From the 1950s to 2015, the production of plastic products grew from virtually zero to about 350 million tons per year. We do not need to be confronted with the numbers for us to recognize just how big the plastic waste problem is. THE PROBLEMS WITH PLASTICS. This pollution is a growing problem, and not just because it's ugly: Plastic can kill many kinds of marine life. Technology to help with plastic sorting continues to be developed. In Indonesia, plastic is everywhere. To understand the sources of ocean plastic pollution we must take into account multiple factors: proximity of given population centres to the coast, and national waste management strategies. Plastic trash has become so ubiquitous it has prompted efforts to write a global treaty negotiated by the United Nations. For instance, common recyclable plastics include High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Effects on humans include disruption of various hormonal mechanisms. To date, there has no concrete evidence of harmful health effects to humans of ingesting microplastics or ingesting animals with traces of microplastics. Putting up a recycling facility requires a lot of capital and technical capability. We developed a model called Plastic-to-Ocean (P₂O) which combines years of accumulated knowledge on global flows of plastic. Leading the pack are countries like Norway, the US, Singapore, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, and Hong Kong. Let’s look at the current state of plastic recycling, its challenges, and how people and groups around the world are working to address these challenges. In many cases, these tiny bits pass through the digestive system and are expelled without consequence. Of this portion, only 100 million tons remain in active use. The US comes in at second at 38 million tons. Plastic recycling is an entire system that relies on several moving parts for it to succeed. The next category has a volume of less than half – the building and construction industry at only 65 million tons. The peculiar thing about the plastic waste problem is the fact that just about every single person in the world knows about it and recognizes it. It compares our current production, use and management of waste with what is projected in the future. It doesn't rot, like paper or food, so instead it can hang around in the environment for hundreds of years. Plastic pollution is caused by the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment. Plastic waste often does not decompose and can last centuries in landfill, or else end up as litter in the natural environment, which in turn can pollute soils, rivers and oceans, and harm the creatures that inhabit them. Governments can also support reducing plastic waste either by taxing plastic products or providing incentives to companies that provide more sustainable solutions. Americans are generating more plastic trash than ever, and very little of it gets recycled. We’ve even discovered tiny plastic waste in Britain's most iconic and remote rivers, lakes and reservoirs – including the seemingly crystal-clear waters of the Lake District.. Who is affected by plastic pollution? The plastic waste problem became so drastic in Bandung that the army had to be called in to assist. Plastics and their byproducts are littering our cities, oceans, and waterways, and contributing to health problems in humans and animals. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics. The production of plastic on its own isn’t necessarily bad. Legislation to support plastic recycling can range from outright banning of single-use plastics to setting required levels of recycled content in final goods. Plastic waste is a problem – but some solutions are even worse. As far as humans are concerned, plastic waste has also been found in the food that we eat. About 700 million tons of plastic waste has been incinerated and about 2500 million tons remain in active use. Notable examples include China, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Even if recyclable plastics can be isolated at collection, they will still need to be sorted to make sure that they don’t cause problems with recycling equipment. These so-called microplastics are spread throughout the water column and have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough. On land, wind can carry plastic waste or litter throughout the environment. Environmental problems and benefits. Production and development of thousands of new plastic products accelerated after World War II, so transforming the modern age that life without plastics would be unrecognizable today. Plastic to be recycled needs to be clean and free from food residue. The accumulation of solid plastic waste continues to be one of the most pressing environmental problems we are facing today. This emphasizes how heavily plastic production can be reduced by using non-plastic alternatives for product packaging. Plastic pollution is most visible in developing Asian and African nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or nonexistent. Get However, it’s a good start and one we have to perfect before we can move on to more full-fledged solutions. Recycling just one ton of plastic saves 685 gallons of oil, 5,774 kilowatt hours of energy, and frees up 30 cubic yards of landfill space. Production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. On Henderson Island, an uninhabited atoll in the Pitcairn Group isolated halfway between Chile and New Zealand, scientists found plastic items from Russia, the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and China. The effects of microplastic ingestion have not been studied to great detail, but it has been linked to decreased metabolism and inhibited fertility. Massive waste problem China has for years struggled to deal with the waste its 1.4 billion residents generate. The problem is that most of us use more plastic than we need to, and half of the plastic we produce is designed to be used just once and chucked away. Plastics often contain additives making them stronger, more flexible, and durable. The following are some of the common challenges. Plastic Bag Waste Another major culprit, plastic bags, create an even bigger problem. I enjoy running when I'm not thinking about tech. The limitation in plastic recycling isn’t just limited to middle-income countries and those in coastal areas. The process of plastic recycling is far from perfect. By use, packaging of goods constitutes the greatest volume of usage of plastic products at around 141 million tons. But once plastics break down into microplastics and drift throughout the water column in the open ocean, they are virtually impossible to recover. A major part of why some countries have failed to adapt higher plastic recycling rates is a lack of government support to the initiative in the form of policy. Required fields are marked *, Subscribe to our newsletter to get interesting stories delivered to your inbox! Flexible plastic packaging such as plastic bags, films, and labels constitute a significant portion of daily plastic waste. Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. Collection and sorting remain to be the most critical parts of the process, as it ensures that there is a constant stream of materials for the recycling plant to work with. Looking at the plastic production rates per country, China leads the pack by a huge margin at around 60 million tons. From the 1950s to the 1980s, plastics were either simply discarded into landfills or incinerated. It can be categorized in primary plastics, such as cigarette butts and bottle caps, or secondary plastics, resulting from the degradation of the primary ones. As of the end of 2015, a staggering 55% of all plastic products end up in landfills. Most of these take the form of microplastics, although plastic fibers have also been detected in items such as salt, beer, or honey. Single use plastic does have a number of benefits. This incident is emblematic of the scale of the plastic waste problem that Indonesia faces. Tiny plastic, big problem Scientists find that tiny pieces of plastic travel great distances, threatening the ocean ecosystem Pieces of plastic float here in ocean water. One study found that your average Ozzy will go through 170 bags a year, and that is peanuts compared to China, where two million are used every minute! But the developed world, especially in countries with low recycling rates, also has trouble properly collecting discarded plastics. Have you ever been to a rubbish clean-up event? This also means that plastic cannot be recycled infinitely, unlike glass or metal. Nowhere is immune. Children play on the shore of Manila Bay in the Philippines, which is polluted by plastic waste. This could be accomplished with improved waste management systems and recycling, better product design that takes into account the short life of disposable packaging, and reduction in manufacturing of unnecessary single-use plastics. Plastic microfibers, meanwhile, have been found in municipal drinking water systems and drifting through the air. This is determined by two factors – the market demand for recycled products and government support to incentivize or require plastic recycling. Once at sea, much of the plastic trash remains in coastal waters. Fortunately, technology now exists to recycle plastic products. A more pronounced trend shows that mismanaged plastic wastes are concentrated in countries with large coastal populations. This is the best way for plastic recycling facilities to overcome the disadvantage in economics compared to the continued manufacture and use of virgin plastics. With such low margins, it is up to the federal or local governments to jumpstart a plastic recycling program through a combination of policy and capital infusion. The gravity of the problem of mismanaged plastics lies in the fact that they can persist for several decades, even if they eventually end up breaking down as microplastics. Consumers need to change their buying behaviors, favoring products that do not use non-recyclable plastics. With so many expenses involved, it is important for plastic recycling to be economically sustainable. The Plastic Waste Problem. Before plastic waste even reaches a recycling facility, there are two hurdles to overcome – the fact that not all plastics are recyclable, and not all recyclable plastics are fit to be recycled. According to nonprofit Plastic Oceans, roughly half the world’s plastic produce… This deficiency makes the economics of plastic recycling even worse. The trend appears to be skewed towards middle-income countries such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Fiji, Egypt, Malaysia, and South Africa. Plastic waste is a bigger behavioural challenge than an infrastructural or environmental problem, starting from production to consumption, collection, sorting, and wasting. Behavioral change at such a massive scale is going to be a slow process and will require the support of environmental advocates and lawmakers. Despite plastic recycling becoming available, why does solid plastic waste continue to be a problem? We pomise.). The world has a plastic problem. Think of it this way: one million plastic bottlesare bought around the world every minute, according to The Guardian, and the numbers are rising. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. As we have gleaned, a plastic recycling facility is not as profitable as facilities that recycle metal or glass. As a testament to how long plastics take to break down, macroplastics (> 200 mm) dating back to the 1950s and 1960s have been found. Trash is also carried to sea by major rivers, which act as conveyor belts, picking up more and more trash as they move downstream. High-income countries generate more plastic waste per person but waste is managed well; thus a small leak into nature. Plastics revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jetsâsaving fuel and pollutionâand saved lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water. All rights reserved. Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. It’s been found in the highest mountains and deepest oceans. However, it’s also a very difficult step as it needs cooperation at the level of the consumers. The growing demand for companies, products and services that are tackling this problem presents an exciting opportunity for both businesses and investors. Low-income countries like India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Senegal, Myanmar, Haiti, Madagascar, and several dozen others have maintained a low per capita rate of generation of plastic waste. This is likely due to the fact that microplastics are often found in the gut or intestinal tract of animals – parts that humans typically do not eat. Mechanical systems, such as Mr. Trash Wheel, a litter interceptor in Marylandâs Baltimore Harbor, can be effective at picking up large pieces of plastic, such as foam cups and food containers, from inland waters. However, the sheer diversity of different plastic products remains to be a problem that is yet to be fully addressed. Moreover, there were also microplastic (< 4.75 mm) samples collected that can be traced to earlier than 1990. The other 400 million tons have also ended up either getting discarded in landfills or incinerated. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The ever-growing consumption of goods packaged in plastic and the superior economics of plastic production has made this material an … 2020 National Geographic Partners, LLC. A classic example is the standard disposable coffee cup, which is made of paper and a thin film of polypropylene for water-resistance. Thanks to recent campaigns, such as Plastic Free July, and government policies such as the UK’s 5p plastic bag tax, there is more awareness than ever about plastic waste. New research shows that larval fish are eating nanofibers in the first days of life, raising new questions about the effects of plastics on fish populations. However, looking at the per country share of mismanaged waste paints a different picture and highlights how many countries lack the facility or initiative to recycle plastics. Still, the accumulation of these products has led to increasing amounts of plastic pollution around the world. Production is expected to double by 2050. Plastic accounts for 16% of all municipal solid waste in the U.S. and 50%-80% of the waste littering beaches, oceans, and seabeds. Once at sea, sunlight, wind, and wave action break down plastic waste into small particles, often less than one-fifth of an inch across. But once caught up in ocean currents, it can be transported around the world. This continuous increase has resulted in a cumulative total of 7.8 billion tons of plastic produced during this period, corresponding to more than one ton of plastic for each person alive as of the end of 2015. Up until the 1980s, the idea of recycling plastic was unheard of. The ever-growing consumption of goods packaged in plastic and the superior economics of plastic production has made this material an unavoidable part of our daily lives. The problem with plastic is we produce it for things wedon’tneed. On the other hand, plastics such as Polystyrene (PS) and Polypropylene (PP) are still widely used but remain non-recyclable. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. These have to be either separated by hand or by special equipment. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates. Its operations will also require huge operating costs in terms of power, manpower, and equipment maintenance. Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, along with single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. Here’s a quick summary about what the problems … Plastics have been consumed by land-based animals, including elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels, cattle, and other large mammals, in some cases causing death. Through our programs, we help our clients recycle 3.3 million pounds of plastic waste each month. The problem of plastic waste is a global one, but for emerging economies that have not yet developed the recycling infrastructure the effects can be felt far more acutely. Sorting is a significant bottleneck in the plastic recycling process. Plastic waste accumulates in areas of the ocean where winds create swirling circular currents, known as gyres, which suck in any floating debris. Victoria Hattersley spoke with Andrew Almack, CEO and founder of Plastics for Change, about how this problem could be approached by recognizing the value of this ubiquitous material. Of the entire volume of plastics that have been produced since the 1950s, only 500 million tons (roughly 6%) have been recycled. The plastic-makers and supermarkets are rightly held to account. But the problem with plastic is that most of it isn't biodegradable. There are also composite plastic containers that use two different plastics. It’s very grounding – pun intended. Even in countries with well-developed plastic recycling facilities, there are still technological limitations that prevent them from attaining higher recycling rates. Did you know that the average time we use a plastic bag for is just twelve measly minutes? Product manufacturers need to come up with packaging solutions that are either biodegradable or more easily recycled. 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. But seriously, waste causes endless problems and many trash systems have not been designed to handle such a large amount of garbage. In fact, the actual longevity of some plastic products has not yet been determined, given that they have only been around for less than 70 years. Living organisms, particularly marine animals, can be harmed either by mechanical effects, such as entanglement in plastic objects, problems related to ingestion of plastic waste, or through exposure to chemicals within plastics that interfere with their physiology. Even when a plastic recycling system has been put in place, it will require the cooperation of various stakeholders. Based on studies conducted on plastic waste that has ended up in shorelines and coastal regions, researchers have found that around 79% of macroplastics are less than 5 years old. As plastic is composed of major toxic pollutants, it has the potential to cause significant harm to the … It can get stuck in trees, fences, traffic lights, or other structures. The Growing Problem of Plastic Waste Ever since its invention, we have produced and consumed an incredible amount of plastic. But many of these additives can extend the life of products if they become litter, with some estimates ranging to at least 400 years to break down. In countries like China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, a cursory walk down any street will reveal plastic packaging that is not segregated in any form to prepare them for recycling. 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