The Plastic Apocalypse
Plastics are one of the most ubiquitous manufactured materials on the planet. Over 7 billion tons of plastic is produced globally every year - less than 9% of that gets recycled and the rest ends up in the ocean, landfills, or the incinerator. The proliferation of plastic is attributed to the fact it is cheap, versatile, and durable. The most common usage for plastics is in packaging, however plastic can be found in other less obvious places like in face washes and meat. In fact, it is estimated that the average human will eat 40 pounds of microplastics in their lifetime. There will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050. Plastic pollution isn't only an ocean problem - it's a climate and human health issue.
The Climate Issue: The Plastic Lifecycle
Nearly every single piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) plastic refining and manufacture, 3) managing plastic waste, and 4) its ongoing impact in our oceans, waterways, and landscape. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. To put that in perspective, Earth's total annual carbon emissions today is around 51 gigatons. As we move towards net zero goals and drastically cut carbon emissions to stop the warming trend, plastic usage must be dramatically scaled down worldwide.
The Health Issue: Waste Management
As mentioned earlier, one of the largest applications (about 40%) of the world's plastics is used in packaging. Packaging is almost always single-use, meaning they are not used more than once prior to disposal. Disposed plastics are dealt with in one of three ways: landfills, burning, or recycling. Incineration contributes directly to global emissions the same way burning coal in a plant does, however this is only the beginning of the problem. These incineration facilities are disproportionally built near communities of color and low-income populations who will suffer health consequences from poor air quality. Climate change works in the same way, often impacting populations and developing nations who are the least responsible for the emissions in the first place. Recycling plastics is a largely torrid endeavor relying heavily on government subsidies. Recycling facilities are inundated with sorting and filtering tasks as the majority of items recycled are not actually recyclable. Recycling is not the answer to fixing the plastic pollution issue because there is simply too much plastic being produced to keep up with reuse efforts. Landfills are essentially giant holes for trash - trash that blows in the wind and dissolves into the earth under exposure causing some of the worst impacts to human and environmental health. Plastics can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose into microplastics. This process is sped up by heat from the sun or water. Unsurprisingly, this breakdown process releases emissions. These particles have a nasty habit of spreading all over the globe even to the deepest depths of the oceans. They are ingested by animals and humans causing toxicity levels to climb. One of the most impacted organisms is plankton who play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide from the ocean.
So how do you as an individual help address these climate and health issues caused by plastic? The single greatest thing we can do is to limit the amount of single-use plastics in your household. If the demand falters, so will production. Make a conscious decision to switch to plastic-free alternatives like Alchemy Deodorant so people 500 years from now won't have to deal with your deodorant trash. Together we can make a difference!
P.S. I use a lot of different sources from several different research papers like the Plastic and Climate: The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet from CIEL. If you feel I got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section :)