The plastic waste crisis is one of the most critical environmental issues that countries and organizations around the world face. The rapid production and disposal of this miracle material that transformed modern life overwhelms the natural assimilative capacities of the ecosystem, thereby choking life on the planet, directly and indirectly. Plastic thrash has become so ubiquitous in the natural environment. It is seen on the tops of the mountains to the deepest trenches of the ocean.
So how did we get to this state?
- Late 19th Century: Invention of plastic, Parkesine, commonly known as celluloid
- Around 1950: After World War II, production and development of plastic products took off—equipment for clean drinking water, life-saving devices in medicines, and lightened cars & jets, making long-distance travel possible. But since only a small amount of plastic was produced in the two decades that followed, the waste generated was manageable.
- By the 1990s: Production of plastic tripled, leading to a direct rise in plastic waste
- The early 2000s: Disposal of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the past 40 years
- At present: About 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year. More than 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, and 60 percent of it has ended up in landfills or the natural environment.
The conveniences that plastics offer have led to the birth of a throw-away society. Plastic wrappers and food bags only have a lifespan that ranges from a few minutes to a couple of hours, yet they persist in the ecosystem for a few centuries. Additionally, single-use plastic products account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. Furthermore, half of the plastics ever produced have been made in the last 17 years.
Often wind and rainwater carry the lightweight plastics to the drains, which eventually flow into streams and rivers. The streams and rivers act like conveyor belts, with more trash picked up as they move downstream and into Earth’s last sink— the oceans. The waste usually lines the coastal shores before being picked up by the currents and transported around the world. In 2017, Henderson island, an uninhabited atoll located in the South Pacific Ocean had its beaches lined with garbage that had its origins in Pennsylvania, Japan, Puerto Rico, Malaysia. Much of the trash that ends up on the island shores is due to the South Pacific Gyre, a powerful current that sweeps the ocean.
Many species of seabirds to marine animals are all affected by plastics, and millions are killed each year. The causes of death in animals are due to strangulation by discarded plastic fishing gear or starvation. With the action of the wind, wave and sunlight, plastic waste breaks down into smaller particles called microplastics which then passes through the digestive tract of marine creatures without any consequence. However, plastics sometimes puncture organs, causing death, or even cause blockage in the digestive tract which reduces the desire to eat, leading to starvation. Additionally, death is also seen among land animals due to the consumption of carelessly discarded plastic waste. Furthermore, microplastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces over the years, making their way into the food chain, drinking water and even the air we breathe.
(Infographic by Botanical Paperworks, Facts found on ecowatch.com)
How do we prevent plastic waste from getting into the food chain or our environment?
Firstly, prevent them from getting into our waterways with proper waste management and recycling systems.
Secondly, invest in innovative product and packaging designs that curb throw-away culture.
And finally, opt for plastic-free products and alternatives.
- Parker, L. (2019, June 7). The World's Plastic Pollution Crisis Explained. National Geographic. Retrieved July 04, 2021
- Beat Plastic Pollution. (n.d.). UNEP