When you think about waste plastic, you perhaps picture a plastic bottle floating on the ocean, or litter polluting your local park - but this is the tip of the iceberg in the plastic crisis. In this article, we'll be sharing 5 of the important considerations around plastic usage and dependency.
1) Plastic is derived from crude oil. To consider the impact of plastic, we must begin with the very start of plastic's lifecycle. Virgin Plastic begins with oil, gas and coal. Today, about 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics, according to the World Economic Forum. Extraction and transportation of these fossil fuels is a carbon-intensive activity. Authors of the CIEL report estimated that 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are emitted per year while extracting and transporting natural gas to create feedstocks for plastics in the United States alone. If this reliance on plastics persists, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050. Let's not forget, we're aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050. 2) Virgin plastic is 3x more energy intensive than recycled plastic. To create new plastic, the raw chemicals and processing required to take a crude oil to a plastic form is highly demanding. In 2020, The Association of Plastic Recyclers released a study comparing the energy profile and environmental burden of virgin plastic and recycled plastic.
This study found that “the expended energies of recycled PET, high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) shows the virgin plastic expended energies are 1.7, 3.0 and 3.0 times the expended energies of postconsumer recycled plastic.” Recycled plastic is not only removing plastic from the ecosystem, but it's reducing the emissions we contribute through processing and manufacturing. As a result, a recycled PET reduces the global warming potential by 67% compared to a virgin PET.
3) Recycling Ocean plastic is not as simple as fishing out bottles from the ocean.
One truckload of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute (Greenpeace). This in itself is an ecological disaster which threatens marine life and consequently our planet. To solve this problem, we often think of beach cleans and fishing out the plastic - as though this effort in itself will fix the problem. Disclaimer - it won't.
When plastic waste enters our oceans, it inevitably continues to degrade; chemical, thermal and UV degradation to name a few. As it breaks down, microplastics - tiny fragments of the plastic - leach into the ecosystem. It takes a plastic grocery bag anywhere between 10-100 years to break down, whilst a nylon fishing line takes an estimated 600 years.
As this plastic degrades, it becomes harder to recycle. We're only really able to recycle 5-10% of the plastic that's being salvaged from beach cleans - which excludes the microplastics that are floating in the depths of the oceans and in the stomachs of their inhabitants.
In short, one of the best ways to avoid this plastic pollution is to stop using virgin plastic. This promotes recycling, supports the required infrastructure, and holts the factories pumping more and more plastic into the ecosystem. It shift the emphasis to natural or recycled materials. With greater demand and respect for recycled plastics, we lower the need for virgin material. This will guide our relationship with plastic towards a circular economy.
4) Approximately one third of plastic is recycled in Europe.
This figure has risen in recent years, but it's still not satisfactory. In 2018, a Veolia report highlighted that the EU recycles around 30% of its plastic, reigning superior to the US at 9%. However, the report also indicates the western world isn't half as successful as India - who recycle 60% of their plastic waste. This figure has come under scrutiny in recent years, though it seems viable solely through the fact that plastic usage per capita in India is 1/10th of that of the US, standing at around 11kg in comparison to 109kg in the US.
DownToEarth suggests that through comparing plastic-per-capita of richer states like Goa against the Indian national average, it could be deducted that the more affluent a society becomes, the more wasteful it becomes. For example, the US makes up 4% of the global population, yet produces 17% of the global plastic waste.
So it's a problem that combines consumer culture, infrastructure and science. The consumer must take responsibility for their plastic usage. Abandon single-use virgin material, abandon companies that do not value the importance of this situation. The infrastructure can be built to promote recycling if the demand for recycled products rises - that requires us to stop using virgin plastic. Finally, it's down to companies like Glenntex to ensure that alternatives, such as natural materials or recycled plastic can replace virgin plastic for industry. Through these changes we can take the remaining 70% of European plastic and repurpose it; no more waste export, no more landfill, and a solution more effective than incineration. Speaking of incineration, EEA estimates state plastic waste incineration produces 400 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually. If plastic doesn't end up in landfill or the ecosystem, it is still detrimental for the environment. It's not much of a solution. Recycling plastic is the future.
5) We consume far too much of it.
Worldwide, manufacturers produce 348 million tons of plastic each year, compared to just 1.5 million tons in 1950. It's staggering to think the world population in 1950 was around 2.5bn people, therefore, whilst our population has grown three times the size in the last 70 years, our plastic usage has grown 232x as large. When you see it in numbers, it's not so surprising to learn that our seas are over-polluted and a crisis is unfolding.
By 2050, there will be more plastic than in the oceans. If we don't change our ways this decade, by 2030 we'll be dumping the equivalent of two trucks of plastic waste into the oceans every minute. There is a mountain to climb in the coming years that will require a vast shift in our relationship with plastic to avoid this disaster.