The Green Path Forward and Plastic Pollution
Our planet is beset not by an ecological crisis, but a series of ecological crises, of which global warming is only one. While getting to zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030 is necessary, it is not sufficient. We also must address a number of other issues to ensure that we have a livable planet, including plastic pollution.
Plastics have become ubiquitous, with uses including cars, clothing, cosmetics, construction, electronics, furniture, marine and road paint, packaging, straws, toys, and utensils. The first synthetic plastic was produced in 1907, but rapid growth in the world’s plastic production did not start until the 1950s. From 1955 to 2015, plastic production increased from about 4 million metric tons (Mt) to 405 Mt.
Cumulative world production of plastics has been 8.3 billion metric tons, of which 55% has been sent to landfills or otherwise discarded, 30% was primary plastic still in use, 8% was incinerated, and only 6% was recycled. Of the cumulative 500 Mt of recycled plastic, only 100 Mt was still in use, with the remainder being incinerated or discarded.
Because plastics have been produced in such large volumes and so much of it has not been disposed of properly, plastic pollution has been found all over the Earth:
- Plastics have been blown by the wind to the tops of mountains.
- Plastic bags have been found at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
- It is raining plastic with plastic beads, fibers, and shards being found in rainwater samples.
The durability of plastics ensures that they will be in the environment for many years to come. Plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose.
While there have been some efforts made to reduce plastic pollution, including bans on plastic bags and the European Union’s targets for plastic bottles to have 30% recycled content by 2030, action has been fragmentary. There is a need for a comprehensive and worldwide plan to address plastic pollution. It is a multifaceted problem that requires a multifaceted solution.
MARINE PLASTIC POLLUTION:
Estimates of total plastic pollution entering the oceans annually range from about 8 Mt to 12.2 Mt. Annual plastic pollution is expected to double from current levels and to double again by 2050. There is likely to be more plastic in the oceans than fish by weight by 2050.
The vast majority of marine plastic pollution is attributable to the improper disposal of land-based plastics. Large plastic items and secondary microplastics, which are small fragments of plastic that result from the degradation of larger plastics, comprise the majority of marine plastic pollution.
Primary microplastics, which are plastics directly released into the environment as small particles, account for between 7.8% and 16% of the plastics entering the oceans every year (between 0.95 and 1.5 Mt) from a variety of sources such as fiber shedding, tire erosion, and bead spills.
Fiber shedding: The washing of synthetic fabrics containing plastic releases primary microplastics into the environment. Fiber shedding accounts for between 1.6% and 5.5% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
Tire erosion: Tires contain about 25% synthetic rubber. Wear and tear on tires releases primary microplastics into the environment, accounting for between 2.2% and 4.4% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
Primary microplastics are widely used in road paint. The weathering and abrasion of road paint accounts for between 0.7% and 1.1% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
The weathering and abrasion of buildings accounts for between 1.1% and 3.8% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
Spills of beads used in the production of plastics account for as much as 1.9% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
Abandoned or lost fishing gear and other litter from the fishing industry accounts for 9.4% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
Litter from the shipping industry accounts for 4.9% of the plastics entering the oceans every year.
Entanglement and ingestion of marine plastic pollution were found to have substantial negative effects upon birds, invertebrates, mammals, turtles, and zooplankton.
Abandoned or lost fishing gear is responsible for a decrease of between 5% and 30% in some fish populations. Coral are also threatened by abandoned or lost fishing gear.
The estimated cost of marine plastic pollution due to the loss of ecosystem services is estimated to be between $500 billion and $2.5 trillion per year. These costs do not take into account the cost of plastic pollution in rivers or lakes or on land and are likely to increase in the future.
PLASTIC POLLUTION ON LAND:
Plastic pollution on land is not as well understood as marine plastic pollution. As of 2010, annual plastic pollution in China was nearly 44 Mt; Pakistan, 5.5 Mt; Nigeria, 4.82 Mt; Indonesia, 4.1 Mt; India, 3.8 Mt; and Egypt, 3.7 Mt. It is unclear how much of this remained on land, buried in deep-sea sediments or in the shorelines near the shothe shore in the ocean. Estimates of microplastic contamination range between 4 and 32 times more severe on land than in the oceans.
Annual primary microplastic pollution in soil from sources including bead spills, tire erosion, fiber shedding, and road paint is estimated to be 1.6 Mt.
Microplastics reportedly can affect soil pH, reduce plant growth, and cause earthworms to lose weight.
Primary microplastics shed from clothing and furniture account for the majority of indoor plastic pollution. Secondary microplastics formed by the abrasion of items including furniture, bags, and toys also contribute. Breathing in microplastics can contribute to damaged lung tissue.
Plastic films used in agriculture to increase crop yields and decrease water usage also are significant sources of pollution. They are non-recyclable and not easily recovered for disposal. When they break down, the residues can have deleterious effects upon the soil, including decreased porosity, air circulation, and microbial activity.
Microplastics have been found in table salts.
FRESHWATER PLASTIC POLLUTION:
Freshwater plastic pollution is not as well understood as marine plastic pollution. Microplastics were found in at least 50% of aquatic insects in the rivers of South Wales. The Tennessee River is among the worst rivers in the world for plastic pollution.
Microplastics also have contaminated fractured limestone aquifers in Illinois; fractured limestone aquifers account for 25% of the world’s supply of drinking water.
About 1.4 Mt of plastics enter the oceans every year from rivers. It is unclear how much additional plastic is buried in riverbeds.
- Phase out the use of microplastics in marine and road paint by 2025. Negotiate a global phaseout by 2027.
- Eliminate pollution from bead spills by 2025. Negotiate a global phaseout by 2027.
- Make all plastic in new tires biodegradable globally by 2031.
- Make all plastic films used in agriculture biodegradable globally by 2031.
- Eliminate plastic fiber shedding in clothing and furniture globally by 2031 by substituting natural fabrics for synthetic and capturing fibers.
- Adopt a ban partly modeled on the European Union’s ban on single use plastic items, such as cotton buds and utensils (with clearly defined exceptions for items designated as medically necessary) by 2023. Negotiate a global ban by 2025.
- Ban plastic bags by 2023. Negotiate a global ban by 2025.
- Ban non-recyclable and non-biodegradable plastic packaging and wrapping other than bottles and food containers and wrapping by 2025. Negotiate a global ban by 2027.
- Make all plastic bottles and food containers biodegradable or recyclable by 2031. Invest in research and development for bioplastics alternatives for medically necessary single use plastics.
- Make plastic used in construction fully recyclable by 2035.
- Make plastic used in consumer items (electronics, furniture, toys, and vehicles) fully recyclable by 2035.
- The plastics recycling industry needs to be overhauled. There are promising developments in creating plastic that can be recycled indefinitely. Research and development into fully recyclable plastics must be a top priority.
At the current time, recycling alone cannot solve the problem. Not all plastic is recyclable, and even recyclable plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely without losing quality in the same way that glass and metal products can be. Plastic is composed of polymers, which are long, repeating chains of molecules. Every time a piece of plastic is recycled, its polymers become shorter, and it degrades after being recycled two or three times to the point where it is unusable.
- Research into making plastics biodegradable must be a top priority.
- As plastic pollution on land is not as well understood as marine plastic pollution, a much more comprehensive understanding of the sources of pollution needs to be achieved by 2025.
- Eliminate land-based plastic pollution from currently unidentified sources by 2035.
- As freshwater plastic pollution is not as well understood as marine plastic pollution, a much more comprehensive understanding of the sources of pollution needs to be achieved by 2025.
- Eliminate freshwater plastic pollution from currently unidentified sources by 2035.
- Provide aid to developing countries to build their recycling industries.
- Negotiate a global commitment to ensuring that all recyclable plastics are actually recycled.