The Plastic Waste Crisis – How did we get here?

Single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. 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 Plastic Waste Crisis – How did we get here?

Plastic is one of the biggest causes of environmental pollution and single use plastic items make up a huge amount of that waste.

The sheer scale of plastic waste has become a massive problem for much of the world. It is a particularly difficult problem for developing countries due to inefficient or non existent garbage collection systems. On a global scale we are failing to reduce the amount of plastic waste or to dispose of it in a way that doesn’t damage the environment or ecosystems. 

The amount of plastic waste being produced is overwhelming. Recycling of plastic cant keep up with the amount of waste produced, and can’t address most of the issues. There is just too much of it and much is unsuitable to recycle. This leaves massive amounts of plastic in the environment slowly breaking down.

The conveniences plastics offer has resulted in  a throw-away culture. Single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. They are made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals (petrochemicals). Items such as plastic bags and food wrappers, packaging and serviceware, bottles, straws and bags, are used once only. They have a lifespan of minutes to hours, but are likely to remain in the environment for hundreds of years.

There are many uses for plastic that are not only reasonable but important, such as surgical gloves, or straws for the disabled, but these cases make up a small fraction of the single-use plastic in use.

A study in 2017 found that more than half of non-fiber plastic, which excludes synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon comes from plastic packaging alone, much of which is for single-use items.

The Ocean has become a huge garbage dump for plastic waste

Plastic waste ends up in the ocean and there is now a floating garbage dump known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Also known as the Pacific trash vortex, the garbage patch is actually two distinct collections of debris bounded by the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

(A gyre is a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by the Earth’s rotation. ) The movement of the world’s major ocean gyres helps drive the “ocean conveyor belt.” The ocean conveyor belt circulates ocean water around the entire planet.

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Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.

The Ocean is one of our last carbon sinks. Filling it up with garbage will inevitably kill ocean life and cause the ocean to be less efficient in absorbing and storing carbon, which will be catastrophic in regard to climate change.

How did Plastic pollution become such a major global problem?

Since plastic was first manufactured, people wanted more and more as it was cheap, durable, lightweight and could be mass produced. Many plastic items have made modern life much better and so we have used more and more of it over time, until nearly everything has a plastic component.

Plastics made from fossil fuels are just over a century old. 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. Plastics revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jets—saving fuel and pollution—and saved lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water.

A Quick History of the evolution of plastic

The first record of plastic (Parkesine) was in 1862 at the London International Exhibition. Parkesine is an organic compound made from cellulose. At the time it was promoted as an alternative to ivory and horn.

In 1909, Dr. Leo Bakeland created and patented the world’s first entirely synthetic plastic called Bakelite.

The creation of a synthetic plastic was revolutionary for its electrical non conductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewellery, pipe stems, children’s toys, and firearms. This was the beginning of the modern plastic revolution.

In 1920  Polymers were discovered by Hermann Staudinger.  Polymers can exist organically or be created synthetically, and consist of chains of joined individual molecules or monomers. (Our own DNA is a polymer).

Plastics are a type of polymer composed of chains of polymers which can be partially organic or fully synthetic. Simply put, all plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics.

Natural polymers (also called biopolymers) include silk, rubber, cellulose, wool, amber, keratin, collagen, starch, DNA, and shellac. Synthetic polymers include PVC (polyvinyl chloride), polystyrene, synthetic rubber, silicone, polyethylene, neoprene, and nylon.

World War Two saw the emergence of many new types of plastic.

Starting around 1933 and during world war two, a massive number of innovations in regard to plastic and chemicals emerged. This was to set up the massive plastic industry we know today.

Polyethylene (PE) was created in England in 1933 and was a closely held state secret, as the lightweight plastic was used to insulate radar cabling, sufficiently lightening them to be placed on airplanes and giving Britain’s planes a significant advantage against the Germans.

Polystyrene (PS) was created first as an alternative to die-cast zinc, but quickly became a replacement for rubber in the copolymer of polystyrene and butadiene: styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR).

Nylon, which DuPont released for sale as synthetic silk hosiery in 1939 to much fanfare, was quickly rationed by the U.S. military for use in parachutes and ropes.

A Dow chemist created expanded polystyrene (EPS) by accident in 1941 and the sturdy lightweight plastic became a useful thermal insulator and shock-absorber.

By the 1950’s the plastic market was growing as companies could profit from providing consumers products from materials developed during the war. 

Polyester was introduced in the 1950s, and polypropylene, today one of the most used polymers in the world, got its start as a commodity in 1954, becoming a very useful polymer due to its adaptability.

High-density PE (HDPE), today most commonly used to make plastic milk jugs, was developed during this period as well. There were some initial problems with the consistency of HDPE so while the problems were ironed out to make it more reliable, the plastic was used to produce hula hoops and children’s toys.

Plastic was fast gaining popularity from the 1960s

Further innovations occurred in the 1960s.  The polysulfone family of thermoplastics, introduced in 1965, were most visibly used on the gold-film visors of Apollo-era space suits. 


Thermoplastics – Can be re-melted and essentially returned to their original state—like the way an ice cube can be melted and then cooled again. Thermoplastics are usually produced first in a separate process to create small pellets; these pellets are then heated and formed to make all sorts of consumer and industrial products. Thermoplastics include plastics you’re likely familiar with: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, nylon, polycarbonate, and others.

Thermosets – Are usually produced and formed into products at the same time—and they cannot be returned to their original state. They generally are formed using heat (“thermo”) and become “set,” like a cooked egg. Thermosets include vulcanized synthetic rubber, acrylics, polyurethanes, melamine, silicone, epoxies, and others.


Para-aramid synthetic fiber, more commonly known as Kevlar, was also introduced in 1965 and was first used in the racing industry to replace steel in racing tires, although it has since found many other modern uses as well, most notably in bulletproof vests.

The 1970s saw the production and use of plastics increasing rapidly

Manufacturers began replacing paper or glass staples with lighter or more durable and affordable plastic alternatives; plastic jugs replaced milk jars, for instance. The growth of plastic really accelerated during this decade.

However, oil embargoes drove consumers and companies to refocus on biobased and biodegradable plastics in the 1970s, in the interest of both environmental conservation and economic necessity. 

The bioplastics of the late 1980s and early 1990s were a direct response to these concerns, but were not commercially successful as the products failed to meet consumer expectations.
 

Modern plastics are renowned for their sustainability, strength and design flexibility. Usage is varied and widespread. From healthcare and medicine, consumer technology, automotive, packaging, aerospace, building and construction and everything in between.

Modern Plastic Production

Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.

Production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Production is expected to double by 2050.

Plastics often contain additives making them stronger, more flexible, and durable. Unfortuneatly, these additives can extend the life of products if they become litter. Some estimates suggest plastic could take at least 400 years to break down.

Where are plastics found today?

Plastic is found in just about every aspect of our modern daily lives. There are literally thousands of types of plastics and a multitude of uses. Plastic has made the lives we live convenient and easier and many of the uses have made new innovations possible.

Plastics are used to make bicycle helmets, child safety seats and airbags in cars. They’re in  cell phones, televisions, computers and other electronic equipment that makes modern life possible. They’re in the roofs, walls, flooring and insulation that make homes and buildings energy efficient. And plastics in packaging help keep foods safe and fresh.

People rely on many everyday things that are made with plastic. Paints, protective coatings and linings, adhesives and glues, and sealants and insulation to name a few. Some plastics have additives that make them bacteria or fire-resistant. Other additives give them a rainbow of colors; make them flexible; or fill them with bubbles to make them better insulators. Fibres are added to make high-tech composites. There are tens of thousands of different kinds of plastics and formulations.

Even our clothing is made of plastic! 

Plastics have been spun into fibres or filaments that are used to make fabrics, string, ropes, cables -even optical fibres and body armour such as Kevlar. Most plastic fibres are strong, stretchable, and stable under heat, so fabrics can be ironed.

Some of the most recognizable plastic fibres are polyester, nylon, rayon, acrylic and spandex, although there are many more! Polyester can also be used to make plastic beverage bottles that can then be recycled into fibres for clothing such as fleece jackets and tee shirts.

There are many more categories, such as coatings, adhesives, elastomers and rubbers, covering plastics that are used in everything from the space shuttle exterior to linings for canned vegetables.

The huge amount of plastic in our daily lives is often not thought about, but has given us a convenient and useful commodity. Plastic has caused a “throw away” society which is seen in all areas of consumerism. We often use single use items or cheap plastic products that won’t last, without consideration of the long term consequences.  

Globally, 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced each year.  This way of living will inevitably bring environmental disaster and will undoubtedly adversely affect our health.

So what happens when plastic waste breaks down in the environment?

Although plastic is non-biodegradable, it does break down until it is no longer visible by the naked eye. A single plastic bag can break down into millions of pieces.  


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All these small particles of plastic never fully decompose and are literally everywhere: in water, soil, and air. Because they are light, they are easily transported across long distances.


Microplastics cannot be completely removed from the natural world. This is a problem as there is evidence that these micro fibres are harmful.

In 2014, it was discovered by accident that polar ice appears to be full of microplastics. Initially it was thought they had been carried there by ocean currents and caught in the ice. Later it was evident that they are also carried by the wind. It ‘rains’ microplastics every day, even in the most remote regions of the world.

Plastic microfibers have even been found nearly eleven kilometres below the surface of the ocean!

Plastic was a modern innovation, but has become a modern curse

One of the major environmental hazards of plastic comes from the minute fragments into which the large pieces break down. Particles smaller than a few millimetres in size are commonly known as microplastics. Microplastics are microscopic in size: 50 µm – 5 mm (0.05-5mm).  Nanoplastics are 1,000 times smaller than an algal cell.When fibres are ingested by either animal life or humans, the smallest particles – the nanoplastics – can spread throughout the body and possibly reach the organs, including the brain. Obviously with the vast amount of plastic waste accumulating in the environment, the concentration of these small particles is increasing. It is possible that the number of fibres being ingested by animals and humans is increasing similarly.

This should be of great concern to everybody. Many people are striving to take action to reduce their use of plastic products, but the vast majority are continuing to use single use plastic items as if nothing is wrong.  It would appear that many people are oblivious to the massive scale of plastic waste and the consequences to both the environment, the animals that live there and human health.

What action can you as an individual take to start reducing plastic waste?

Certainly, you can start eliminating plastic products from your daily life. Trying to find either recycled clothing or environmentally friendly clothing that doesn’t contain any plastic is also recommended.

Governments in every country need to take ownership of this massive problem and legislate to ban single use plastic items. Voting for governments who have strong environmental policies is something important to consider during elections.

We need to be careful we are not just replacing plastic single uses items with more eco friendly single use items.

Even items that are compostable if thrown out in large enough numbers will still produce mountains of trash.

Using any single use throw away items will stop us solving this crisis. We need to address the problems of over consumption and waste generation in the first place if we are truely serious about reducing plastic pollution.

Read a related blog on: reducing plastic waste

Some alternative products to help reduce plastic in your life

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