While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use plastic products — with severe environmental consequences.
Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away.
Plastics and microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the “plastisphere”.
So how did we get here?
From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, and as a result, plastic waste was relatively manageable. However between the 1970s and the 1990s, plastic waste generation more than tripled, reflecting a similar rise in plastic production.
In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
We are seeing other worrying trends. Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. We have also seen a worrying shift towards single-use plastic products.
Between 1950 and 2017, approximately 7,000 million of the estimated 9,200 million tonnes of plastic produced became plastic waste, three-quarters of which was either discarded and placed in landfills, became part of uncontrolled and mismanaged waste streams, or was dumped or abandoned in the environment, including at sea.
With global production of primary plastic forecast to reach 34 billion tonnes by 2050, we now face two urgent issues: how to reduce the volume of uncontrolled or mismanaged waste streams going into the ocean and how to increase the level of recycling.
Some 98 per cent of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2040.
These single-use plastic products are everywhere. For many of us, they have become an integral part of our daily lives.
Source: UN Environment Programme