Plastic: 4 Facts You Should Know

seahorse plastic earbud

photo: National Geographic

Have you heard the stats on plastic? One million plastic bags used every minute around the globe. Three million water bottles used every hour in the United States. Five million straws used every day in America. Plastic production increased 2,000 percent from 1964 to 2014. More than 300 million tons of new plastic produced annually and less than 10% recycled.

Plastic overconsumption is affecting our environment—and our health. Reports show that eight million tons go into the ocean each year (the equivalent of a garbage truck full every minute) and that if we don’t do something about it, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

In the last two years that I’ve spent focused on this issue, I’ve come to understand the bigger picture about plastic pollution—and what we can do about it. If you care about climate change, your health or animal welfare, you need to know these four facts about plastic.

PLASTIC IS FRACKED

A full 90% of plastic comes from fossil fuels—and it’s only getting worse. In 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Report projected that by 2050 the plastics industry will consume 20% of oil production.* In the United States, the majority of production is achieved through “cracking.” Here’s how it works:

Land is “fracked”—fractured with water to extract oil and natural gas—and ethane gas is produced as a byproduct.

(Ethane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and pollutes our air.)

Cracking plants—also known as “crackers”—convert ethane to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene.

Plastic production is projected to triple by 2050.

As Americans diversify our energy sources, the fossil fuel industry is betting on plastic to continue expanding its petrochemicals business.

More than $180 billion has been allocated over the next 10 years to build 263 new cracker facilities along the Gulf Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast region, which are highly vulnerable to the extreme weather patterns connected to global warming. (Case in point: Hurricane Harvey, which decimated the region where Chevron Phillips is building a $6 billion ethane processor.)

What can you do? Keep reading.

MOST RECYCLING ISN’T RECYCLED 

In 2014, 22% of PET collected for recycling was exported out of the United States.

Especially when energy markets are depressed, virgin plastic is far cheaper to buy than recycled. In addition, many plastic products degrade each time they’re processed (unlike metal or glass, which can be perpetually recycled) making them progressively less valuable.

Without a profitable market, it’s not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process plastic, so many sell it to other countries at a loss.

In 2015, a major study of the problem determined that eight million metric tons of plastic entered our oceans in 2010—enough to cover every foot of coastline in the world. A full 80% came from heavily populated countries with poor waste management systems, such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Reading news of this report, many Americans assumed that plastic in the ocean wasn’t their problem. But the analysis failed to address the fact that many countries in the “Global North” –i.e. the economically developed nations of Europe and North America—export waste to “Global South” countries of Africa, Asia and South America.

In 2011, China imported nearly half of America’s plastic waste. When that country began restricting these imports in 2014, exports from the U.S. to Indonesia increased by 219%. (China suspended imports of our trash in 2016.) In many of these countries, the waste management system depends on people—including children—who sort through rivers of plastic trash to find pieces to sell while polluted waterways transport the remainder straight out to sea.

What can you do? I promise, we’ll get to that!

PLASTIC DELIVERS TOXIC CHEMICALS

98% of Americans test positive for the endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastic.

Think of plastic like a sponge. In the ocean, it can absorb toxic chemicals like PCB and DDT; in addition, many types already contain endocrine disrupting components like BPA and BPS.

Researchers found that a tiny piece of microplastic can be one million times more toxic than the ocean water around it. These toxic plastics can work their way up the food chain and onto our plates: In 2017, researchers found particles in 33% of shellfish, 70% of fish, 83% of drinking water and 93% of bottled water.

Of course, we don’t eat the gut of a fish, and these studies found very low levels of microplastics. But as they degrade, plastics can release toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors, which have been linked to obesity, infertility, and even cancer.

PLASTIC HURTS ANIMALS

Plastic endangers more than 1,200 species from ingestion or entanglement. From seals with their necks slashed by fishing line, to turtles with straws stuck in their noses and seabirds who starve to death with their bellies full of the stuff, this pollution is a serious threat to animals.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT PLASTIC?

Do you have a solution to the problem of plastic pollution? Tweet @rachellsarnoff!

First, make a personal commitment to REFUSE single-use plastic. Yes it’s hard to avoid, but we can all bring our own reusable products so we aren’t dependent on plastic cutlery to eat, water bottles to stay hydrated, coffee cups for caffeination and bags to carry our purchases. When it comes to straws, just say no!

Second—and if you’ve been following MG for a while you’ve heard this before—vote with your wallet. In this case that means choosing products that are packaged without plastic or sold in bulk in packaging that contains a high percentage of recycled plastic material. An oatmeal cookie over a granola bar, for example, or a jug of shampoo poured into travel containers at home.

Finally, make sure your representatives are supporting legislation that helps solve the plastic pollution problem, rather than perpetuating it. For example, in California—now the fifth biggest economy in the world—many support the growing movement to ban polystyrene.

Working together, we can solve the problem of plastic pollution—one piece at a time.

*Because most plastic is used only once, 95% of its economic value—worth up to $120 billion annually—is lost.

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  1. […] is Sarah-Jeanne Royer (in a photo by Olivier Poirion for the BBC) further connecting plastic and climate change with new research showing that polyethylene, a fracking byproduct, emits methane, a greenhouse […]

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