Nothing exemplifies modernity like plastic. It’s cheap. It can be molded into all sorts of shapes and textures, dyed any color or be transparent. Unlike glass or ceramics, it can be flexible and durable, and it won’t rot or corrode like wood or metal. These qualities make it ideal for use in shopping bags, drinking straws, car bumpers, water pipes, even paint. On the other hand, because most plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it’s with us, literally, forever. Almost 80% of all plastic ever produced is entombed in landfills, strewn across the world’s landscapes or drifting in the seas, where it can ensnare marine life or be devoured, injuring and sometimes killing creatures. Rising awareness of these downsides has provoked new restrictions around the world, particularly on single-use plastics. But alternative materials exact their own toll on the environment.
More than 60 countries have introduced bans or taxes aimed at reducing plastic waste, with many charging a few pennies for plastic shopping bags. Plastic straws and single-use plastic cutlery and plates will be completely prohibited in the European Union by 2021 in a drive to shift people to alternatives such as bamboo forks, cardboard containers and reusable coffee cups. European countries spend an estimated 630 million euros ($710 million) annually removing plastic waste, a tourism-killer, from coastlines. More companies are reducing plastics in product packaging, which accounts for about 40% of all plastic. Calls to use less of the material have grown more urgent since 2018 when China, which once imported as much as 45% of the world’s used plastic for disposal or recycling, stopped accepting the waste in part because much of it was contaminated. Even before China changed its policy, just 9% of plastic was being recycled. The process isn’t always cost-effective since the half-dozen main chemical variants of plastic must be separated first.
The first plastic, Bakelite, was synthesized from compounds derived from coal and formaldehyde in 1907 by chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York. The material was widely used in household wares and jewelry, but it was brittle. Modern plastics, mostly derived from oil, proved more versatile, and production soared after World War II. About 12% of plastic has been incinerated. In developing nations without well-established solid-waste systems, it’s sometimes burned in open fields, releasing toxins. In such countries, most plastic is simply tossed aside. A large share washes into streams and rivers, and ultimately open waters where it joins abandoned fishing gear, which is estimated to make up about half of the plastic in the seas. This refuse and other waste is swept by currents into five recirculating gyres in the world’s oceans, creating vast, nautical garbage patches. There, the sun and waves break the material down into particles small enough to be ingested by zooplankton, which are then consumed by fish and other animals that people eat. Meanwhile, plastic microbeads once in wide use in personal-care products (the U.S., U.K. and several other countries have banned them) and fibers from laundered synthetic clothing pass through sewage-treatment systems into freshwater bodies. As much as 83% of the world’s drinking-water supplies contain plastic fibers and particles. Scientists are still assessing the threat plastic may pose to people.
There’s evidence some bans and levies are reducing plastic use. Thirty percent of countries with one or the other reported a drop in plastic-bag consumption within a year, 20% registered little or no change, and the rest had no information on the impact of their policies, according to a 2018 United Nations report. At the same time, the move toward restrictions has focused attention on the trade-offs involved. Switching to paper or cotton bags, for example, might cut down on waste, but making them requires more energy, which means they contribute more to global warming unless they are reused three times and 131 times respectively, according to a report sponsored by the U.K. government. Some restrictions have brought unintended consequences. A study of plastic grocery-bag bans by 240 local governments in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016 found the restrictions did little to cut consumption; consumers purchased more plastic bags for trash disposal to replace the shopping bags they’d used for that purpose. Some commentators say the solution to garbage in the oceans is to keep it out by improving waste-disposal systems, especially in quickly developing Asia and Africa, the location of eight of 10 rivers responsible for an estimated 90% of plastic input into the seas.
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First published Dec. 5, 2018
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