Reevaluating How We Think About Plastic

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It is estimated that our planet houses around nine million different multicellular species (Sala 2020). When we observe how the world naturally functions, we see a constant cycle of energy and nutrients, sustained by these species “working together to produce a harmony that we cannot explain, but which works to sustain our world,” (ibid.). Humans, on the other hand, have been working apart from this system – against it, even. With our chosen lifestyle, more than half of the earth’s inhabitable land is being used for farming and one million of the nine million species will be extinct in the coming decades (ibid.).

 

These challenges to the survival of so many creatures and the potential repercussions that these changes can have throughout our ecosystem highlight our need to reevaluate our system, which is currently linear (Kunzig 2020). One particular concern is the rising amounts of CO2 found in our atmosphere – contributing to global warming and having negative effects on wildlife including through ecological, behavioural, physiological, and genetic changes (Species and Climate Change 2019). One of the contributors to the rising levels of CO2 is – surprise – plastic. Plastic is a source of greenhouse gas emissions during every point in its lifecycle (Cho 2020). 

 

Plastics range from the natural based products like chewing gum, to the chemically modified, like rubber, and finally, to our modern plastics which are made mostly from synthetic materials (Plastics: a Story of More than 100 Years of Innovation). Cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and crude oil are all main ingredients of plastic production (How Plastics Are Made). Overtime, the amount of land in the United States cleared to lay well pads and pipes for the collection of natural gases and crude oils has resulted in the emission of 1.7 billion metric tons of CO2 (Cho 2020). On top of that, the commonly used method of fracking to extract oils and gas emits methane, which traps 84 times the amount of heat that carbon dioxide does (ibid.)

 

Our plastic production is increasing and is expected to double by 2040 (Cho 2020). With the anticipation of the public’s decrease in fossil fuel consumption, major gas providing companies are turning their attention to creating plastics – as they are already extracting ethane, an organic chemical compound used in the creation of plastic (ibid.). This intended shift towards plastic production has led to plans for new production facilities which will create 333 new plastic related projects “locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from” Judit Enck, the founder and former regional EPA director of Beyond Plastics said (ibid.). 

 

Scientists are not sure of the entire extent of plastic’s effect on the environment, but there are several studies that cause concern. For example, phytoplankton are tiny organisms found in the ocean and while they are quite invisible to our naked eye, through their process of photosynthesis, they absorb around one-third of the CO2 from our atmosphere. As they die and sink to the ocean floor, they take the CO2 with them, contributing to the balancing of our atmospheric temperatures (Mahadevan 2015). Joaquim Goes, a research professor from the Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found that the more plastic enters the oceans, the harder it is for phytoplankton to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere: “One thing you can assume is that if you have too many microplastic particles, they compete with phytoplankton for light,” (Cho 2020). This ultimately means that phytoplankton will not be able to maintain their absorption of CO2 – which will result in higher atmospheric temperatures (ibid.).

We can also anticipate that plastic has more direct impacts on the environment around it. The creation of plastic is not closely regulated, and the chemicals used to create these synthetic materials are “highly toxic” (ibid.). When plastics are thrown into the environment, the chemicals used to make them are as well, and we can only assume there are consequences. Marco Tedesco, also a researcher at the Earth Institutes Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said “treatment of microplastics requires an extra level of attention because of the potential harm related to the chemicals that are used to treat plastics…” (ibid.).

In fact, with the amount of plastic being produced – around the amount that could put an ankle deep layer over the entirety of Luxembourg (Parker 2020) – and the greenhouse gases being emitted from these quantities, by 2030, the amount of greenhouse gas being emitted could rise to equal what would be produced if there were “300 500MW new coal-fired power plants” and we will not be able to keep the global average temperature from rising 1.5˚C (Cho 2020). 

 

While most of us have heard about the negative effects of pollution and plastic waste in our environment, relatively few efforts are being made to regulate its production and disposal. While plastic is evidence of humankind’s creativity and resourcefulness, the fact that it is nearly indestructible and yet tossed – often after one use – directly into the ocean, is evidence of our wastefulness and our quite-adolescent sense of indestructibility and disregard for our environment. We recycle only 9% of the total plastic we produce (Kunzig 2020). 

This is not just an issue with plastic however – we can see it on many different levels of how we waste, and it reveals a flaw in our consumerist lifestyles. Our economy has evolved to be linear, and we can see this in how we produce and discard materials like plastic to food to clothing. Our tendency to throw away reusable materials also reflects a fading reality of abundance. In a 2008 study conducted by the Waste Resources Action Programme, the trash of over 2,100 British households was examined to determine how much food was being thrown away. The results found that “one of every three bags of groceries” was being discarded in Britain and a third of all food is thrown out worldwide (Kunzig 2020). 

 

Our unsustainable habits are so entrenched that products which had previously been made to last are being made with the intent of a short lifetime – from single-use plastic to clothing. For example, the Boer Group, a century old Dutch family business which used to thrive by repurposing discarded clothing, is now facing a challenge as many of the clothing being donated is of little value (Kunzig 2020). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that only 1% of the world’s textiles are currently being recycled as clothing and next to this number, around 40% of the clothes people discard are only useful as rags, insulation, and mattress stuffing (ibid.). 

 

This has reached a point where many of us are so accustomed to items belonging in the trash, that we assume every item belongs in the trash – when the occasion comes to recycle, we do not. For example, cell phones are often thrown away when they contain pieces of copper – one of the most rare and valuable natural materials that can be infinitely recycled (ibid.). This is also one of the materials humans are turning towards to stop relying on fossil fuels; eco-friendly energy sources such as wind turbines use up to 33 tons of copper (ibid.). Hendrik Roth, the environmental manager of the German copper smelter plant, Aurubis commented on the fact that countries like the US were shipping their electric discards to the plant saying he “[wondered] sometimes why such a highly industrialized country would give up such resources” like copper to the German plant. Roth estimates the country is “sitting on billions,” (ibid.). 

So, not only is our linear economy causing devastating effects to our environment, but countries are practically giving away billions of dollars because they do not want to take the time or invest the money to recycle their goods.  A shift to a circular economy would look like the adoption of strategies not unfamiliar, like recycling, reducing production in general, and renting rather than owning (Kunzig 2020). More countries are pledging themselves to adopting circular strategies, particularly those of the European Union have been investing billions and the Ellen MacArthur foundation estimates that such a system could save over 600 billion dollars per year (Kunzig 2020).

 

There are also efforts being made by individual companies and alliances to reduce waste – for example Apple encourages their customers to give back their older iPhones in exchange for new ones (Kunzig 2020). On a more communal level, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a collection of 50 companies that are working together to invest $1.5 billion in the collection and recycling of plastic waste has already started 14 projects (Parker 2020). Their project strategies are not designed with the expectation that plastic use will stop but that with the development of technology, how we use, reuse, and recycle plastic can be improved (ibid.).

 

So, the problem is not necessarily plastic itself but our tendency to waste our resources and valuable materials. This has been dubbed “the circularity gap,” by Marc de Wit and his colleagues during the presentation of their report for the 2018 World Economic Forum. In 2015 alone, more than 67 billion tons of human ingenuity was lost (Kunzig 2020). That is, up to 2/3rds of the materials humans collected from the planet, including the resources we use to make plastic, fertilizers, and food, were thrown away and lost for good that year. 

While it is important to be forgiving, as this is quite a new responsibility for humans – only after the 18th century and our developed use of fossil fuels were we, as a species, able to create such a large and detrimental impact on the planet (Kunzig 2020). Now that we are aware of the detrimental impact this way of life has on the planet, there is no excuse to continue as we are. It is predicted that by 2050, we will double our use of natural resources, despite any efforts in place to curb our plastic production and waste (Kunzig 2020). In fact, it is estimated that even with all the efforts being made to protect our environment, there will still be a predicted 22 – 58 million tons of plastic entering the oceans in the coming ten years (Parker 2020). 

 

The plastic found in our environment is so widespread that scientists think it could function as a “geological indicator of the Anthropocene era” (“Our Planet is Drowning in Plastic Pollution – It’s Time for Change”). The chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, George Leonard, warned that “if we don’t get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales. And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late”  (Parker 2020).

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Cho, Renee. “More Plastic Is On the Way: What It Means for Climate Change.” State of the Planet, 23 Apr. 2021, news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/02/20/plastic-production-climate-change/. 

“How Plastics Are Made.” PlasticsEurope, www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics/how-plastics-are-made. 

Kunzig, Robert. “Here’s How a ‘Circular Economy’ Could Save the World.” Magazine, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/how-a-circular-economy-could-save-the-world-feature. 

Mahadevan, Amala. “Please Enable Javascript to Experience All of This Website’s Features.A.” Science for the Public, 2020, www.scienceforthepublic.org/earth/how-plankton-blooms-absorb-co2. 

“Our Planet Is Drowning in Plastic Pollution—It’s Time for Change!” UNEP.org, United Nations Environment, www.unep.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/. 

Parker, Laura. “Plastic Pollution Is a Huge Problem-and It’s Not Too Late to Fix It.” National Geographic, 6 Oct. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it. 

“Plastics: a Story of More than 100 Years of Innovation.” PlasticsEurope, www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics/history. 

Sala, Enric. The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild. National Geographic, 2020. 

“Species and Climate Change.” IUCN, 5 Dec. 2019, www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/species-and-climate-change. 

“What Is a Circular Economy?” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept. 

World Economic Forum, 2014, Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the Scale-up across Global Supply Chains.

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