In recent decades, plastic has become a staple of convenience in a modern lifestyle. The surge in plastic bottle use has piggybacked on a desire for bottled water as Asia modernized its lifestyle.
Several reports have brought to light the dire global condition associated with the world’s plastic use. Two striking statistics jump out immediately. According to the first, globally humans buy a million plastic bottles per minute and the second states that 91% of all plastic is not recycled. To make matters worse, it is estimated that over half a trillion plastic bottles will be sold in 2020.
These numbers present an overwhelming challenge in responding to an exponential increase in recyclable yet un-recycled products. Plastic bottles are usually made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which take about 400 years to naturally decompose but is highly recyclable. On geologic timescales, 400 years is not significant, and one may be tempted to look at the option of letting these bottles decompose naturally. However, there are two very significant issues with this. There are absolutely no signs of decreasing plastic use so the plastic decomposition clock will constantly be reset. The second and more critical issue is how this increase in plastic waste globally will impact other systems and their functioning.
Most plastics including bottles ends up in either the ocean or in a landfill. There is a need to understand the potential impacts of storing vast amounts of plastic waste in both these locations.
By 2050, it is estimated that the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish. The plastic items that find their way into the oceans inevitably pose a risk of ingestion by sea birds, fish, marine mammals, etc. These days it’s not uncommon to see distressing articles of sea life spotted dead with significant amounts of plastic in their stomach.
While these effects may seem disconnected from your everyday life, especially when you are eating at your local sushi shop, they are not. Many studies now point to increasing amounts of plastic within the seafood we eat on a regular basis. For example, recent research by Ghent University in Belgium found that regular seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic each year. Another study by Plymouth University suggested that one-third of all fish caught in the UK contained minuscule pieces of plastic.
A tool developed on Plastic Drift shows you where plastic is likely to end up in the oceans when the user chooses an initiation point. This might drive home the global impact of a coke bottle leaving the shores of New York on western Europe and Africa.
Landfills are the other major sink for plastic bottles globally and present a completely different set of issues as the plastic within them are stationary and accessible. Based on current projections, it is estimated that 12 billion metric tons of plastic will end up in landfills by 2050.
On the positive side, we can manage landfills more directly as compared to plastic in the oceans. There are numerous regulations of environmental protections required at a landfill, although they do vary widely in different countries. This implies that the biggest risk of plastic held within landfills is the potential threat that it will not remain contained. Pet plastic, if properly handled in landfills, does not pose a significant risk to groundwater contamination. But there are massive amounts of other waste in such landfills that can definitely be a significant risk to groundwater.
In China, landfills are often devoid of plastic bottles as they have several workers collecting plastic bottles for recycling. The motivation is completely economic as the government provides a high price for each pet bottle that is turned in. This drives millions of Chinese people to landfills and many actually make their living collecting recyclable plastics and turning them in for cash. This indirect environmental initiative will become increasingly necessary as we move toward optimizing the plastic life cycle.
It is evident that the ever-growing demand for plastic is unlikely to subside soon. Globally, there is an urgent need to manage the increasing risk of plastics in our environment and the harmful consequences that lie therein as a global challenge like climate change.