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Plastic waste is a growing issue that we face everywhere around our world.
Even though it is undeniable that plastic provides various benefits in our society, it is not enough to say that we overuse it, without thinking about the consequences.
But what are the real outcomes?
Here is why it is important to reduce plastic waste –
Reducing plastic waste is important because plastic production requires an enormous amount of energy and resources. This causes carbon emissions and contributes to global warming.
Recycling plastic is not efficient – only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled. About 60% is discarded in landfills and oceans. There, it stays for thousands of years, transforming into “microplastic,” leaching into our water supplies and food.
These are just a few reasons. In this article, we will observe a few crucial points on why it’s important to reduce plastic waste.
We will go through:
- Plastic production issues
- How plastic waste contributes to climate change
- Why recycling plastic waste is not the solution
- How plastic waste affects animals
- How plastic affects humans
- What can we do about plastic waste?
1. Plastic production issues
Plastic manufacturing requires a massive industrial process, which leads to various environmental and social impacts.
First off, we get the vast majority of plastics from non-renewable fossil fuels, by processing oil to obtain the raw material for plastics.
A study calculated that we use around 4% of the world’s petroleum to make plastic, and another 4% to power plastic manufacturing processes.
It might sound like little, but from 1950 to 2012, plastics production increased – from about 1.7 million tons to nearly 300 million tons per year.
Worldwide, an enormous amount of plastic waste is disposed of in landfills, where it takes valuable space.
What’s even worse, a massive amount of this plastic waste (~40%) is single-use packaging.
So, we waste tons of resources and energy to use things ONCE and to dispose of them afterward.
Finally, poorly managed plastic waste streams can contribute to the blocking of rain drains and sewers, which prevents proper drainage and increases sanitation-related risks.
We can all agree that these production patterns aren’t sustainable, and this is a good reason to reduce our plastic waste.
2. How plastic waste contributes to climate change
There are three main stages of a product life cycle – production, use phase, and waste management.
Production of plastics
As we figured, to produce plastic products, we need a lot of energy resources that are obtained from nonrenewable sources, which generates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
A substantial percentage of plastics are designed for single use. So after a quick “convenient” use, it goes directly to the trash.
None of the mass-produced plastics biodegrade, so they are usually collected in landfills, dumped in the wild, or floating in the ocean.
The sunlight weakens the materials, which causes fragmentation into particles known as “microplastics”.
And additional problem is that without proper management, many landfills represent serious hazards.
The only permanent way to eliminate plastic waste is by thermal treatment, such as combustion.
However, the impact of waste incinerators is often inefficient because it produces hazardous and toxic gases.
So, the most common methods of dealing with plastic waste, result in 1) microplastics, that impact human & animal health and 2) air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
But what about recycling?
3. Recycling process and rates of plastic
Recycling plastic waste sounds like a great solution. But of course, it isn’t as simple as we all wish.
Current packaging materials often include several different layers. Each layer has special properties, which makes it much harder to recycle.
An additional problem is presented in plastics in durable applications, like cars, electronics, crates, and so on.
Furthermore, each recycling facility has specific requirements that most of us don’t know about and don’t follow.
For example, separating the waste properly or cleaning the packaging from food.
If items are contaminated with food, then this makes the whole recycling process gets lots more complicated. It is even possible to contaminate the whole batch and to ruin the recycling process.
Plastic waste recycling systems need to be more complex than traditional waste processing systems, which leads to higher waste management costs.
While recycling helps and it requires fewer sources than extracting and using raw materials, it still uses a lot of energy.
Additionally, recycling facilities apply old techniques. Even though recycling is important for reducing plastic waste, it is not efficient:
To sum up, recycling is not as effective as simply reducing plastic waste.
Rates of recycling
A research from 2017 concluded that for 2014:
- The highest recycling rates were in Europe (30%) and China (25%)
- In the United States, plastic recycling has remained steady at 9% since 2012.
More researchers estimated that only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, and that, without action by 2050, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills and the environment.
4. How plastic waste affects animals
Marine wildlife and other animals
Marine wildlife is especially vulnerable to plastic pollution because approximately 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year.
Animals such as seabirds, whales, and dolphins can become entangled in plastic matter.
Moreover, some plastics float on seawater, and sometimes animals eat it because they confuse it for food.
The ugly truth is that once plastic reaches the ocean, it does not go away. It breaks down into small pieces that are eaten by sea life furthermore transferred up the food chain, carrying synthetic and toxic pollutants.
Larger plastic waste is already shown to harm wildlife animals, too.
5 – How plastic waste affects humans
Quality of life
Local air quality and pollution can directly impact the quality of life of people. Lacking technical health standards exposes people and workers (in recycling facilities) to a range of pollutants, injuries, infections, and other severe health problems that contribute to low life expectancy.
Some plastics are known to be dangerous and toxic for humans, such as #3 (PVC), or Bisphenol-a (BPA), which is a chemical that disturbs hormones.
In fact, plastics can include hundreds of additives (PDF source), and the worst part is that manufacturers are not even required to reveal this.
Any plastic is possible to leach into your food or even skin, depending on the conditions (light, heat) and the additives that it may include.
Plastic in our freshwater supplies
Microplastics have been detected in wastewater, fresh water, air, and drinking water (both bottled and tap water). What is more, studies also found microplastics in foods such as fish, shellfish, honey, beer, sea salt. YAIKS!
We need more studies in order to understand better the consequences of plastic ingestion.
However, we should consider that human health is under risk from microplastics in drinking-water and our food chain.
For example, a study suggested that microplastics can cause physical damages, biological stress & leaching of additives.
Another research suggested that microplastics may also serve as vectors* for harmful organisms.
Finally, according to available data, wastewater treatment can effectively remove just about 90% of microplastics from wastewater.
All in all, certain plastics are not intended for contact with our food or water, yet they are, which can be harmful for us.
Just try to imagine eating plastic. Yuiks.
*vector – an organism, that transmits a disease or parasite from one animal or plant to another
6. What can you do about plastic waste?
Plastic waste is a huge problem, and REDUCING our use of plastics is the most efficient and easy way to fight the problem.
So the best thing that we can do is to prevent new sources of plastics from entering the environment.
Reducing unnecessary plastic consumption is a great start, so can consider the following:
- this will reduce plastic waste, and it will increase the demand for improving product and packaging design
- reduce your plastic usage, by bringing your bag in the shop, buying loose produce and in bulk whenever possible & visiting your farmers market
- you can find incredibly simple recipes online. You can check my DIY category, too
- look online for DIY tutorials for some essentials that you use on a daily basis, like toothpaste, deodorant, etc. These are super easy to make and you can find a lot of variations.
3) Finding package free and more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives
- nowadays, you can discover ALMOST anything in sustainable packaging, that can be reused and recycled endlessly (such as glass and aluminum)
- Do a quick online search and find what is available to you. Some low waste shops, offer things, that are package-free, too! Also, check my list with more than 100 low waste products.
Nowadays, plastic litter can be found everywhere – on streets, fields, beaches, forests, oceans.
Plastic waste CAN affect the quality of life, health, tourism, and even our economy.
While it requires a lot of energy and resources to be created and recycled, plastic has more negative impacts. $13 billion a year are used from environmental damage to marine ecosystems, financial losses by fisheries, and tourism, as well as the time, spent on cleaning beaches.
The solution is in our hands – reducing the use of plastics.