The Problem With Plastic

“When I orbited the Earth in a spaceship, I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is. Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it!”

~ Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut

What's wrong with this picture? This plastic cup was actually litter carelessly left behind, a careless action that can affect all of us. We have become a throw-away society where our consumer goods are designed with a limited lifespan, and increasingly, as single-use. Manufacturers design obsolescence to continue the consumption cycle while consumers and governments are responsible for disposal costs. Consumerism as we know began as the economic rebound after the Great Depression and WWII. Marketing was honed to persuade consumers to buy convenience goods, especially plastics.

Production and disposal of plastics have become a health hazard to both man and beast. Petrochemical plants producing plastics are cancer hot spots, such as Lousiana's Cancer Alley, due to the toxic air pollution. Plastic waste takes 100 to 500 years to break down and leaches their base chemicals, often carcinogenic. The fossil fuel based material can also transport microbes like viruses and bacteria. Because plastics break down into ever-tinier pieces, humans are not only eating plastics through the food chain but also inhaling nanoplastics and microfibers. Plastic has been recently detected in human placenta.

As the second-largest and fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, plastic production is also a growing contributor to climate change. "Today, about 4-8 percent of annual global oil consumption is used in making plastics, an amount that will increase to 20 percent by 2050 according to the World Economic Forum." Production of plastic is not the only source of greenhouse gases. Burning plastic for as waste-to-energy projects produces additional carbon emissions. Microplastics may also contribute to faster snowmelt. All these external costs to society are estimated $800 to $1,400 per ton of plastic produced.

And there is no escaping plastic pollution. Plastics pieces are now found at the bottom of the oceans to the highest mountain peaks, in urban areas as well as pristine wilderness areas, and circulating the atmosphere. Microplastic particles, measuring less than 5 millimeters, come from plastic bottles and microfibers from synthetic clothing. They are deposited across the globe not only by poor waste management systems but also by wind and other atmospheric elements. Wind, rain, and other weather pick up microplastics from cities, oceans, and agricultural lands and circulate the particles in the atmosphere for years. Roads have proven to be a very effective vehicle in moving microplastics into remote areas. Microplastics also fall in the form of plastic rain. The journal Science reported that researchers "calculated that over 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles fall into 11 protected areas in the western US, only 6 percent of the total US area, each year. That’s the equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles." A third of the samples consisted of plastic microbeads. Banned from beauty products in 2015 in the United States, these microbeads possibly came from industrial paints and coatings or from a neighboring country.

Consultancey McKinsey forecasts that plastic waste will increase twofold to 460 million tons by 2030 as developing countries become economically prosperous and consumer demand rises. How can one fight against this rising tide of plastic? Plastic eating mushrooms to traditional paper packaging are some solutions to plastic pollution. There is one simple solution however which everyone can do today: Buy consciously. Buy less plastic.

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