With our increased dependence on plastics, worldwide we produce about 300 tonnes of plastic per year, of which only 10-13% is recycled. Due to this, the world is getting engulfed in plastic debris.
Plastic pollution has taken a formidable form. It is becoming one of the most urgent environmental concerns of the world. So it is important to address plastic pollution. How is it caused? Who is responsible for it, and how can we manage plastic waste.
What is plastic pollution?
Being non-biodegradable, plastic takes approx 500 to 1000 years to completely degrade. Thus, it collects over time.
Plastic pollution refers to the accumulation of plastic objects and particles on earth. It negatively impacts both the environment and the living beings.
A lot of plastic waste is diving into smaller particles and is mixing in air and land. Not only does it disrupt the ecosystem, but we are also inhaling the plastic particles and eating the plants that absorbed plastic from land. All of this makes plastic pollution a growing concern.
Causes of plastic pollution
Plastic decays but does not decompose.
The waste generated from plastic is increasing day by day. Plastic bags and other products made of plastic break into small pieces and mix with soil and water sources, causing the problem of plastic pollution.
As plastic is a non-biodegradable material, it does not decompose in water and land. It remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, causing land, water, and air pollution.
Urbanization and population growth
Plastic pollution is largely caused by rising urbanization and population growth rates. As the world’s population and cities rise, the desire for less expensive and more easily available materials increases.
After World War 2, more plastic production occurred simply due to rapid urbanization and rising consumer demands. Plastics make up the majority of landfills in most cities, accounting for around 80% of all municipal waste.
Plastic is very inexpensive and used by almost everyone. As the usage of plastic products is multifold, its production is rapidly increasing. There are also no cheap alternatives to plastic bags and other plastic products.
Increased usage of single-use plastic
Single-use plastic refers to those plastic products that we use once and discard immediately. These include straws, plastic cups, food and cosmetic wrappers, or single-use plastic bags.
Single-use plastic items constitute half of the plastic waste generated by us.
There is a lack of public understanding regarding the negative consequences of plastic use.
Recyclable plastic items are also thrown into common garbage and are not being recycled. A very little amount of plastic pollution is recycled. The remaining is polluting air, land, and oceans.
Manufacturers of plastic products are not held responsible in any way. Many commodities, such as food and cosmetics, are wrapped in plastic since manufacturers are not responsible for any plastic waste once the products have been sold.
Though plastic bag bans exist, the alternatives are not sufficiently promoted.
Humans invented plastic, but they will also have to fix the difficulties it causes. When we think about who is to blame for the pollution caused by plastic, we look at three parties.
The first are governments, which can enact and enforce regulations and firms that manufacture or use plastics and consumers. Each group is accountable for its actions. Instead of working together to solve the plastic soup problem, individuals point fingers at one another.
Companies frequently assign blame to consumers, who are expected to act responsibly and leave no trace in the environment. Governments, for their part, are hesitant to enact new regulations, much less enforce them. Consumers also like to blame the government.
There will always be plastic polluters, apathetic people who continue to discard plastic on the streets, no matter how well-educated customers are or how many rubbish bins are placed in public spaces. As a result, most plastic waste could be avoided if manufacturers were held accountable for the trash phase of their products.
In other words, they retain ownership of the plastic they sold and must accept its return once it has been used. The goal of extended producer responsibility is to reduce a product’s real environmental impact.
After use, the items are returned or collected to allow the raw ingredients to be reused. Unfortunately, businesses are cautious of the costs associated with this. And if they’re afraid of that, their competitive position will be affected, and they will soon discover that the government is on their side.
People also resort to dumping or burning their garbage near their homes when there is no regular waste collection service. These activities are hazardous to human health, local economies, and the environment, particularly in areas near waterways, which serve as a handy waste disposal site.
Plastic packaging waste, for example, not only clogs, drains, and pollutes the ocean, but it is also toxic to the lungs, eyes, and skin. Even when burned, it contributes significantly to urban air pollution.
Effects of plastic pollution
In these mentioned ways, plastic affects our environment and the life of the earth.
The waste generated from plastic gets into the water bodies such as rivers, seas and makes its way to the world’s oceans. This results in marine plastic pollution and affects them in a bad way. The mixed plastic waste in water bodies caused by illegal dumping by factories
Threat to marine and human life
Plastic marine debris also affects marine wildlife. As consumption of plastic marine litter accumulated on the seafloor can cause diseases and even deaths of many marine organisms. This affects biological diversity and disrupts the food chain.
This water is also delivered to us as tap water for our use. No matter how much we filter it, it can never come back to its original state. The use of this water leads to a negative effect on our health.
Pollutes the land
Large amounts of plastic waste are disposed of in landfills. Aside from that, little fragments of plastic are blown from one location to another by the wind. These particles of plastic emit toxic chemicals that degrade the soil’s characteristics and fertility.
It also affects the growth of plants. Apart from this, mosquitoes and other types of insects are produced from waste plastic, spreading many diseases.
Harmful to land animals
Often animals eat the food thrown in the garbage. They eat plastic bags with this food, which get stuck in their intestines, eventually leading to their death or causing many serious diseases inside them.
Pollutes the air
Discarded plastic items are divided into small particles, and we inhale those particles. When plastic is burned along with other garbage, it releases poisonous chemicals which badly affect human health. These chemicals mix into the air, which causes severe health problems.
What can we do about it?
Plastics are synthetic organic polymers that are widely employed in various applications, including water bottles, clothes, food packaging, medical supplies, technological items, and construction materials.
Plastics have evolved into a vital and adaptable commodity with various qualities, chemical compositions, and applications over the previous six decades. Although plastic was once thought to be safe and inert, many years of its dumping into the environment have resulted in a slew of problems. Plastic trash contamination is now universally acknowledged as a significant environmental burden.
Because of our carelessness, it is increasing even more. This is the moment to make difficult decisions to solve the problem.
Ways to manage plastic waste
Although recycling reduces the quantity of waste in landfills, waterways, and ecosystems, most municipal governments can only recycle a limited number of plastics. Even if a portion of the waste is recycled, it still consumes a lot of energy and water, which isn’t a viable option for single-use items.
Better holistic solid waste management systems
Incineration of waste is not a low-cost technique, and investment in it should be carefully targeted. Incineration of plastic garbage should only be used for waste that cannot be recycled to produce useable products while also reducing pollution. To put it another way, you don’t want to waste money to burn products that may be utilized or sold elsewhere.
Recycling in manufacturing
Plastic garbage is being used for productive purposes on a local and global scale. Local communities are now investigating simple solutions such as using recycled plastic as a filler for cement blocks, ropes, and household products like baskets and mats.
Clothing and furniture are being made from recycled plastic and textiles on a greater scale. People are given incentives to gather plastic and obtain its full worth by employing waste materials for financial products like clothing, shoes, and road construction.
Informal sector partnerships
In developing countries, the waste collection and material recycling activities are majorly performed by the informal waste sector. The formation of waste picker member-based organizations, the design of an appropriate model for integration, the formation of an authority to integrate the informal sector is all part of the enabling mechanism to formalize the informal sector.
Training and awareness campaigns, allocating working space and other facilities to the waste pickers, and provisions for their financial inclusion work as incentives.
Education and awareness
Realistic rules that are adequately followed and enforced are required to counteract and curb persistent environmental contamination caused by plastics. This should include the need for a global convention on plastic pollution to require plastic companies to declare all elements in their goods and to provide consumers with a warning about the potential health impacts of such constituents.
It is necessary to adopt policies that classify some of the toxic compounds included in plastic products.
Community-based waste management initiatives are collaborations between non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and impacted communities to provide the equipment, resources, and training needed to start and operate an effective waste management program.
Such systems promote direct community participation and accountability, waste collection and reduction tracking, household waste segregation, on-site reuse of valuable and reusable items, composting of organic waste, and waste collection and transportation to a treatment site by a public collection service.
Policy and planning
Realistic rules that are adequately followed and enforced are required to counteract and curb persistent environmental contamination caused by plastics. This should include the need for a global convention on plastic pollution to require plastic companies to declare all elements in their goods and provide consumers with a warning about the potential health impacts of such constituents.
It is necessary to adopt policies that classify some of the toxic compounds included in plastic products.
As development and sustainability go hand-in-hand, it is necessary to include waste management when forming environmental laws and policies.
These policies can range from plastic bans to providing incentives for communities to comply with these laws. Plastic policies must be backed up by a strong waste management system and the ability of the government to enforce them.
Other small practices that might come to aid
Plastic waste that winds up in landfills and seas takes hundreds of years to disintegrate, and the poisons it releases into the environment are a growing issue. To take control of the issue and proper plastic waste management, we also need to look at ways to reduce the use of plastic.
Re-think plastics at home
Studies have shown that plastic is harmful to human health as it can seep into food and water when stored in plastic containers or served in plastic utensils. Plastic food containers are advertised as economical and easily available storage containers, but their ill effects stay behind the curtain. Similarly, plastic dinner plates are used in many homes but can prove harmful to human health.
Bring your shopping bag
Single-use plastic bags used for shopping are major contributors to plastic pollution. Carrying your non-plastic bag when going shopping will help discourage the use of plastic bags as shopping bags. This will also help decrease plastic production as a vast majority of it includes these plastic shopping bags.
Carry your straw
Plastic straws are a huge chunk of the single-use plastic waste that the world produces. A great way to cut down on plastic waste would be to carry your metal straws when going out.
Don’t buy plastic bottles
Plastic water bottles are very commonly used worldwide as they are a cheaper way to store water, but they can be harmful to health. Single-use plastic bottles also become major contributors to the world’s plastic waste and need to be reduced. Therefore, the use of non-plastic bottles is being encouraged to reduce plastic waste.
Switch to cloth from diapers
Even diapers are made of plastic and, as they can only be used once, fall into the category of single-use disposable plastic. It is advised to switch to cloth instead of diapers as not only is it a sustainable alternative but can also be cleaned and reused easily.
Go plastic-free on your period
Sanitary pads and tampons are also contributors to tonnes of plastic waste generated by the world because they also fall into single-use disposable plastic. Instead of using these, menstrual cups would be a sustainable alternative that can help reduce more plastic production.
Cardboard over plastic packaging
Many countries are taking steps to urge manufacturers to accept responsibility for using environmentally friendly packaging. Due to its robustness, cushioning, protective, flexible, and recyclable characteristics, cardboard has always been a popular choice of packaging.
While plastic packaging’s indestructibility cannot be questioned, a rising number of firms are choosing eco-friendly and sustainable packaging to promote a positive brand image. Corrugated cardboard is quickly becoming the packaging of choice in various industries, including transportation, e-commerce, and the food and beverage industry, to mention a few.
Consumers should also encourage the use of cardboard instead of plastic packaging when considering what products to buy.
Avoid cosmetics with polyethylene
Polyethylene is the most commonly used microplastic in cosmetic products. These bits of plastic are used for various purposes like exfoliating, smoothing, or polishing the skin, to name a few.
But the use of polyethylene by cosmetic industries in their products is not environmentally friendly and needs to be replaced with a sustainable alternative. This change can only come into place through consumer and manufacturer collaborations.
Addressing false solutions to plastic production
Bioplastics are not as environmentally friendly as they appear, so proceed with caution. Though they are frequently marketed together, a product is not always biodegradable and may require extremely particular circumstances to degrade. They also don’t address the issue of litter or a disposable culture.
Incineration — produces additional pollutants and does not alleviate the problem of overproduction.
Cleaning up – while cleaning up helps to minimize litter, it ignores the basis of the problem and the hidden plastic pollution — microplastics.
Replacement of one single-use item with another does not necessarily solve the problem or help to address our disposable society.
We can’t recycle our way out of this situation by focusing on end-of-life issues like recycling or disposal.
Plastic pollution facts you should know!
Research shows that since the early 1950s, annual plastic output has increased dramatically, reaching 322 million tonnes in 2015. This does not include the 61 million tonnes of synthetic fibers used in clothes, rope, and other products in 2016. Plastic output is predicted to continue to rise, more than doubling by 2025. Each year, the beverage industry alone produces nearly 500 billion single-use plastic bottles.
Plastic degrades into “microplastics” that are nearly hard to collect and interrupt the food web and destroy natural habitats when exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun.
Plastic garbage clogs drain, creating flooding. It causes marine plastic pollution, which reduces animals’ lifetime when consumed and contaminates water bodies when poured into canals and oceans.
Plastic is collecting miles-wide spinning gyres in the oceans. It often collects on the surface ocean as marine debris, of which the great pacific garbage patch is an example. This is often caused by coastal tourism. In this way, all the plastic in the world’s oceans affects the marine environment, ocean currents, and even coastal tourism, making it important to address marine plastic pollution.
Almost all plastic is manufactured from fossil fuel(mostly oil and gas) derived ingredients (ethylene and propylene). Huge greenhouse gas emissions are produced during the extraction, transportation, and manufacture of these fuels.
Low-income populations suffer severe health consequences when they live near plastic production sites, are exposed to more chemicals and garbage, and bear the weight of the consequences of inappropriate plastic disposal and incineration.
Plastic trash is primarily released into the environment when improperly managed, such as by open dumping, open burning, or disposal in water bodies. Unfortunately, plastic litter is rising, with more than a quarter of rubbish discarded openly and many formal disposal facilities mismanaged. Many countries cannot process plastic waste even when it is collected.
There are numerous strategies to reduce plastic waste, including creating less, using less, and better managing existing garbage to avoid contamination or leakage.
More than 30 nations have banned plastic bags at the regional or national level, while dozens more have imposed fees or charges on throwaway bags.
Iceland, a UK store, has pledged to eliminate plastic from all of its own-brand products.
Various cities, countries, and regions worldwide have banned or proposed bans on single-use plastics, such as Morocco’s bag ban, Seattle, Washington’s straw ban, and Vancouver, Canada’s proposed coffee cup and styrofoam container ban.
Zero-waste supermarkets are springing up in places across the globe, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South Africa.
Today, international environmental law’s primary objective isn’t limited to protecting and preserving nature and the environment. Rather, it is envisioned as a global norm, institution, and practice for waste management.
Taking these steps necessitates the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, including citizens, governments, community organizations, corporations, and manufacturers. Plastic waste’s influence on society can be reduced by policy solutions, more awareness, and improved design and disposal processes, among other things.
To know more about the effects of plastic pollution, you can also check out this article.