Cheap, capable of being made into any conceivable shape, strong and durable, plastic is something of a wonder material. It has proved so useful to humans that since the 1950s we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of the stuff.
The manufacture of plastic, as well as its destruction by incineration, pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens.
Plastic packaging – especially the ubiquitous plastic bag – is a significant source of landfill waste and is regularly eaten by numerous marine and land animals, to fatal consequences. Synthetic plastic does not biodegrade. It just sits and accumulates in landfills or pollutes the environment. Plastics have become a municipal waste nightmare, prompting local governments all over the world to implement plastic bag.
Plastic pollution may not even be visible to the naked eye as research is showing that microscopic plastic particles are present in the air at various locations throughout the world and in all major oceans. Plastic is now ubiquitous in our terrestrial, aquatic and airborne environments – that is, it’s everywhere.
However, the victim of this success appears to be much of life on Earth. And humans, one day, could find themselves among them.
For some 79 per cent of the plastic produced over the last 70 years has been thrown away, either into landfill sites or into the general environment. Just nine per cent is recycled with the rest incinerated.
This has been described as “an uncontrolled experiment on a global scale” by scientists.
How much plastic is in the sea?
With more than eight million tonnes going into the oceans every year, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish by 2050 and 99 per cent of all the seabirds on the planet will have consumed some. It is thought the sea now contains some 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy.
It is found all over the planet, with 300 billion pieces in the once-pristine Arctic and a remote island in the Pacific, the uninhabited Henderson Island, one of the Pitcairn, believed to have the highest concentration of plastic pollution in the world.
Why should we worry about pollution in the sea?
Killing off sea creatures is bad for humans because we consume so much of it ourselves. Some 92.6 million tonnes were caught worldwide in 2015, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Given plastic degrades to pieces small enough to pass through the stomach into the flesh of fish and other animals, we are already eating some of the plastic we have thrown into the sea.
And, of course, just like other animals that plastic is likely to be finding its way into the tissues of our bodies with potentially harmful consequences.
What’s being done about it?
The world is, finally, starting to wake up to the problem.
In February this year, the United Nations announced it had “declared war on ocean plastic”.
Thirty countries have now joined the UN’s CleanSeas campaign, including the UK, Canada, France, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Norway, Italy, Costa Rica, Kenya and Peru. The US, China, Russia and Japan have not.
The UK has banned microplastics in “rinse-off” cosmetics, like facial scrubs, but not “leave-on” products like makeup and suntan cream.
Any other problems I should know about?
Plastic may also be contaminating the air we breathe.
Plastic microparticles from cosmetics and microfibers from synthetic clothes are washed into the sewage system. While many pass through treatment plants and end up in the sea, others particles are caught up in sewage used to fertilise farmers’ fields. After it dries out, it may get picked up by the wind and blown about.
Professor Frank Kelly, an expert in environmental health from King’s College London, told a committee of MPs last year: “There’s a real possibility that some of those microparticles will be entrained into the air and they will be carried around and we will end up breathing them.”
Just how bad is it?
Perhaps not Earth-shattering, but definitely Earth-trashing. Plastic may end up being one of the defining characteristics of a new epoch in the planet’s history.
Eventually, the layer of plastic spread around the world from the 1950s onwards will form a noticeable line in the sedimentary rocks of the future.
And that is one reason – along with radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests, pollution, climate change effects such as higher sea levels, and the extinction of many animal species – that geologists are considering declaring the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene or the ‘Epoch of the Humans’.
In a few decades, a blink of an eye in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, plastic has not only changed the fabric of life but the very rocks.