What happens when we are done with plastic?
We have already talked about The History of Plastics and exposed some shocking environmental data about how much out of control the use of this material is.
There is no doubt that plastic has helped our species to develop and increase the general level of wellbeing by for example providing better sanitation and accessibility to many products that were otherwise hard to manufacture and own by lower-income households.
In Terra Zero we charge forward always with science and data at the front of our research and when it comes down to plastic, there is a lot of misinformation and lack of transparency of what the real problem really is. Percentage of plastic recycled worldwide is a big part of the problem.
How much plastic do we use worldwide?
In the early 2000s, our output of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Today our civilisation produces about 300 million tonnes of plastic every single year. That's nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
Researchers estimate that since the early 1950s, when plastic started to become widely used, it has been produced more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic. More than 60% of that plastic has gone to the landfill or our natural environment, polluting our nature and biodiversity and ultimately ourselves.
To put give a degree of comparison to these numbers, every year more than 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used while one million drinking plastic bottles are purchased every minute. Like these ones, more than half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once.
How is most of the plastic made nowadays?
Plastic is simply made from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal. Therefore the production of virgin plastic involves the use of polluting and non-renewable resources. At the current pace the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world's total oil consumption.
Since the amount of plastic recycled worldwide falls far from being able to supply the current level of production, most of the plastic produced nowadays comes from oil.
This plastic will be used to produce everything from car parts to plastic bags. With a few minor changes the plastic industry is able to produce different types of plastic to suit different uses, some are harder to recycle than others.
A small percentage of the world's produced plastic comes from recycled plastics, commonly Polythylene terephthalate (PET) since it is a fairly easy to recycle plastic normally used to produce water bottles, containers and trays. In recent years there has been an increase in the use of recycled PET to produce more sustainable textile pieces that are less wasteful and have a lower footprint in this planet, like the Kind Bag Shopping Bags that are made from 6 PET bottles saved from going into the oceans.
So, what happens when we are done with plastic?
Ideally we would see that all plastic waste goes into an efficient and closed recycling system that turns all the plastic into the base plastic material to make new products of recycled plastic. Ideally the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced in our short human history would still be used today in our everyday lives to facilitate our life and push all nations towards human development but this falls short of the reality..
Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced more than 6.3 billion metric tonnes became plastic waste that either went to pollute our natural environment, the animals that make of this planet so diverse and special and ultimately our own bodies through our diets, heavily reliant on fish and meat.
At the current pace, and with the current level of investment into new infrastructure to update and improve recycling loops by 2050 there will be in the world more than 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste sitting in the landfills.
Other materials that also have heavy carbon footprints like metals, are mostly used in areas that expect these materials to last for long periods of times, like in construction. Half of all plastic manufactured on the other hand is designed to be used only once and end up in the landfill, for over 500 years before it "disappears".
Although we must allocate resources to reduce plastic at source it is important to note that we have produced enough plastic worldwide to supply our demand for plastic without the need to produce more from non-renewable resources like oil. With only 9% of plastic so far having been recycled and another 12% been incinerated, the remaining 79% of all plastic worldwide produced since the 1950s is still travelling down our rivers to filter into our oceans and natural environment.
With so much plastic around us, the best solution is to rescue all this plastic and re-introduce it into a circular economy, where all plastic that we used has come from bottles, bags and products that were not long ago travelling around our oceans.
The solution to plastic waste in our natural environment is us.
With the amount of plastic produced so far and with the estimated that at this rate there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, we have to act quickly to change the course of this crisis.
The solution ultimately lays on governments and organisations to innovate to reduce their impact and their practices. Ideally this would happen on its own but unfortunately changes are been implemented at a slower rate than we need to.
All of us, the people are in the end the solution. The change starts with us. From taking our reusable coffee cup with us to work to saying no to single-use plastic bags in the supermarket to instead bring your own reusable bag made from plastic bottles. Small changes make a big difference but if there is something that will change the direction of this train and take us towards a sustainable future where no waste lays on our oceans, that is our voice.
We have the power, just as the oceans rise our voices must rise too. We must demand more from the organisations that we consume from, asking them to produce sustainably and ethically. To reduce the footprint from their products and packaging. Asking them to produce with recycled plastic and not virgin plastic made from oil. Asking them to rescue plastic from our ocean and to support organisations fighting plastic waste. Asking our local governments to invest into efficient recycling infrastructure that closes the loop. Recycling systems that bring us back the plastic that we still can't afford to not use, in the shape of a different product.
Ultimately, our voice and our actions are the solution to the plastic issue and together we can change the course of this crises.
Now you have the knowledge, the solutions and the power to implement this change that makes a big difference to our planet and for the health of life on earth. Make sure to teach and share what you learn along the way, because together we are the solution!