Plastic waste problem. Plastic mountain

What Is Plastic Waste & Why It Is The World’s Biggest Problem?

Plastic waste is a growing global concern. Let’s understand its implications and how we can reduce it.

By Sanjoli Arora

Plastic has become a comprehensive part of our lives today. The world produces 381 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly. This figure is set to double by 2034.

One of the earliest examples of plastic was in 1855 when Alexander Parkes invented Parkesine. We know it today as celluloid. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. 

The plastic boom came in 1933 when polyethene was discovered. It was used as a replacement for glass in many circumstances, resulting in widespread use for bottles in Europe. Now a half a century later, plastic is all around us. In all shapes, sizes and forms. It is deeply ingrained in our daily activities.

And an excess of anything is bad. Hence, plastic waste is a major problem in the world.

How big is the plastic waste problem?

Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. This is nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.

Some facts about plastic waste will leave you shocked at how big this problem is.

Plastic is a problem because

Plastic is a problem because it is not biodegradable and not all types of plastic are recyclable. It is a problem because it is polluting the environment and it is harming wildlife. Fish, dolphins, seagulls, and seals can become entangled or mistake it for food, which can be fatal to them.

Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, a decade in which Americans became increasingly aware of environmental problems. By nature, plastic lasts forever in nature. Plastic is a material that can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Recycling plastic may be an option but it is not a viable one.

Plastic Pollution & the Environment

Plastics come from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, crude oil. The use of fossil fuels to make plastics is one of the biggest reasons why plastics don’t sit well with environmentalists. Fossil fuels are the biggest contributors to the climate crisis.

According to a report published by the Center for International Environmental Law, plastic would emit 850 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the environment in 2019. Annual emissions will reach 1.34 billion tonnes by 2030 if current trends continue. Plastic might produce 56 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, accounting for up to 14% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

Plastics have a mixed impact on global warming. Petroleum is used to make most plastics. If the plastic is burned, it contributes to carbon emissions; if it is buried, it acts as a carbon sink.

Most plastics are resistant to many natural degradation processes due to their chemical structure, which makes them durable. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the ultimate representation of the plastic waste problem. It is a swirl of plastic garbage the size of Texas drifting in the Pacific Ocean and going to last centuries.

Plastic Waste & Health

Plastic presence is not just limited to the sea’s surface but also lands up in fishes and marine animals. Several reports and images of an animal autopsy show the presence of plastic in their stomachs. 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption now contains plastics in some form.

Plastics, particularly microplastics, are becoming more prevalent in the food chain. Microplastics are fragments of any type of plastics. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. Microplastics are hard to tackle and can enter the human body very easily. In 2021, microplastics were found for the first time in the human placenta.

Plastic poses a threat to our health when it enters our body. Additives such as bisphenol A [BPA] and a class of chemicals called phthalates that go into plastics during the manufacturing process pose a great risk to human health. While these additives make plastic products more flexible, durable, and transparent; in very high doses these chemicals can disrupt the endocrine (or hormonal) system. 

What can we do to reduce the amount of plastic waste?

Reducing plastic waste has various advantages, including the preservation of natural resources, environmental protection, and cost savings.

Getting rid of plastics may seem difficult but it is not impossible. Simple steps like carrying your own bag and bottle can reduce how much single-use plastic goods you consume. We will be sharing more ways in which you can reduce your plastic consumption at an individual household level in the coming articles. Do keep an eye out.

As for reducing plastic use on a industrial scale. us consumers have great power. Each purchase we make is a cue to the kind of product we want. So, choose plastic-free alternatives with each purchase.

Sanjoli is currently working as a Content Strategist and has a Master’s degree in Fashion Journalism. She has contributed to publications like MensXPMindless Mag and Sustain: The Mag in the past. Conscious Charcha is her way of learning more about sustainability and spreading the word about a sustainable lifestyle.

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