Plastics are just over 100 years old and production of this material only began on a large scale after World War II, revolutionising life as we know it with new ways to store medication, lighten vehicles, and manufacture everything from materials for space travel to baby’s incubators.

They were created to extend and enhance human life but, as noted by National Geographic, around 40 per cent of all plastics produced are used only once, then thrown away – and the waste can take up to 400 years to break down. To put it simply, our Earth and oceans do not have room to keep up with the amount of plastic items we create, use, and dump.

What Plastics do Humans Use in Daily Life?

The range of plastics used on a daily basis include PET (waterbottles, tupperware, etc), HDPE (used in thicker bottles for items such as shampoo or ice-cream), LDPE (used in bags and packaging film), PS (for cutlery and cups) and EPS (found in protective packaging and cups for hot beverages). As it stands, we have recycled only nine per cent of all the plastic we have produced – a statistic that is indicative of the major changes we need to make.

How Human Beings Created the Plastic Pollution Problem?

Since the 1950s, human beings have produced over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic – around 60 per cent of which has ended up in landfills or in our oceans. In this time, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material and the vast majority of it is produced from non-renewable resources such as oil and coal. If production rates continue at current levels, by 2050, around 20 per cent of the world’s consumption of oil will be attributed to plastics.

How do Plastics Harm Marine Life?

The United Nations reports that around 800 species across the globe are affected by marine waste, and 80 per cent of this waste is made from plastic. Fish, sea turtles, marine mammals and more can swallow plastic debris or become entangled in it, resulting in suffocation and drowning. Pew Research states that around half of the world’s sea turtles have swallowed plastic.

Some starve to death because of it, since the waste in their system makes them feel full. Plastic pollution is so severe that it affects the reproductive patterns of some sea animals and young birds, fish, and other animals are most vulnerable – since they are less capable of differentiating between food and plastic.

Some animals are so intelligent they know that plastics are not to be ingested. These include dolphins, who unfortunately are not safe from the effects of pollution – since they consume prey whose bellies are filled with the stuff. The state of our oceans is hard to believe, and best envisaged by viewing photographs from the intrepid sea warriors who have captured images of everything from fish with rubber bands around their heads to animals swimming with plastic bags attached to their fins. If we do nothing about the state of our oceans, it is predicted that the volume of plastic in our oceans will outweigh sea life by the year 2050.

Plastic on the Earth

Plastics are affecting the health and wellbeing of earth creatures as well. In countries like the Philippines and India, there are large ‘unofficial landfills’ extending over acres and rising several metres high. India alone generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste daily – a similar weight to that of 86 Boeing 747 Jets! In areas such as the Philippines’ Payatas dumpsite (closed, thankfully, in 2017), landslides of garbage have killed hundreds of scavengers. Interestingly, much of the waste located in these dumps did not originate in the Philippines. Between 2013 and 2014, for instance, over 100 containers of waste were shipped from Canada to the Philippines, wrongly declared as ‘plastics to be recycled’.

The Microplastic Invasion

BPA (bisphenol A) – an industrial chemical found in commonly used containers and water bottles – can seep into food or beverages, and studies have shown it can have a host of possible health effects. Research has linked even low-dose exposure to BPA with cardiovascular problems, brain issues in infants and children, and behavioural problems in children. Health professionals recommend replacing plastics with alternatives like glass, porcelain, or stainless steel.

Because fish ingest microplastics, BPA and other chemicals can find their way into our systems. It’s even in the air we breathe. The issue therefore goes much further than simply replacing our tupperware set. Scientific American reporter Andrea Thompson notes, “Scientists… have observed signs of physical damage, such as inflammation, caused by particles jabbing and rubbing against organ walls. Researchers have also found that ingested microplastics can leach hazardous chemicals, both those added to polymers during production and environmental pollutants like pesticides that are attracted to the surface of plastic, leading to health effects such as liver damage.”

The Danger Posed by Microplastics

Microplastics are yet another major crisis to be dealt with. Essentially, they are produced when the sea, sunlight, wind, and waves break down plastics into ever smaller particles – as small as 0.5cm in size (or even as small as a grain of rice). These have been found in nearly every corner of the world – from the dizzy heights of Mount Everest to the dark depths of the Mariana Trench. Microparticles of plastic have also been found in public water systems, and in the air we breathe.

Can the Planet Survive the Plastics Crisis?

It is never too late to fight for a cleaner planet. However, owing to the intensity of the problem, it needs to be tackled from a multifaceted perspective. Improved waste management systems are key. As stated in a study by JC Prata et al, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “An integrated waste management system, focused on the four R’s hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle, recover) and improving the life-cycle of plastics, are important to reduce energy and resource consumptions, avoid harmful emissions, and reduce quantities of mismanaged plastic waste reaching the oceans.” The research is detailed and very much worthy of study, since it provides detailed recommendations on how to reduce waste at every level. Some of these recommendations will be discussed below.

Mandatory Actions

Governments can also impose ecological requirements on companies and offer subsidies to those who show commitment to sustainability through measures such as recycling, replacing hazardous components with safer ones, etc. Canada is a fine example, having announced the total phasing-out of single-use plastics by 2021 and the imposition of at least 50 per cent of recycled plastics in products. In the above-mentioned study by JC Prata, researchers noted that companies should also be encouraged to use more efficient packaging, rely on eco-friendly transport and shipping configurations, etc.

The Importance of Education

Education in schools and as part of public awareness campaigns is important. Research shows that the vast majority of consumers are interested in making sustainable purchases. Many need more education on how seemingly insignificant items like microbeads in cosmetics, for instance, are harming the environment. Access to information allows consumers to be more discerning and to exert greater pressure on companies to comply with increasingly stricter sustainability standards.

Improving Efficiency of Plastic Items

The use of plastics can be reduced by using other materials (including glass, biodegradable, and recycled materials), improving design so less plastic is needed, extending product life, facilitating repair, improving recyclability by reducing percentages of polymers and other difficult-to-recycle components, etc. It is easy to see how replacing plastic in everyday items like cotton earbuds with biodegradable materials can make a big difference.

Investment in Waste Management

Governments that invest in waste management have less plastics on their coastlines (an example is the Australian government). Waste management is a complex process that ranges from making it easier for citizens to separate and recycle materials (e.g. through door-to-door collection of plastics) to the use of un-recyclable plastics for energy production. Only plastic that can actually be used for a productive reason should make their way to landfills. The rest should be reused, recycled, or never produced at all.

Ultimately, everyday citizens do have a voice when it comes to creating a greener world. From voting green candidates to making more sustainable purchases, we can do our share to significantly reduce plastic consumption. Plastics are light, easy to carry around, and durable. They are also one of the biggest destructors of our oceans and are now so prevalent they are almost impossible to get rid of completely. What changes are you willing to make and more importantly, are you ready to start today?