We have a plastic problem. Every day, nearly a million tons of plastic waste are produced. It has been found at the bottom of ocean trenches. The beaches of island nations are covered with bottles washing up from the tides. Animals in the wild have pieces of plastic in their intestinal tract.
The Scope of the Problem
The problem is that plastic is cheap to produce, and it can be molded in numerous helpful shapes. It seems like just about everything contains some plastic. We use plastic wrap to indicate something is new and pristine. We use bottles for water and other beverages. Sometimes it’s even woven into our clothes!
The cost, however, only includes the cost of production and not of disposal. The company that bottles water doesn’t have to worry about what happens after the water is consumed. That cost, whether the bottle is thrown on the ground, placed in a trash receptacle, or enters the recycling stream, is born by the community.
Unfortunately, in each of those cases the eventual outcome is not good.
In nature, a plastic bottle won’t decay for hundreds of years. If plants don’t try to grow around it, it might end up washed into the ocean, carried by currents, and end up on a beach somewhere, poisoning fish or wildlife, or simply on the ocean floor.
Likewise, a plastic bottle thrown in a trash can most likely ends up in a landfill. There it will sit for hundreds of years.
But what about recycling? Only 9% of plastic is recycled, but at least that doesn’t end up in the waste stream and can be repurposed or reused. Most recycled plastic, however, is sent to poor countries by boat. These countries don’t have the ability or resources to recycle the huge amount of waste that is being produced, and so often it merely ends up in a landfill in another country after being shipped around the world. Recycling may make us feel good, but it does little to actually address the problem.
What can be done?
Any potential solution needs to address two different areas.
The first is to reduce the amount of new plastic that is being produced. For example, legislators in Canada are proposing banning single-use plastic products. It is not clear how quickly proposals like this can be implemented, or how widely they will be accepted. Consumers don’t seem to be aware of, or don’t care about, this issue in great numbers. Without public sentiment driving corporate behavior, it is not clear if it will happen at all.
Second, we also need to do something with all the plastic products that already exist. Some companies, like 4Ocean, are making an effort to remove plastic waste from our waterways. They fund their operation by selling bracelets made from recovered items. Fundamentally, however, companies like this merely move plastic from one place to another.
Some plastic-eating bacteria have already been found in nature, but decomposition is still a slow process. Evolution will eventually work to fill this ecological niche, but it will take a long time for this to happen.
How do you use plastic in your daily life? How difficult would it be to remove plastic items from your household? Can you imagine this happening? Lastly, how could we get to that point?
What do we do about plastic?
Related questions: What role does technology play in your life? What is the greatest problem facing humanity? How are you making the world a better place? What do you do that you shouldn’t?