But it’s not though is it. Plastic is anything but fantastic.
When Mr Baekeland invented Bakelite in the early 1900s synthetic plastic boldly breezed into town. Basically it was a product manufactured without any molecules found in nature. It was completely and utterly unique and was proclaimed to be “the material of a thousand uses.”
It was indeed genius stuff – it was used in the Second World War as a substitute for scarce natural supplies and eventually it challenged other materials in the furniture and packaging sectors and of course is used extensively in computers, mobile phones and medical equipment for example.
It is strong, sanitary and cheap. By the 1950s and 1960s plastic was insanely popular. Who doesn’t love a good Tupperware dish or fighting with a roll of cling film to keep your food fresh? Single use plastic exploded onto the scene from wrappers to bottles. Today it is fiercely over used, wasted and is now among the most persistent pollutants on Earth.
The hint of an environmental problem actually began to materialise some 40 to 50 years ago with concerned reports highlighting the ever growing problem of pollution and plastic waste. Plastic was already being discovered in the stomachs of sea birds. Yep it’s been going on that long.
In the 1970s recycling was introduced but the amount of plastic recycled compared to the amount of plastic produced, is like giving a toddler a bag of sweets and asking him to share: “One for you and 10 for me.” Unfavourable odds.
Basically only a fraction of recyclable plastic is actually recycled. Ponder these figures:
- In the last 70 years or so a total of 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced. To put it into a visual perspective that is the equivalent of one billion elephants or four million London Eyes.
- Back in the 1950s around two million metric tons of plastic was produced annually. This has increased to 380 million metric tons this year of which two thirds ends up back in the environment and the oceans.
- Only nine per cent of plastic is recycled whilst 12 per cent is incinerated. The remainder is waste. So 79 per cent of plastic produced is landfill or waste.
And left in the biosphere the plastic doesn’t disappear. It’s photodegradable so it just disintegrates through exposure to light whilst the plastic molecules remain to contaminate the earth or filter into the rivers and sea. Plastic cannot be absorbed into the circle of life and instead interferes with the planet’s healthy ecosystem contaminating land and water.
Although PET plastic bottles (mostly used for water bottles, shampoo etc) can be recycled they can in fact only be recycled into polyester fibres which are then used in clothing. So when clothes are washed millions of fibres are sent back out into the earth and ocean and eaten by sea life – which, if the poisoned fishes manage to survive, they are then caught and served on your plate with a side salad. Tasty.
THE PRICE YOU PAY FOR PLASTIC
The biggest percentage of plastic products out there is PE type (36 per cent) which is mostly used for milk, shampoo bottles and house ware (HDPE) or plastic bags, food packing or trays (LDPE) whilst the PP type of plastic accounts for 21 per cent (snack and sweet wrappers, packing, microwave containers).
Much of the Western world’s plastic waste was packed up and shipped to developing countries to deal with. But that’s all changing. In January last year China stopped importing waste and this has had a huge impact and highlighted the need to re-look at local recycling systems and global policies on plastic production and disposal.
But it’s not just the end product. That’s just the bit we can physically see. It’s the production of plastic that’s also causing huge problems. In Europe the total greenhouse gas emissions from plastic reached an estimated 132 metric tons in 2017 and an additional 90 metric tons of CO2 will be released each year based on the current trend of incinerating plastic.
According to a report ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’ for the Centre of International Environmental Law (CIEL), in 2019 the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere – equivalent to 189 coal-fired power plants.
Plastic refining is among the most greenhouse gas intensive industries in the manufacturing sector. If the plastic production continues it has been estimated that by 2030 the global emission could be equivalent to 295 coal fired coal plants and by 2050 equal to 615 coal plants.
The need to change the way we live at the moment is no longer deemed a suggestion. It’s quite simply an urgent priority.
The CIEL report says the changes need to include:
- Ending the production of single use plastic.
- Stopping development of new oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructures.
- Bringing in a transition to zero-waste communities.
- Producer responsibility- apparently increases in recycling will not solve the plastic crisis or reduce plastic related greenhouse gas emissions. The need now is for a change in production to something other than plastic.
- Reducing greenhouse gas emission in all sectors.
Four years ago during the Paris Climate Agreement the world agreed to try to limit the total global temperature rise to below 2ºc (ideally 1.5ºc) with severe and profound risks if warming increased above this amount.
Basically the planet is overheating.
To prevent this there must be a transition to move away from a fossil fuel economy and reduce emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and to zero by 2050. The focus is on transforming energy and transportation systems which account for 39 per cent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. The industrial sector is responsible for 30 to 40 per cent and this sector has received much less attention but plastic production is among the largest contributor of greenhouse gases from this sector.
It’s not just the production and manufacture of plastic that is causing the emission problems but from every stage from extraction, transportation, refining, manufacture and waste management. Over 99 per cent of plastic comes from fossil fuels.
We have only one fifth of our ‘carbon budget’ left to avoid warming the earth more than 1.5ºc. Time is running out and drastic action needs to be taken.