Plastic Poses a Unique Pollution Problem


Plastic is a substance that has contaminated bodies of water, endangered wildlife across the globe, and fascinated humans since the 1950’s. In fact, in fewer than seven decades, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Half of this production has occurred since 2004.

Landfills, city streets, and our beautiful oceans have unfortunately been the garbage collectors for these large quantities of slowly-degrading plastic. Due to their unnatural degradation process, plastic bags and any type of plastic material can last for hundreds of years if placed underground.

Concerns about plastic and its effect on our planet have led to many scientific studies, including a recent one published in the journal Science Advances. According to The New York Times, the study sought to answer how much plastic has been produced over time, what kind, and what happens to the material once it has outlived its intended purpose.

Lead author of the study Dr. Roland Geyer said in an interview, “my mantra is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and without good numbers, you don’t know if we have a real problem.”

Dr. Geyer and his co-authors used data from a variety of sources to make the estimates they report in the study. Specifically, they found that large amounts of litter are present in the environment, particularly in oceans, landfills, and fresh water and terrestrial ecosystems. Furthermore, they found that the quantities of these plastics are steadily increasing in these said areas. Their findings suggest that by 2050, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will have been added to the ecosystem.

Scientists also estimated that five to 13 million metric tons of plastics are dumped into the oceans each year. Contamination is increasingly common in many rivers and streams, according to previous studies.

Explaining the skyrocketing rise in plastics, scientists point to packaging, which accounted for about 42 percent of non-fiber plastic production in 2015. Furthermore, packaging comprised about 54 percent of the global plastic waste discarded in 2015. The construction and building industry is also responsible for a big percentage of plastic production. About 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been deemed unusable and disposed of since 1950.

Statistics found in this and previous studies show how the U.S. and many other countries recycle and incinerate less plastic than Europe and China do. Europe burns about 40 percent of its plastics and recycles 30 percent compared to the U.S.’s of nine and 16 percent, respectively. China, similarly to Europe, recycles about 25 percent of its plastics and incinerates 30 percent.

When asked about the efficiency of recycling, Dr. Geyer explained how recycling isn’t and shouldn’t be the only way to solve global plastic pollution, but that it might reduce the overall quantity of plastics being produced. He then added, “we don’t understand very well the extent to which recycling reduces primary production.”

The characteristics that make plastic an indispensable substance in many countries' economies are also the main reasons its such a prevalent pollutant. Plastic's durability and resistance make it difficult to degrade.

Dr. Geyer said there wasn’t enough information revealed by the investigation to uncover the long-term consequences of so much plastic accumulating around the globe. “It accumulates so quickly now and it doesn’t biodegrade, so it just gets added to what’s already there,” he said.

As scientists investigate more into the effects plastics can have on the planet, they will begin to understand and—hopefully— to find a solution to the catastrophic problems that cause plastic pollution.

[Source: The New York Times]

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