The problem with plastic – part 1

by James Flint on August 09, 2020

Plastic has become the star product of our daily consumption: cars, houses, contact lenses, clothing, pipes, mattresses. or even packaging. Although it offers multiple services, it is also a true source of contamination, the effects of which must be limited. Here are some figures to help you understand the plastic problem.

stop throwing plastics in the ocean

Producing plastic is above all producing waste

Plastic would not bring so many problems if it were not produced and destined to become garbage. Most plastic production creates packaging (35%), which will be disposed of within a maximum period of three years, not to mention disposable plastic items, which will be disposed of immediately after use.

The proportion of plastic waste in the world is 12%. For 2016 alone, the World Bank estimates 300 million tons of plastic waste produced. Of all this waste, only the packaging sector generates 50%.

Since the 1950s, when plastic was developed, its production has continued to increase. It has even increased exponentially since the 2000s: + 4% virgin plastic per year. Thus, in 70 years, plastic went from 2 million tons per year in 1950 to 381 tons in 2015, the equivalent of "two thirds of the world population", according to calculations by researchers at the University of Oxford. Cumulatively, between 1950 and today, the world has a total production of 9 billion tons of plastics.

Only 20% recycled plastic

The global share of recycled plastic remains very low today: only 20% of global plastic waste is recycled, 15% is incinerated, the rest is collected in landfills or lost in the environment. Scientists have set the percentage of poorly managed waste at 37% and are therefore destined to pollute the planet, especially the oceans.

Overall, only about half (56%) of the plastic waste that the United States once exported is still accepted by foreign markets following China's ban. Europe also wants to improve its recycling rate. The SUP ("disposable plastics") directive foresees to increase the collection of bottles to 90% in 10 years and to increase the content in recyclable material, to 25% by 2025 and to 30% by 2030.

Analysis of the US export records shows that the equivalent of 19,000 plastic recycling bins per month, once exported overseas, is now stuck at home. This plastic is enough to fill 250 Olympic swimming pools every month.

Plastic: the first pollutant in the oceans.

Poorly managed plastic waste is discharged to rivers or beaches before landing in the oceans, causing an influx of 8 million pieces of waste each year. According to a United Nations report, plastic waste represents 80% of the waste contained in the oceans, of which 50% are disposable products, such as cups, plates, straws, but also bottles, swabs, towels, sanitary bags or even plastic. These products are found in the stomachs of marine fauna, whole or in the form of microparticles, which in turn have the opportunity to pass through the food chain.

According to an Australian study, published by WWF in early June, humans ingest 5 grams of plastic per day, or the equivalent of a credit card, because of these microparticles contained in bottles of mineral water, salt., beer, air or even seafood.

Faced with these alarming findings on plastic, the European directive has therefore chosen to tackle marine litter as a priority: ban of highly polluting and easily replaceable disposable objects, ban of oxo degradable plastics, which disintegrate, in order to fight against proliferation of microparticles, also coverage of cleaning costs by manufacturers of cigarette filters and fishing equipment.

But according to the scientific community, the solutions that will have the most impact on reducing plastic waste lie in the creation of waste management infrastructure around the world and the stopping of the export of plastic waste from countries to high income to those with low income. The share of unmanaged global waste could then be reduced by 80%.

ocean rocks

Why is this a problem?

This waste causes the mortality of many aquatic species (fish, turtles, crustaceans, etc.), marine mammals and birds.

Currently, scientists are studying this to find out the extent and real impact of these problems.

Contaminated animals

Plastic takes between around 500 and 1000 years to degrade fully. During this time, plastics release toxic pollutants for the entire food chain: PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls), POP (persistent organic pollutants), heavy metals ...

According to American scientists at the Oceanographic Institute, 3 in 10 fish have ingested plastic in the North Pacific.

A 5-year survey was carried out by the United Nations environment program on the fulmar, a seabird. It shows that 95% of seabirds in the North Sea region have plastic in their stomachs.

1,000,000 seabirds, 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and other marine mammals are killed by marine debris each year around the world (source Rise above plastics).

Animals that are suffocating or trapped

Aside from the transmission of toxic substances in plastics, animals can also confuse these plastics with their food. Sea turtles, in particular, mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite dishes, and suffocate to death.

Other wastes, such as abandoned or lost fishing nets, continue for several years to trap fish, turtles, birds and other marine mammals. These animals die by getting their legs or fins caught in debris (plastic bags, fishing nets, etc.). 

A destroyed ecosystem

Too much waste at sea also limits animal and plant life in depth ... The waste takes the place of underwater flora and fauna.

Since the 1990s, 175 million pieces of debris have been estimated on the bottom of the north western Mediterranean basin. These enormous quantities have direct impacts on flora and fauna and generally indirect impacts on humans.