How bad is our global plastic pollution problem?

Scrunched up clear plastic bottles, with blue caps, placed on a shelf.

By now, you should be well aware of the climate emergency. How our planet’s global temperature is set to exceed early predictions of 1.5oC warming; oil & gas use as well as a myriad of other things being blamed for this rise. Well, among this myriad being blamed is pollution, specifically plastic pollution.

In this post, I’ll be exploring the reasons behind the growth in plastic waste, as well as just how bad a problem it is worldwide. To emphasise how relied upon and used material is in everyday life, just look around you, wherever you are sat, there is no doubt so many items made of plastic. Despite it being a versatile and reliable material, it’s how it is disposed of that has become such a stark issue…

[Cover Image by Pexels]

What is plastic?

If you’re unsure of the science behind plastic, put simply it’s a material created mainly from fossil fuels. Types of fossil fuels include crude oil and coal. There are many types and it can be found anywhere from medical equipment to food packaging. It is a durable material and incredibly malleable, making it the chosen substance for all kinds of uses. However, it is this durability that has made it an environmental headache.

There are seven types of common plastics, all made up of different compounds[1]. As plastic is made to last, it does not break down easily. If landfilled or sent to be recycled, it can be quite problematic.

Due to the chemical properties of plastic, it can only be recycled for a finite amount of time. This is compared to paper which can be recycled endlessly. The polymers that make up a piece of plastic decrease in quality each time it is broken down in the recycling process, meaning there is a limit put on its recyclability[2].

A growing waste problem

Now as you can imagine, as plastic is incredibly durable and hard to treat, it has created quite the problem. It has been estimated that 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced since 1950[3]. Yet, as little as 9% of it has been recycled or managed correctly. Due to the crazy amount of plastic that has been (and is) produced, and the world not having the scale of infrastructure needed to handle it, the plastic waste problem continues to grow.

Without urgent action, the United Nations has predicted that plastic pollution levels could double by 2040[4].

There is a myriad of ways plastic is handled once an individual (or organisation) disposes of it. In 2019, according to World in Data, these were the most common disposal methods: Landfill (49.21%), Mismanagement (22.15%), Incineration (19.05%), Recycling (9.29%) and Littered (0.30%)[5]. As you can see from those statistics, the way plastic is handled isn’t much to feel positive about. For example, landfilled plastic releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. With this, mismanagement causes problems such as plastic leaking into our oceans…

The plastic waste problem is only growing. As we consume more and more (and the plastic manufacturers are seemingly able to continue to produce virgin plastic), it is scary to think just how polluted our planet could become. I highly recommend watching this YouTube video, which illustrates the scale of plastic waste from 2019.

So, How Bad is Global Plastic Pollution?

There is no way to sugarcoat this really, it is bad, really bad. Without a decrease in production and better management of the plastic that does come through the waste stream, it’ll only go from bad to worse.

On Plastic Overshoot Day in July [2023], it was said that 43% of plastic produced this year will end up as pollution. 159 million tonnes will be produced, with this being “68.5 million tonnes more plastics than waste management systems can process safely”[6]. It is a dire situation, however, there does seem to be progress being made in trying to handle this.

In September 2023, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published its first draft of a Global Plastic Pollution Treaty. The aim of the treaty is to tackle the levels of plastic production and ‘super-charge’ efforts to reduce pollution [7]. This is coupled with countries, such as the UK, placing bans on certain plastic items. UK Government recently announced bans on single-use packaging items such as bowls, plates and containers [8].

Whether these treaties or bans will be enough to tackle the growing plastic pollution problem is yet to be seen. However, urgent action is needed otherwise we quite simply will end up on a planet similar to that as depicted in the Pixar film WALL-E (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly what I mean!).

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