We hear more and more about plastic pollution, but what are the facts and, importantly, the solutions?
Plastic pollution is everywhere—at the top of mountains, the bottom of seas and, scarily, the placentas of unborn babies. Microscopic plastic particles, microplastics, now seem to have reached levels of pervasiveness only matched by bacteria.
Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s.
While there have been many solutions suggested for the plastic waste found in nature, the only real solution is to stop contributing to the pollution. The obvious first step is, of course, to stop polluting nature with plastic waste through proper waste handling.
But this is a complex global problem that will take time to solve. What are the plastic pollution facts and solutions?
What is plastic made of?
Plastic belongs to a group of materials called polymers, which consist of very long molecules that hook into each other giving the materials their special properties. Polymers can be made of many different materials found in nature. Some of them, such as latex, occur naturally, while others are manufactured.
Most industrially produced plastics are made from fossil fuels. Many types of plastic are still made this way but, in recent years, we’ve seen a lot of development towards plastic materials with a lower carbon footprint and less damaging to nature.
Today it’s not uncommon to find biodegradable, and by that we mean quicker to biodegrade, plastics in products ranging from compost bags to knives forks and straws. Often they are made out of starch from plants such as maize and in principle, they are safe to consume along with your food and will degrade quickly if left in nature.
Being biodegradable doesn’t make plastic waste harmless to nature, though it will, eventually, break down into harmless substances normally found there.
How long does it take plastic to biodegrade?
This is dependant on the type of plastic and where it ends up. The fact is that most bacteria don't like eating plastic, so it has to be broken down by sunlight. If there's no sunlight, such as in a landfill, it will decompose extremely slowly—we're talking either hundreds or thousands of years.
If a plastic bag or bottle ends up in the ocean, where it's exposed to light and salty water, research has found that it can break down in less than a year. This isn't a good thing though, as it simply reduces to the aforementioned microplastics.
Is plastic harmful?
Plastic is harmful to ecosystems, particularly marine life. They either get caught in old fishing nets, choke on pieces of plastic, starve because their stomachs are full of plastic, or are poisoned by chemicals that concentrate on the surface of plastics (sorry for these horrible images).
Also, and sorry again, it's been found that plastic pollution can be harmful to people as well. Research is still in early stages, but it's been found that chemicals found in certain plastics cause hormone imbalances and can negatively affect growth and development.
Facts about plastic waste and pollution
Everyone has their own ideas about plastic pollution and who's responsible. We're not here to point fingers or green shame, we’re want to give you the real plastic pollution facts.
- Plastic waste that ends up in nature comes from incorrect garbage handling, but also from weathering and wear of plastic materials, such as artificial turf.
- There are at least four big garbage patches in the world’s oceans, all of them contain a lot of plastic.
- It's estimated that, worldwide, only 9% plastic is recycled. The rest finds its way into landfills of the environment.
Plastic pollution by country chart
According to 2016 data, the latest available, here are the countries that contribute most to plastic pollution (per person per year):
- US - 105kg
- UK - 99kg
- South Korea - 88kg
- Germany - 81kg
- Thailand - 70kg
Top plastic polluting companies (2020)
According to a recent report from Break Free From Plastic these are the companies that contribute the most to plastic pollution (so companies to avoid):
- Coca Cola
- Mondelēz international
Why isn't more plastic recycled?
Recyling plastic is a bonus because it removes the need to extract raw material. However, there are a number of barriers to plastic recycling:
- Not all plastic can be recycled. Only certain types—thermoplastics—can be melted down and remoulded into new products. However, the same piece of plastic can only be recycled a maximum 2-3 times.
- Plastic is blended with other materials and cannot be separated. Think clothing.
- There are no municipal facilities or programmes available. There may also be a lack of knowledge regarding recycling and its importance.
Solutions to plastic pollution
Enough doom and gloom, time to work on solutions. There are still solutions to the plastic problem that we can start implementing today:
- Use consideration and care when handling plastics and make sure that plastic waste is handled and recycled correctly.
- Use less plastic. When plastic items are the only reasonable option, choose high-quality items that will last longer and can be recycled.
- Choose biodegradable plastic alternatives whenever available. They will not be harmless if released improperly into nature, but will at least degrade and disappear eventually.
- Plastic munching bacteria and enzymes. Scientists have been working on developing plastic-munching enzymes and bacteria that can break down plastics rapidly and improve recycling efficiency.
Our plastic alternatives
Recognising plastic pollution for the problem that it is, we try our best to remove it from our products wherever possible. Alternatives we use are bamboo (toothbrushes, straws), glass, and a specially devised plastic alternative made from the byproduct of linseed farming to make our plastic free mobile cases. Any plastic we do use is BPA free and recycled.