Plastic pollution is everywhere. It chokes and starves wildlife, distributes germs and toxins, and is eaten by fish and ultimately humans. It is even in the air we breathe.
Plastic isn’t biodegradable. The only way to permanently eliminate it is by incineration.
Plastic is a popular material because it is flexible, lightweight, and strong. That makes it ideal for packaging, its largest use. It’s also commonly used in clothing and single-use items such as straws.
If the plastic waste problem could be solved, plastic would be a form of packaging superior to cardboard, metal, or paper. Its use reduces food waste, and because it's lightweight, transporting it consumes less fuel.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics are minuscule particles of plastic smaller than a grain of sand and the width of a human hair. Most microplastics come from the degradation of plastic waste.
The elemental bonds of most plastics are so strong chemically that they resist being broken down in soil or water. Microplastics may become small enough to enter the human bloodstream.
The ocean is contaminated by 8.3 million pieces of microplastics per cubic meter of water. Analysis has found that between 15% to 31% of all the plastic in the oceans comes from primary sources—small particles released from household and industrial products. Of this, 35% is from synthetic textiles, such as nylon and fleece. When these materials are washed, the fibers make their way through water treatment facilities and into the ocean.
An additional 28% comes from tires that release plastic particles as they erode. A further 24% comes from city dust. The remaining 13% comes from road markings, marine coatings, personal care products, and plastic microbeads, which get into the ocean via road runoff (66%), wastewater (25%), and wind (7%).
More than 1,000 metric tons of microplastics fall from the sky, along with dust and rain. Even rainwater in Rocky Mountain National Park has microparticles, primarily blue fibers, invisible to the naked human eye.
Scientists estimate that the average American eats 39,000 to 52,000 plastic particles in their food each year, and that is only one way the particles are ingested. Many of the chemicals in these particles negatively affect human health, causing cancer, anemia, and neurodegenerative disorders.
Causes of Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution is caused by inadequate waste disposal. Globally, more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since its first large-scale use in the 1950s.
About 6.3 billion metric tons of that has been turned into waste; of that, only 9% was recycled and 12% was incinerated. The rest went into landfills, rivers, and oceans. There, its durability, an asset in packaging, becomes a liability. It takes hundreds to thousands of years to degrade.
By 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste.
On Jan. 1, 2018, China stopped accepting used plastic for recycling. It did this because most of the recyclables received from other countries like the U.S. were contaminated, which overwhelmed China’s recycling facilities and threatened its environment. As a result, many governments have simply ended their recycling programs.
Effects of Plastic Pollution
Between 60% to 80% of all marine litter is plastic. A 2014 survey found that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans. The United Nations reported that 13 million metric tons of plastic wind up in the oceans every year.
Plastic pollution costs $13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems per year. This includes losses to the fishing industry and tourism, as well as the cost to clean up beaches. For example, South Korea’s Geoje Island lost 63% of its tourists after marine debris washed up on its beaches.
Plastic leaches chemicals, including dyes, metals, and flame retardants. These are toxic to oxygen-producing microorganisms.
The key microorganism affected by plastic pollution is the picoplankton Prochlorococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic organism on earth. It produces 10% of the oxygen on the planet. When these microbes die, they stop producing oxygen, creating dead zones and suffocating sealife. They also stop absorbing carbon dioxide, worsening global warming.
Solutions to Plastic Pollution
To address this pervasive problem, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) launched the Clean Seas Campaign. Its goal is to eliminate microplastics from personal care products, ban or tax single-use plastic bags, and reduce other disposable plastic items by 2022. Sixty countries have joined the initiative as of June 2020.
Here are some other alternatives for reducing non-degradable plastic waste.
Local recycling is expensive for municipalities. For example, the city of Berkeley, California, must spend $75 per ton of plastic scrap to send it to a local recycler. Only half of it the plastic is clean enough to be recycled. The rest is contaminated with food and winds up in the dump. The cost to send the trash to Asia was only $35 per ton. But most types of plastic are not recyclable.
On May 28, 2018, the European Commission urged the 28 members of the European Union to approve bans on single-use plastics. On Oct. 24, 2018, the European Parliament approved the rules. The EU's "Single-Use Plastics Directive" aims to recycle 90% of all plastic bottles. It prohibits plastic in drink stirrers, cutlery, plates, and straws.
Although 127 countries have some type of regulations on plastic use, few have an outright ban. In the U.S., just eight states have banned single-use plastic bags.
The proposed Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 in the U.S. would put the responsibility for plastic waste management on producers. The law, if enacted, would establish a national Pigouvian tax on carry-out bags and offer refunds to customers who return beverage containers.
A Pigouvian, or sin, tax is imposed on an activity that creates socially harmful externalities. The cost of these externalities is spread throughout society but the tax returns some of this expense to the person who committed the activity.
If approved, the legislation would phase out many single-use plastics, such as utensils, by Jan. 1, 2022. It would also limit how much plastic waste can be exported to other countries.
Many European countries are burning plastic in a growing number of waste-to-energy (WTE) plants. The plants use the heat to make steam to generate electricity. State-of-the-art plants burn garbage at 850 degrees Celsius (1,560°F). This efficiently combusts waste while lowering levels of air pollutants. The plants also have advanced smokestack filtration technology to eliminate toxic emissions.
In the U.S., WTE plants face regulatory hurdles. Other electricity sources, such as natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear, are still cheap, which makes WTE plants less profitable by comparison. Renewable energy credits offered by some states make WTE more feasible.