Ever since the first modern plastic (bakelite) was developed back in 1907, plastic has gone from being revered to being reviled in the space of just a century. It goes without saying that it has made the modern world we live in today possible, but it’s also rapidly contributing to the destruction of the global environment in the process.
The problem with plastic, which is technically called a synthetic or semi-synthetic polymer depending on whether they are partially or entirely man-made (a semi-synthetic polymer is a chemically-treated version of a naturally occurring polymer), is that no-one quite knows how long it will take for it to biodegrade. In other words, no-one knows how long it will take for nature to break it down and incorporate it back in the natural world.
A Tangible Example of An Enormous Problem
An estimate for a simple PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) water bottle can take 500 years to biodegrade. Consider this when people around the world buy no less than a million plastic bottles per minute, and 91% of these bottles end up either in the oceans or landfills. That’s just a single kind of plastic item that takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, when there are literally hundreds of others that arrive at a similar fate.
In fact, if things keep progressing as they are, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by the year 2050, which is as alarming a statistic as they possibly come. Furthermore, no less than 1 million seabirds and at least 100,000 marine mammals perish due to ingesting or getting caught in floating plastic each year.
Why Putting an End to Plastic Use is Difficult
Plastic is used so pervasively in the modern world that it’s very hard to make sweeping, tangible and sustainable changes in order to protect the environment. Milk, for instance, tends to be packaged, transported and delivered to its point of consumption around the world in plastic containers as opposed to the traditional glass ones, because this reduces the risk of breakage and allows more weight to be loaded into trucks or other vehicles.
Plastic also allows supermarkets around the world to keep the produce they sell fresher for longer, and also divide it into a variety of portion sizes at different price points to suit consumer needs. It also allows them to reduce the amount of wasted produced. Taking grapes as an example, retail analysts contend that grapes sold in sealed trays reduce waste by 20%.
A further added benefit of using plastic is that its sealing properties avert the risk of food poisoning when it comes to handling and consuming meat products. In the medical field, disposable plastic syringes have lowered the risk of infection due to negating the need for reusing traditional metal or glass syringes. Also think about the credit cards in your wallet or purse, or the myriad of other applications it has. It’s literally everywhere you can think of.
Although there’s a clear need to wean the world off of plastic in whichever way possible, the truth is that doing so would result in greenhouse gas emissions that are 2.7 times higher over the alternative materials’ lifetime.
So How Do We Approach the Problem as a Civilization?
The focus when it comes to reducing the environmental damage caused by plastic has shifted to mitigating the proliferation of the stuff in landfills and oceans. Achieving this will come from an increased shift toward biodegradable plastics, recycling and minimizing the amount of new plastic manufacturing to a bare minimum.
Despite the difficulties that are posed by a modern world filled with plastic, that doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t initiatives underway to ensure that the problem is being tackled in a constructive manner. China, for instance, recently announced a ban on the importation of foreign recyclable materials so that it can focus on recycling the domestic waste it generates.
The European Union has also announced an initiative to ensure that all packaging used throughout Europe is either reusable or recyclable by 2030. Frans Timmermans, the EU Commission vice president, famously said: “Single-use plastics take five seconds to produce, five minutes to use and 500 years to break down again,” highlighting the bloc’s commitment to ridding its nations of the scourge of single-use plastics.
Scotland and Costa Rica have also announced their plans to ban single-use plastic straws entirely by 2019 and 2021 respectively, and no less than 193 countries signed a United Nations resolution to eliminate plastic pollution from the world’s oceans.
It isn’t just whole countries and trading blocs, though. Wagamama, the Asian food chain, made the announcement that as of Earth Day 2018, it will no longer be offering plastic straws in its restaurants. Biodegradable paper alternatives will be offered upon request. UK-based supermarket chain, Iceland, has also announced its commitment to drastically reducing or completely eliminating plastic packaging in its brand-label products by 2023.
Even Queen Elizabeth II of England has signaled her commitment to making a difference when it comes to the issues of plastic – she recently banned the use of plastic straws and bottles from all of the royal estates, instructing her many staff to serve beverages in china, glass or recyclable paper cups. In addition, Her Royal Highness has also instructed that all food served on the royal estates must be served in biodegradable packaging starting immediately.
What Can I Do to Reduce the Amount of Plastic Waste I Generate?
Reducing the amount of plastic waste you generate doesn't have to be difficult. In fact, you can do any or all of the following:
• Always take your own shopping bags to the grocery store and use them for your groceries to avoid contributing to the 5 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags used around the world each year
• Stop buying bottled water altogether and keep a refillable bottle with you at all times
• When you’re offered a straw at a bar or restaurant, simply refuse one. If you really must drink out of one, invest in a reusable option instead
• Watch the ingredients on your consumer products, because many contain little beads of plastic that also end up in the oceans. Use biodegradable alternatives and avoid “polypropylene” or “polyethylene” products like the plague.
• If you’re raising an infant, make the switch from disposable diapers to washable, reusable cloth ones.
• Use jars or glass containers for food storage rather than plastic baggies, plastic wrap and other plastic storage containers.
• Shop in bulk to reduce the amount of plastic waste you generate in your kitchen
• Use reusable razors as opposed to disposable ones
• Choose cardboard over plastic bottles and bags
It remains to be seen whether these initiatives herald the beginning of the end of plastic, but even putting a dent into the billions of tons that human beings generate each year would mark the start of a more environmentally-sound planet.
Images by Deposit Photos.