The projections on environmental pollution by plastics are very pessimistic.
Already undergoing the climate change and overpopulation crisis, our planet is currently buried under a mountain of plastic. Waste is spreading through nature at such a speed that current efforts are in vain, and the consequences are destined to drastically worsen if left uncontrolled.
Obviously, it is not necessary to wait for the pronouncement of a law to individually fight against plastic pollution. Several everyday actions make it possible, on our scale, to help limit the proliferation of plastic waste and we’ll tell you about them above.
But first, let’s see what this ubiquitous material is, and how it affects us, the environment and biodiversity.
So, what is plastic? The term is generally used to describe a wide variety of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials which are used in a very wide range of applications. Plastics are extremely versatile materials. They are ideally suited for a variety of consumer and industrial applications.
Plastic is a product derived from petroleum, made up of chains of crude polymer, also called base material, and additive plasticizers. Some of them can be recycled, others cannot.
There are two main categories of plastics: thermoplastics and thermosets. The former melt under heat and solidify when cooled. For the latter, the transformation is irreversible, explains Futura sciences.
In the thermoplastic category, we find for example garbage bags, in low density polyethylene (LDPE), and credit cards, in polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In the thermosetting category, glues and paints are made from polyepoxides called “epoxy”.
Plastic is a major source of pollution and the source of an ecological disaster that the planet is facing since centuries. It is found everywhere: at the bottom of the oceans, on the paths of the most distant forests, and even in the ice of the Arctic. We don’t know exactly how long it takes for plastics to degrade (or even if they degrade). Plastics, polystyrenes and similar synthetic materials are estimated to take 100 to 1,000 years to decompose, and this persistence of plastic in nature causes enormous damage.
The plastic wastes that we see washing up on shores or floating on the surface of the water is only the tip of the iceberg. More than two-thirds of the plastic released into the sea ends up at the bottom of the ocean, creating an increasingly large pile of waste under the water. Plastic waste is just as problematic on land as it is on the high seas: it fills landfills, clogs waterways and generates pollution when burned in the open or in an incinerator.
Marine animals and birds that ingest the pieces of plastic often die. We have all seen these scenes of sea turtles entangled in fishing nets, deformed morphology of their shells or the stomachs of stranded dolphins and whales filled with plastic caps and straws.
In addition, bottles, bags and other waste break down over time into smaller and smaller pieces, until they form what is called microplastic, which, while being invisible to the naked eye, exerts a deleterious action on ecosystems. These microplastics are integrated by the organism of fish that we find in our plates. Eventually, tiny particles go into your stomach, intestines, blood, and then your organs.
In addition, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled. Even in developed countries. Only a very small part of this amount is reused to make packaging.
The inadequacies of their design, the lack of infrastructure and a device capable of tracking plastic waste are all factors that limit the efficiency of recycling.
Worse still, most of the packaging collected in northern countries is exported to southern countries. Their main destination is now Southeast Asia, where a lack of infrastructure and regulations complicates the management of waste flows, both domestic and foreign.
Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions from the lifecycle of plastics undermine the ability of the global community to contain the globe’s rise in temperature below 1.5 ° C. As plastics are manufactured over 90 % from fossil fuels, they cause pollution by their production and incineration.
In its report entitled “Plastic pollution: whose fault?” WWF recalls the alarming figures on plastic pollution:
- In 2016, plastic production reached 396 million tons, from which only 20% was recycled. It’s a mountain of plastic waste whose final destination is the oceans and the coastlines.
- The world has produced more plastic since 2000 than in all previous years combined. At this rate, the share of plastic waste in the ocean is expected to double by 2030.
- A plastic dump that floats between Japan and the United States. This vortex of waste represents 1.6 million km ², or about three times the surface of France. According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, it is made up of 80,000 tones of plastic waste.
- Each year, no less than 89 billion plastic water bottles are sold worldwide, or 2,822 liters of water bottled every second, according to Planetoscope.
- 99% of marine animals will have ingested plastic by 2050.
- Almost all seabirds will be affected by plastic pollution within 30 years, according to a study published in 2015 by the Australian National Agency for Science. Also around 1.5 million animals are killed by plastic each year according to the French Development Research Institute (IRD)
- As previously mentioned, plastic microparticles have the ability to enter the food chain and therefore into our bodies. A study published in January 2017 by the University of Ghent in Belgium, showed that consumers of marine products ingested up to 11,000 microparticles of plastic each year.
- According to the UN, approximately 5,000 billion plastic bags are consumed each year around the world, or almost 10 million per minute.
- And in all this, only 26% of plastic packaging is recycled, according to data from the eco-organization Citéo.
- Every second, 10.1 tones of plastic are produced around the world. Plastic has become the most manufactured material behind cement and steel. Since 1950, 6.3 billion plastic wastes have accumulated on the planet. This is the mass of plastic produced between 1950 and 2015, according to figures from “Sciences Advances”.
- The danger is extreme for the Arctic too. By melting samples of ice floes collected in the arctic zone, German researchers discovered as many as 12,000 plastic microparticles in a single liter of water. 17 kinds of plastics were trapped in the ice, carried by sea currents from the vortex of the North Pacific.
- The straws, a single-use item, are used for a few minutes and then thrown in the trash cans to end up on the ocean floor. One billion would thus be thrown into the world every day.
Gloomy figures indeed. But fortunately, there are things we can do to immediately fight against this pollution.
Short-term goals could be to eliminate unnecessary plastic that is difficult or impossible to recycle, and to expand the use of reusable or refillable systems for product transportation and storage. In the long term, we will need to change our consumption habits. Scientists are calling for a general mobilization, because only substantial and immediate action involving all stakeholders is likely to succeed.
From the latest WWF report, where scientists draw a scenario for a zero plastic world in 2030, here are some solutions to get there. Keep in mind that your purchasing behavior has an impact: take a look at the available offer, change your habits and be more concerned about the health of the planet.
- Starting with single-use disposable plastics, reducing their use is an absolute urgency. Plates, cutlery, cotton swabs, straws and drink stirrers: these products will be banned at the start of 2021 at the latest. Their elimination would reduce plastic demand by 40% by 2030 and waste generation by 57% compared to the business as usual scenario.
- Secondly, avoid plastic bags. It is up to you to set an example by shopping with a reusable bag. But be careful, consider using cotton tote bags, because reusable nylon or polyester bags are also made from plastic.
- Also, make sure to drop the plastic bottles. At the office, use your own tea or coffee cup, and a cup for cold drinks. Remember, it takes over 400 years for a plastic bottle (usually polyethylene terephthalate) to decompose in nature.
- Especially, avoid plastic straws. They figure prominently among the garbage that ends up in the oceans and causes the most harm to fauna. In restaurants, cafes or bars, vigorously refuse straws and other plastic stirrers, which are generally not recyclable. Stand up for paper straws – Starbucks and McDonalds (a) have announced they will be phasing out – or ditch straws altogether. And for those who really can’t do without it, there are now metal or bamboo alternatives.
- When buying take out, let the seller know that you do not need plastic cutlery. When filling your shopping cart on the supermarket shelves, think about favoring unpackaged or lightly packaged products (loose or cut products, unpackaged fruits and vegetables) or contained in easily recyclable or reusable packaging (such as bottles or glass jars). Conversely, the purchase of products in individual sachets should be limited as much as possible.
- At home, make sure to separate recyclable and non-recyclable trash. Also avoid hygiene and cosmetic products that contain plastic microbeads. These invisible and a priori non-toxic particles are very common in toothpastes and exfoliating creams. However, recent studies have shown that they are the source of increasing marine pollution, which can have negative consequences on human health.
- Also watch out for clothes made from synthetic microfibers: these tiny textile fibers are released into the water with each wash. They will end up in nature, where they will be ingested by many organisms.
- In the household products section, keep in mind that some of these products often wrapped in plastic packaging can be replaced by baking soda, white vinegar or liquid black soap, which are also more economical and more environmentally friendly. When buying your laundry, target cardboard packaging.
- Finally, why not take part in an eco-citizen hike? These associative hikes aim to practice group walking while picking up trash that litters the route. They are often organized on the coasts and forests.