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Plastic Fact

Exploring the plastic problem


Anna Altimira

October 26, 2020 · 4 min read

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Summary

The plastic problem rests mainly on two legs:

  • The mindless consumption of plastic
  • The mismanagement of the resulting waste

While the solution to this problem sounds simple - reduce, reuse, recycle - its execution is anything but. The global waste management system is terribly broken: According to the UN Environment report, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, while 12% has been incinerated and a staggering 79% has ended up in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment. While most plastic waste comes from high-income nations, a lot of it gets exported to low-income nations, where it is inadequately disposed of and at risk of polluting rivers and oceans. The poor waste management of these nations is the primary source of global ocean plastic pollution. Therefore, improving global waste management, especially in low-income countries, is critical to reducing the global plastic pollution problem. Even if we could stop our plastic consumption instantly, we still would have a whole lot of mess to clean.

Precycle addresses this problem by building a fair waste management infrastructure in order to handle plastic waste from the past, present, and future. You can join our movement by taking responsibility for your plastic consumption.

What is the plastic problem?

Plastic is everywhere. In our water, air, soils. Even our bodies are contaminated with it. Plastic has existed for less than one hundred years, but it already claims a place in nearly every aspect of human life. Over 368 million tons of plastic have been produced in 2019 alone. If plastic production continues to follow the trend of the last fifty years, it will increase to 600 million tons by 2025.

How is that a problem?

The environmental impact of plastic is disastrous. Of the roughly 9.2 billion tons of plastic that have been produced already, over a half has ended up as waste, left to decompose. But one of the most valuable benefits of plastic - its longevity - simultaneously generates its biggest drawback: Plastic isn't completely biodegradable. Instead, it disintegrates over time into increasingly smaller particles - a process that can take several hundred years. During its decomposition, plastic releases countless hazardous additives, like plasticizers, stabilizers, colorants, and reinforcement agents, into the environment. There they are inhaled, ingested, and absorbed by plants, animals, and humans. A 2019 study showed that an alarming 97% of 2,500 tested children have microplastic in their blood and urine. The potential health effects of micro and nano plastic exposure to humans are still not sufficiently researched, but current findings suggest metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity, and an increased cancer risk. Some even suspect a negative impact on human reproduction and early childhood development.

Ocean plastic

So why not just dispense with plastic entirely?

It is, of course, a commendable effort for every individual not to cause any more plastic waste. There are countless tips and tricks for a nearly plastic-free life accessible to every interested individual - and the general awareness of the problem proliferates. Consumers are placing more value on sustainability, increasing the pressure on companies to take action. But to aim for a completely plastic-free world is to ignore an important fact:

Our modern society would be unthinkable without plastic. It is incomparable to any other material, seeing as it's versatile, durable, and cheap. Even though we discovered plastic only 70 years ago, it plays a vital role in nearly every aspect of human life, such as packaging, medicine, communication, construction, and mobility. Thanks to plastic, we can maintain certain safety and hygiene standards worldwide, for example through disposable syringes or food packaging. The trade-offs between plastic and possible substitutes are complex and would have to be examined case-by-case so as not to create additional blows to our environment. Hence, a completely plastic-free world is neither realistic nor desirable at this point.

And even if we stopped using plastic immediately, there would still be over 5 billion tons of plastic waste left worldwide. The management of this waste determines the risk to our environment and health. So while it is indeed critical to stop the problem at the source and reduce our plastic consumption and waste wherever possible, we just can't entirely stop using plastic. An effective waste management system on a global scale is, therefore, crucial to reducing plastic pollution.

In our next blog, we discuss the status quo of the plastic waste management system around the world. Curious to read more? Jump to the next article