey through waterways, poisoning marine life in all areas of the food chain. Microplastics rich with pollutants like POPs, PCBs, and DDT are consumed by marine animals from birds to whales. Pollutants in microplastics disrupt hormone function, inhibit growth and development, and hinder reproductive and immunity abilities. We are poisoning our poor baby sea creatures when we wash synthetic clothes and toss single-use plastics into the landfill!
Every year, more than 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean. Experts expect the amount of plastic in the ocean to outweigh the amount of fish in the ocean by 2050.
Plastic pollution harms people, too. Plastic leaches toxic chemicals that are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to cancers, impairment of the immune system, endocrine disruption, birth defects, neurological issues, gastrointestinal issues, and numerous other problems.
Plastic pollution is overflowing landfills.
Plastic pollution is far from gone after we’re done using a product. We must all ask ourselves this question when we pick up a plastic product, especially single-use plastics. Where will this go when I am done using it?
After use, most plastic turns into pollution. Here are some stats from UNEP.
Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled.
About 12% of plastic waste has been incinerated.
The rest - 79% of plastic waste - is dumped into landfills or the natural environment.
Monstrous piles of slowly decomposing trash lie in landfills, on land, and in the ocean. These toxic piles will stick around long after we’re gone. Some plastic, especially single-use products like plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and plastic straws, can take up to 450 years to decompose.
The extreme rate at which we produce plastic escalates our problem. We simply cannot keep up with our consumption.
Of the 380 million tons of plastic produced annually, up to 50% of that is for single-use only. Our obsession with convenience has led to us picking up plastic water bottles, drinking water from them, and then dumping them into the trash where they will leak toxins for 450 years.
But what about recycling? “I recycle my plastic water bottles,” they say.
The truth about plastic recycling is ugly. We cannot keep up with the rate at which we produce new plastic. The process of picking it up, sorting it out, and melting it down at recycling centers is expensive. Also, since plastic degrades as it is used, most types of plastic cannot be recycled more than once or twice. We cannot rely on our broken recycling system, so it’s better to reuse or avoid plastic altogether.
Plastic pollution contributes to climate change.
At every step in plastic’s lifecycle, greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. According to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law, the current annual impact of plastic production on our planet’s climate equates to the output of 189 coal power plants. By 2050, plastic production is expected to triple and contribute to 13% of our planet’s total carbon budget. This is equal to the emissions from 615 power plants.
How to Fight Plastic Pollution
Reduce your carbon footprint by lowering your use of plastic. Here are four simple tips to get started.
Refuse single-use plastics.
Just say no! No more plastic forks, plastic water bottles, or plastic beauty product containers. Swap your single-use plastics for reusable receptacles or package-free options instead.
Approach the journey of refusing single-use plastic by taking baby steps. This is a marathon, not a 400-meter dash! One small step at a time will allow you to form a habit without feeling overwhelmed.
For example, start in one room of your house, like your bathroom. Pick one plastic object that you’re going to replace with a sustainable option. If you choose shampoo, wait until you run out of the shampoo you have. Then, find a sustainable alternative to plastic shampoo bottles. Try a package-free shampoo bar instead! Then, move on to the next plastic swap.
Reuse before you recycle.
Since you’re aware of how broken the recycling system is, try reusing the plastic you collect before you toss it into the recycling bin. Not only will reusing plastic save you money and resources, but it will also influence you to refuse single-use plastics.
As you collect pieces of plastic, you’ll become increasingly more aware of how prevalent this material is, especially in the food industry. This realization will impact the decisions you make at the grocery store. Avoid the plastic option and opt for the glass, aluminum, or package-free option instead.
Many people simply have no clue what they are doing to the environment when they buy single-use plastics. No one is going to make a change unless they actually understand what is happening to our planet.
So, educate others! The trick is to do this kindly. People aren’t typically open to change if they feel like they are being attacked. Approach this subject gently in a non-accusatory manner.
Share this post on social media.
Have a gentle conversation with your parents about the sea turtles who are choking on single-use plastics.
Influence local shops to stop using plastic bags, plastic food packaging, or plastic coffee lids.
Set an example for others by bringing your own reusable utensils and water bottle everywhere you go.
Vote for change.
As individuals, we can make small contributions that will add up to bigger impacts over time. For example, we can all vote for change within our environmental laws. Imagine the impact on plastic production if there was a nationwide ban on plastic bags or plastic bottles!