Before even thinking about plastic pollution solutions, consider first that about eight million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the ocean each year. That’s according to the U.N.
Eight million tonnes.
Now consider this: just one tonne is over 2200 pounds. Two tonnes is heavier than most cars.
Let that fester in your mind for a minute.
Then, once you’ve digested the sheer scale of what we’re talking about, consider what happens to the plastic once it ends up in the ocean. It’s not magic, so it doesn’t just disappear. Nor is it biodegradable, which means it doesn’t decompose.
It just keeps piling up.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the U.N. claims that up to 80% of litter in the ocean is made of plastic. If it keeps growing at the same rate, it’s estimated that by 2050, there will actually be more plastic in the ocean than fish!
If all this seems depressing, that’s only because it is. There is still hope; together we can come up with viable plastic pollution solutions.
The thing is that most people don’t realize just how serious the problem is–and that may be because they’re not aware of how exactly this affects their lives in the short run. These same people may not even think it’s a problem in the long run. Who cares, they might think–there’s room in the ocean for the both of them.
Well, we care. And we’re convinced you should too.
Don’t worry though.
This isn’t going to be another piece about how plastic bags suffocate thousands and thousands of seabirds and other marine wildlife each year. There won’t be pictures here of tortured animals, or of dead ones. We won’t be trying to tug on your heartstrings.
Instead, we’re going to look at just how plastic ends up in the oceans in the first place and what changes you can make to your daily lives to do your part in counteracting this problem. And we’re going to try to make it as simple and as jargon-free as possible.
Why We Need Plastic Pollution Solutions in the First Place
Let’s take a quick look at what the big deal is.
The first jarring bit of information you should know is this: out of every piece of plastic ever created–think coffee cups, candy wrappers, contact lenses, foam containers, bottles, bags, and more–only 12% has been entirely disposed of. And even disposal poses its own environmental problems. Disposing plastic requires incinerating it, which requires the use of fossil fuels, which causes the emission of various greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. And considering that we found that most Americans don’t even know what the Paris Agreement is or even how serious global warming is, this is alarming.
But for the purposes of this article, that’s neither here nor there.
We said earlier that plastic isn’t biodegradable. What that means, essentially, is that each piece of plastic can potentially exist in the environment for years and years–centuries, even!
It does, however, get smaller, and smaller, and smaller with time. Meaning, over time, little pieces break off from larger pieces of plastic–larger pieces like tires, shopping bags, and cigarette butts. Researchers have found that these little pieces–microplastics–are now almost ubiquitous.
- 83% of tap water tested from dozens of countries around the world was found to be contaminated by microplastics. In the U.S., that rate was 94%. One of the sites that was tested was Trump Tower in New York–now that’s shocking.
- 93% of bottled water produced by 11 of the largest brands in the world was found to be contaminated by microplastics
- 24 German beer brands were tested for microplastic contamination–all were found to contain some amount of plastic
- It is estimated that 1600 plastic microfibers are shed every single time you wash a synthetic garment
- It has been found that plastic comprised 10% of the weight of seabirds
- Even salt and sugar have been found to contain plastic
- Not only can you ingest them by eating or drinking them; you could be breathing them in too.
Microplastics: What’s the Big Deal?
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long.
It has even been speculated that they can exist and persist in such small, microscopic size so as to make them breathable.
You might be wondering why you should find this disconcerting.
Consider, first, that plastic is usually made from fossil fuels, like coal, petroleum, or natural gas. Or it’s made by converting certain chemicals. Once it’s formed, the possibilities for its uses vary greatly. It’s not all just cups, straws, bags, and bottles. Sealants, polyester, nylon, coatings, elastomers, and more are all plastic products too. Toothpaste and paint and an assortment of other household products all contain microplastics.
Consider, second, all of the chemicals that go into making all of these products, that bind with the plastic to give it its varying uses and functions.
What this means is that plastic has an extremely significant carbon footprint that cannot be ignored. In fact, it’s estimated that the production of plastic and the incineration of plastic both contribute close to four hundred million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. To make matters worse, polyethylene, the plastic used in making bags and bottles (and the type of plastic most abundant in litter), emits methane, which is one of the most sinister of all the greenhouse gases.
Then consider, finally, that once in the ocean, plastic attracts even more chemicals to itself, making it even more alarming that we could be ingesting microplastics via eating seafood or by breathing it in.
The Health Risks of Not Finding Any Plastic Pollution Solutions
Here’s the rub: not much is known about the health risks of microplastics. There just hasn’t been enough research. But the very fact that microplastics are ubiquitous is alarming–because the potential risks are very real.
What is known for sure is that microplastics can be absorbed by humans and other species.
Actually, what’s known for sure is that microplastics are being absorbed by humans and other species. What’s not clear is what effect this will have long-term on the species as a whole. But traces of contamination have been found in over 25% of fish tested from seafood markets all around the world. About a third of fish caught globally is used to feed animals–livestock, specifically. What that means is that even if you don’t care for seafood, you might not be ingesting microplastic directly, but, if you’re a meat-eater, you could be eating animals who do.
You also have to keep in mind–as we said earlier–that plastic products aren’t comprised just of plastic. They are also laden with a host of chemicals that are known to be carcinogenic, toxic, endocrine disruptors, or bad for people, animals, or the environment in other ways. These chemicals include flame retardants, hardeners, softeners, and stabilizers. While researchers are still unsure of how exactly these chemicals actually affect the environment, whether that be the ocean or land, the fact that they’re known to be harmful is a cause for alarm, especially considering their ubiquity.
Some of these chemical compounds are known to bio-accumulate–meaning they gradually increase in concentration in the bodies of living things–as they move up the food chain. And which animal is at the top of the food chain?
How Did We Get Here?
It began in the 1950s–back then, plastic pollution solutions weren’t needed. It began with the advent of mass-produced plastic.
Over 8 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since then.
Alarmingly, almost half of that production occurred since 2004.
Almost 6 billion metric tons of plastic out of the total production of 8 billion metric tons has been disposed of improperly.
The problem, in short, is that most products that are derived from plastic have a much–much, much, much–shorter lifespan than the plastic itself. In fact, the sharp rise in plastic production can be largely attributed to single-use packaging.
Here are some stats to put things into perspective:
- Plastic accounted for 1% of municipal solid waste in 1960; that share rose to 10% by 2005 in developed countries
- Single-use plastic packaging–like that used for cigarette boxes, drinks, and food–accounts for over 60% of beach litter world-wide.
- Up to 5 trillion plastic bags are used every year, worldwide
- 1 million bottles made of plastic are purchased every minute
- In the U.S, the number of plastic straws thrown away every year reaches a staggering 500 million
But why can’t plastic waste be recycled?
Well, that’s not so good.
First off, some plastic waste isn’t recyclable at all. If material is soiled, it isn’t recyclable; if more than one type of plastic was used to make a product, it isn’t recyclable; and if there are certain kinds of additives involved, it isn’t recyclable. In addition, textiles, which produce fiber waste, are rarely recycled. Remember, whenever you wash your clothes, the thousands of microfibers that are potentially shed end up in our wastewater systems. From there, they are impossible to retrieve and recycle.
But even if none of this were true, even if every bit of plastic could be recycled, we’d still be dealing with a problem.
The truth is that recycling a plastic product–if that product can be recycled at all–only serves to delay the amount of time before that product morphs irreversibly into waste. That’s true of recycling in general, but especially true when it comes to plastic. Remember, plastic is not biodegradable.
High-income countries have been, until recently, transporting their recyclable plastic waste to East Asia; but that option is now drying up with countries like China and the Philippines banning imports of such waste due to a lack of resources to deal with them. And this is not a problem exclusive to East Asia. Europe has the highest plastic recycling rates in the world (26-30% of Europe’s plastic waste is recycled), but even Europe can’t fully cope with a seemingly endless barrage of waste.
And so, even plastic that is recyclable may not end up being recycled–the capability is just not there.
Thus, one can conclude that the future looks grim. If you look to the past, you’d find that until the
1980’s, almost no plastic was recycled at all. The problem just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
So How Exactly Does Plastic End Up In the Oceans?
In order for us to pinpoint a solution to this problem, we have to first ascertain how exactly plastic ends up in the ocean in the first place.
Your gut reaction might be that most plastic ends up in the ocean due to activities done on the oceans themselves–activities like plastic being dumped (accidentally or not) off boats.
But that’s not the case. Up to 80% of plastic that ends up in the oceans actually does so from land-based sources. The majority of this 80%–and this is important, so pay attention–is comprised of uncollected waste. That includes littering, as well as stormwater discharges and illegal dumping. The rest is comprised of what amounts to foul-ups or mishaps or lack of perfection in waste collection systems. That is, waste is sometimes leaked during collection, transport, or storage, or during all three steps of the collection system.
All of this plastic ends up in the ocean by being blown into it by the wind, or washed into it by our drinking systems or wastewater systems.
It’s estimated that more than a quarter of that waste makes its way to the ocean via just ten rivers, most of them in Asia. Collectively, these rivers potentially dump about 3 million metric tons of plastic waste into the oceans every year. In fact, the Yangtze River in China alone annually dumps the equivalent of about 4% of global plastic pollution into the Yellow Sea. Indeed, a whopping 86% of plastic input via rivers comes from Asia.
The chart below lists the top 20 polluting rivers and how much plastic they’re estimated to dump.
Once in the ocean, where does plastic waste go?
This is where things get tricky.
At the beginning of this article, we told you that eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans every year.
Since most plastic is buoyant, it would be common sense to assume that all of this plastic waste is easily transported through the surface of the water by wind and ocean currents. Indeed, plastics do tend to build up in ocean gyres. That would lead us to the obvious conclusion that the majority of these eight million tonnes of plastic end up in these ocean gyres every single year. It all makes sense.
So what’s so tricky about this, you ask?
Well, most estimates of how much plastic is floating on the surface puts the number at about 200-300 thousand tonnes.
That’s a long way from eight million.
The thing is that very little known about this. There are theories, but that’s all they are. All that’s really known for certain is that the highest concentration of plastics in the ocean was found in the Northern Hemisphere–which makes sense because most of the world, population-wise, lives on the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere lacks a coastal population and contributes relatively little to global plastic pollution in the oceans.
But the plastic found in the oceans in the Southern Hemisphere is still in the same order of magnitude as was found in the Northern Hemisphere.
This is shocking because it suggests that plastic can be moved between ocean gyres more easily than was thought possible before.
Are There Any Plastic Pollution Solutions?
The problem may seem insurmountable without a concerted and unilateral effort on the part of the international community.
And in some ways, that’s true.
Aside from establishing methods to retrieve plastic already in the ocean (a gargantuan task, to be sure!), we can curb this problem by removing flaws in our plastic waste management systems, substantially increasing the public’s awareness of the importance of recycling, and doing what we as an environmentally-conscious manufacturing company do: redesign or purposely design products that are eco-friendly.
It’s not for nothing that our compression sleeves help remove the equivalent of almost four plastic bottles from the oceans.
To us, that’s capitalism at it’s finest.
But what can YOU, the individual, do to start combatting this problem right now?
There are a few things.
- Reduce or eliminate your consumption of single-use plastic.
This is, of course, easier said than done. But it can be done. The best way is to simply refuse anything you don’t need. Opt to sip your drink instead of using a straw. And when you go to the grocery store, bring a bag with you to put your groceries in–leave the plastic stuff behind. Use your imagination; the possibilities are endless.
Just because the rest of the world has such a poor plastics recycling rate, it doesn’t mean you should give up hope. If enough people jump on board, the change could be significant.
- Tell people about the problem
Like we said in number 2, the more individuals there are doing their part, the greater the change will be. If enough individuals jump on board, who knows? We might not even need governmental assistance. Start with your friends and family. Urge them to
- Opt for eco-friendly products
Like our eco-friendly running gear. Or anything that doesn’t have polyethylene or polypropylene in its ingredients list. The goal is make being environmentally-conscious profitable.
- Donate to dedicated organizations
If you yourself can’t actually be on the beach or in the oceans retrieving plastic, it’s imperative that you support those organizations that do. Remember, most of them are non-profit entities; they’re doing it not for profit, but because they care. Show them that you appreciate it. Keep hope alive.
- Our World in Data
- Scientific American
- Interaction Council
- The Guardian
- UN Environment
- Ocean Service
- NBC News
- National Geographic
- Ocean Conservancy
- Science Mag
- Orb Media