Plastics are everywhere; you drink out of them, prepare food that has been transported in them, and even wear clothes that are made out of them. So why are such useful products so demonized? Since the end of the Second World War, plastics have revolutionized the way we live our lives, and ultimately made things cheaper and easier for us; but the gravy train has reached its final destination and now we're left to face the destruction we've caused our planet through plastic pollution and our want of all-things convenient. So how did we get to this stage? How are these products, which were designed to help us, killing our wildlife, oceans and, ultimately, us? Let's take a closer look at plastics, and why they're a problem that looks set to stay.
What are plastics?
Plastics are made from polymers, which is the scientific name for the chain-like chemical structures that make up the material. Polymers can be divided into two groups: thermoplastics and thermosets. While the former can be melted and re-molded, aiding multiple uses and the possibility of recycling, the latter is far more stubborn. Thermosets, as the name suggests, are set into their shape and are unable to be broken down, meaning that we can't recycle them and, more importantly, we can't get rid of them. These are what our cell phones, laptops, washing machines, and most other household appliances are made from. Think of every cell phone you've ever owned. Now think of every cell phone that's ever been made. Their materials can't be broken down, so where do they go?
You could be forgiven for thinking that thermosets are the only bad type of plastic, but actually thermoplastics have created their own problems. Thermoplastics are what make water bottles, supermarket shopping bags, and most food containers. Although a lot of them are able to be used again or converted into a new product, only 9% of the world's plastic is currently being recycled, meaning we're not getting rid of these types of plastics either, and are in fact creating even more plastic pollution.
How are plastics destroying the planet?
A report published by the United Nations in 2015 estimated that 79% of plastic is dumped in landfills, and with the world producing more than 400 million tons of plastic each year, it's not hard to see how the planet is reaching breaking point. Because plastics don't biodegrade, they simply get broken down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, and it's these fragments that we call "microplastics" that are contaminating our oceans. With microplastics swimming around in all corners of the world, they are poisoning our marine life and, ultimately, can end up on our dinner plate. If you eat fish, it's very likely that you're also eating microplastics.
Between the overflowing landfills and the plastic in our waters, the Earth is facing an extraordinary challenge: how do we eliminate a substance that we produce so much of, and that can't be destroyed?
Can we reverse the damage plastics have caused?
While it's impossible to undo all the damage that plastics have caused so far, scientists and engineers are working hard to create long-term, sustainable plans for our future with the material. Government initiatives and the invention of things like biodegradable plastics, as well as local, community-focused projects, are all innovations putting us on the right track to combating plastic pollution. But more needs to be done. Thankfully, with the younger generations becoming more aware and more concerned about the future of the planet, initiatives are being started every day and plastic pollution has finally taken center-stage. Organizations like The Pew Trust and Ocean Clean Up are orchestrating large-scale operations to save our oceans, and clever inventors are redesigning our everyday products with alternative materials.
It's cliche; but every little helps. See how you can help reduce plastic pollution today. Tomorrow will thank you for it.