The Urgency of the Global Plastic Problem

In the U.S. and around the world, plastic has only been in widespread production for a little under 70 years. In that relatively short amount of time, production totals have reached an incredible 9.1 billion tons. Unfortunately, Americans and people in other countries currently recycle only a small percentage of our plastic output. Unless some basic changes take place soon, the global plastic problem will only grow more and more severe over time.

What Happens to the World’s Plastic?

Current figures show that just 9 percent of the plastic produced in the last 70 years has been recycled when its intended use came to an end. In stark contrast, almost 80 percent of all the world’s plastic ends up in one of two places: buried inside some sort of landfill or littering the environment in the form of trash. Today, more plastic is burned (12 percent of all output) than recycled.

Perhaps the most shocking indication of how much plastic debris infests the environment is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean littered with an unusually high concentration of plastic waste caught in converging ocean currents. At least four other such major collections of material exist in the world’s largest bodies of water. Unfortunately, plastic is especially attractive to certain types of animals, which consume the material without possessing any way to understand the harm caused to their internal organs.

The world of plastics includes much more than objects you can view directly with your eyes. When it disintegrates, plastic produces trillions upon trillions of tiny particles known as microplastics. Current studies show that microplastics have invaded everything from global water supplies and food chains to the human body itself. No one knows the long-term health consequences of this level of exposure. However, past studies have linked plastics exposure to significant alteration of the body’s normal balance of hormones.

What Are the Short-Term Trends?

At current rates of production and use, the amount of plastic stored in landfills and circulating throughout the environment in the form of trash will pass 13 billion tons by the year 2050. To put this fact in perspective, 13 billion tons is the equivalent of roughly 35,000 copies of the 102-story Empire State Building in New York City. This uptick in unrecycled plastic will inevitably lead to further degradation of the natural environment. It may also lead to substantially escalating health risks for human beings.

Responses to the Crisis

There is simply no way to undo all of the environmental damage caused by plastic waste over the past 60-plus years. In addition, no well-informed commentators would suggest that humans should or could give up on plastic production. However, governments, public health officials, private organizations and private citizens can take a range of actions to reduce the level of waste output and decrease the amount of damage foreseeable over the next 30 years. These actions include:

  •         Increasing the scope of existing programs and incentives for plastic recycling
  •         Creating new recycling programs and incentives
  •         Reducing the production and use of single-use plastics (e.g., bottles and straws)
  •         Increasing the use of natural-fiber clothing and reducing the use of synthetic fabrics
  •         Encouraging a switch from bottled soaps (which typically have plastic packaging) to bar soaps
  •         Buying foods that require the use of little or no plastic packaging (which are also often healthier than packaged foods)

The steps that make the most sense no doubt vary from person to person. Rather than worrying about taking a specific action, it probably works best for each individual to make the reduced use of plastics fit into the course of everyday life.