Plastic: The Problem And Its Impact – Impact Hub (2022)

6 June 2019

WWF and Impact Hub join forces for the oceans. This blog post is part of a wider campaign aiming to share knowledge about environmental challenges within our communities.

“Plastics have transformed our lives: revolutionized medicine, lighten every car and jumbo jet today, saving fuel—and pollution. In the form of clingy, light-as-air wraps, they extend the life of fresh food. In airbags, incubators, helmets, or simply by delivering clean drinking water plastics save lives daily. Plastic saved wildlife: piano keys or billiard balls were before made of elephant ivory.”

(Video) Here's how plastic bags impact the environment

Low-cost, lightweight and resistant, plastic has benefits we can not deny. But, unfortunately, we now see the consequences of our intense use, little recycling and leak into nature, where it negatively impacts rivers, oceans, wildlife and humans.

The key issue is that synthetic materials such as plastics contain chemical combinations which means they don’t undergo decay. A plastic fork used for 15 minutes can take 450 years or more to decompose. What makes it even more challenging is the combination of plastic with other materials and the various types. The main differentiation is:

  1. Macro-plastics such as bags, cigarette filters, bottles, caps, food containers, cloths or straws are the most visible form of plastic pollution.
  2. Microplastics are the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch.

To take action we need to understand the wide-ranging, negative impacts of the problem. The challenge begins at production. Let’s take a look at some of the facts:

  • Since 1950, there have been 8.3 billion tons of plastics produced: 6.3 billion tons ended up as waste out of which 9% has been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% ended up in landfills and nature. Most plastics can be recycled.
  • Annual plastic production of ∼300 million tons of which 8m tons enters the oceans every year.
  • 50% of annual production is single-use plastics, 26% by volume is packaging.
  • It costs 1-2 euros per kilogram production of virgin plastic and it requires 2-3 liters to produce a 1-liter bottle.
  • 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal (non-renewable resources).

Naturally, this leads us to our next challenge: the waste.

(Video) The Plastic Problem - A PBS NewsHour Documentary

  • Plastic waste is expected to quadruple from 2010 to 2050 and global recycling capacity will only cover 1/3 of the waste.
  • China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam generate more ocean plastic waste than the rest of the world combined.
  • 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
  • High-income countries generate more plastic waste per person but waste is managed well; thus a small leak into nature. Countries with poor waste collection and management cause more ocean plastic pollution.
  • The United States only recycle 14% of its waste, the rest goes to landfills.

The consequences are widespread- and especially the long term impact and the consequences for humans are not yet fully understood.

  • By 2050, it is predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.
  • 90% of bottled water and 70% – 90% of tap water contains plastic fibers.
  • 15% of the sand is actually grains of microplastic on some beaches in Hawaii.
  • 617,000sq miles (three times the size of France) = Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, which is 50% caused by fishing nets, ropes and lines.
  • Sea animals and birds ingest plastic, leading them to die. Around 600 species are believed to be affected, and 90% of the world’s seabirds have fragments of plastic in their stomachs, compared to 5% in 1960.

Is there an impact on human health?

There is no data yet but a growing concern around microplastics as they contaminate air, tap and bottled water, food and drinks, including salt, fish, honey and beer. All types of sea creatures are ingesting microplastics, and as they move up the food chain, these plastics will inevitably end up in the human gut.

By itself, plastic is not dangerous but microplastic acts like a magnet for a range of other poisons and pollutants we have spilled into the natural world. So organic materials, pesticides and pharmaceuticals that end up in our marine systems will tend to get concentrated in these tiny particles and potentially disturb our hormone system. Effects are unclear.

Not to forget the many lives that depend on and live from plastic. The plastic collectors in Bangladesh who collect, dry and sell plastic. Or those in the plastic recycling industry in the slums of India that melt plastic to create small pellets taking all the health risks on them. The consequences that plastic has on them should not be forgotten.

(Video) Marine Litter Learning Kit – Activity 7: Path of Litter

What does the plastic issue cost us financially?

The economic impact of this man-made predicament is immense. Damage to marine ecosystems is estimated to equate to some 13 billion dollars per year. Related economic costs include those linked to clean-up operations and litter removal. But there is more:

  • The fishing industry: Plastic damaging fishing equipment and loss of revenue that culminates from less fish being caught, and the fact that the ones caught nowadays are often of poorer quality.
  • The tourism industry: Beaches in the Caribbean and Thailand are lined with plastics, putting many off revisiting these sights. In South Korea, a single marine litter event caused a revenue loss of about €29m in 2011 compared to 2010, as a result of over 500,000 fewer visitors to the country.

Countries in the south often depend on fishing or coastal tourism, which makes them more vulnerable to the economic consequences of ocean plastic pollution.

It’s a mind-bending problem, so embedded into our societies and lives that it begs the question of whether we’ll step up and take meaningful action. Has the problem outgrown our own ability to solve it? WWF doesn’t think so. They’ve set the goal to have no plastic in nature by 2030, counting on circular economy models and system solutions. “The plastics crisis in our oceans was created in a single lifetime and can be ended in a single decade. If we act now, together.”

(Video) Ep. 34 Newlight: The Solution to Microplastics

Action has to be taken on multiple fronts, which is why we are all responsible- not only as individuals, but as entrepreneurs, institutions, and companies. Check back here soon for a blog post where we’ll explore the solutions and people who are part of the Impact Hub network and already taking action. In the meantime, if you want to learn more, check out the links below.

Documentaries:

    • A Plastic Ocean – A documentary by Netflix that investigates plastic pollution environmental impact
    • Plastic ParadiseThe Great Pacific Garbage Patch – documentary talking about a large island in the Pacific that has become an enormous garbage dump
    • Straw – A short documentary that reviews the history of drinking straws and addresses the present-day issues
    • Bag It – A documentary that focuses on the world’s overuse of plastic bags and other plastic items

*Header image: Sam Hobson WWF UK.

1 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/
2 https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/4/9/18274131/plastic-waste-pollution-bacteria-digestion
3 Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation unless marked otherwise.
4 Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation unless marked otherwise.
5 Jamberk & Geyre, 2017, ‘Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”’. Estimates assume consistent use patterns and project current global waste management trends. And World Economic Forum, 2017, ‘The New Plastics Economy’
6 https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/
7 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/
8 https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/4/9/18274131/plastic-waste-pollution-bacteria-digestion
9 https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/plastic-microplastic-microbeads-pollution-toxic-environment-house-of-commons-environmental-audit-a7011256.html
10 https://wwf.panda.org/get_involved/campaign_with_us/plastics_campaign_page

FAQs

What are the impact of plastics? ›

Toxic effects

Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources, and also the ecosystem. This can cause a range of potentially harmful effects on the species that drink the water.

What are the 3 problems with plastics? ›

The growing rate of plastic production raises problems in many areas of our society. It's contributing to waste and pollution issues, it's impacting our health, and it's threatening our oceans and wildlife.

What is the problem with plastic today? ›

More than eight million tonnes of plastic enters the world's oceans each year and most of that escapes from land. It can be blown into the sea from ships and beaches, or carried there by river. Some also gets flushed down the toilet. Another issue is that not all plastic can be recycled.

How can we stop plastic pollution essay? ›

We must use alternatives like cloth bags and paper bags instead of plastic bags. If we are purchasing plastic, we must reuse it. We must avoid drinking bottled water which contributes largely to plastic pollution. The government must put a plastic ban on the use of plastic.

How is plastic harmful to humans? ›

Plastic products contain chemical additives. A number of these chemicals have been associated with serious health problems such as hormone-related cancers, infertility and neurodevelopment disorders like ADHD and autism.

What causes plastic waste? ›

The majority of plastic pollution in the ocean is caused by littering: we buy or use disposable plastic items (food wrappings, plastic bags, razors, bottles, etc.) and do not dispose of them properly, which cause them to end up in the waterways and eventually in the ocean.

Why is plastic a problem for the environment? ›

How does plastic harm the environment? Plastic sticks around in the environment for ages, threatening wildlife and spreading toxins. Plastic also contributes to global warming. Almost all plastics are made from chemicals that come from the production of planet-warming fuels (gas, oil and even coal).

Why should we stop using plastic? ›

The benefits of reducing plastic consumption include: Preventing pollution by lessening the amount of new raw materials used. Saves energy. Reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute towards climate change.

Why is plastic pollution a problem? ›

Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems' ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people's livelihoods, food production capabilities and social well-being. UNEP's body of work demonstrates that the problem of plastic pollution doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Why is plastic important? ›

Plastics help us protect the environment by reducing waste, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and saving energy at home, at work, and on the road.

Why is plastic harmful essay? ›

Waste plastic bags are polluting the land and water immensely. Plastic bags have become a threat to the life of animals living on earth as well as in water. Chemicals released by waste plastic bags enter the soil and make it infertile. Plastic bags are having a negative impact on human health.

How do plastics impact society? ›

“Plastics have transformed our lives: revolutionized medicine, lighten every car and jumbo jet today, saving fuel—and pollution. In the form of clingy, light-as-air wraps, they extend the life of fresh food. In airbags, incubators, helmets, or simply by delivering clean drinking water plastics save lives daily.

What is plastic made of? ›

Plastics are made from natural materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil through a polymerisation or polycondensation process. Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.

How plastic is formed at home? ›

How To Mold Strong Plastic Parts! - YouTube

What are 5 ways to recycle plastic? ›

7 Creative Ways to Recycle Plastic Bottles:
  • Reuse Your Plastic Coffee Creamer Containers for Snack Storage: ...
  • Make a Plastic Bottle Planter: ...
  • Start a Herb Garden With Empty 2-Liter Bottles: ...
  • Make a Beach Bucket From Laundry Detergent Containers: ...
  • Reuse Soda Bottles by Creating a Vertical Garden:

Where is plastic pollution found? ›

Plastic pollution is most visible in developing Asian and African nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or nonexistent. But the developed world, especially in countries with low recycling rates, also has trouble properly collecting discarded plastics.

How can we reduce plastic waste at home? ›

9 ways to reduce plastic waste at home
  1. Say NO to cellophane-wrapped products. ...
  2. Store your leftovers with silicone covers. ...
  3. Reuse your glass jars after removing the labels. ...
  4. Avoid tea bags and use a tea strainer. ...
  5. Change your plastic sponge for a natural sponge or luffa. ...
  6. Extend the life of your plastic.
5 Jun 2020

Who is affected by plastic pollution? ›

Plastics pollution has a direct and deadly effect on wildlife. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it.

Why is plastic toxic? ›

The chemicals in plastic put our health at risk

Many of the largest and most hazardous chemical families – including heavy metals, flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols, and fluorinated compounds – are directly associated with plastics production.

Is plastic poisonous? ›

Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is widely known as the most toxic plastic for health and the environment. In its production, it releases dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals.

What are 10 facts about plastic pollution? ›

What is Giving Compass?
  • Only 9% of all plastic produced is recycled.
  • A whopping 2 million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide.
  • Single-use plastics are illegal in some parts of the world.
  • Every minute of every day a truckload of plastic is dumped into the ocean.
  • 73% of beach litter worldwide is plastic.
4 Sept 2022

What is plastic used for? ›

Plastic is used across almost every sector, including to produce packaging, in building and construction, in textiles, consumer products, transportation, electrical and electronics and industrial machinery.

How much plastic is in the world? ›

Globally to date, there is about 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world – some 6.3 billion tons of that is trash. Imagine 55 million jumbo jets and that's how much plastic exists here.

How many plastics are there? ›

The seven types of plastic include: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET) High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Can we solve plastic pollution? ›

Reducing our plastic pollution is one of the greatest challenges facing planet earth. Luckily, there are solutions. Governments, Organizations, and millions of people are stepping up. Together, we can fight the currently, 13 million tonnes of plastic that ends up in our oceans each year and eventually on our plates.

What is the first step to solve the problem of plastic waste? ›

Plastic arrives as packaging

The first step to solving any problem is to measure it. This is often challenging for plastics, due to lack of data on where they come from and end up. A major part of our analysis was repurposing trade statistics to make up for limited data.

Why we should not use plastic? ›

Plastic bags start out as fossil fuels and end up as deadly waste in landfills and the ocean. Birds often mistake shredded plastic bags for food, filling their stomachs with toxic debris. For hungry sea turtles, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between jellyfish and floating plastic shopping bags.

Why should we stop using plastic? ›

The benefits of reducing plastic consumption include: Preventing pollution by lessening the amount of new raw materials used. Saves energy. Reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute towards climate change.

How can we prevent pollution? ›

On Days when High Particle Levels are Expected, Take these Extra Steps to Reduce Pollution:
  1. Reduce the number of trips you take in your car.
  2. Reduce or eliminate fireplace and wood stove use.
  3. Avoid burning leaves, trash, and other materials.
  4. Avoid using gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.
28 Mar 2022

How plastic waste is managed? ›

In these waste management strategies, several are scientifically based, such as recycling, incineration, bioremediation, and landfills. These methods are established to have a clean environment and good plastic waste disposal [46,47].

How can we reduce plastic waste at home? ›

9 ways to reduce plastic waste at home
  1. Say NO to cellophane-wrapped products. ...
  2. Store your leftovers with silicone covers. ...
  3. Reuse your glass jars after removing the labels. ...
  4. Avoid tea bags and use a tea strainer. ...
  5. Change your plastic sponge for a natural sponge or luffa. ...
  6. Extend the life of your plastic.
5 Jun 2020

Why do we use plastic? ›

Plastic packaging helps protect and preserve goods, while reducing weight in transportation, which saves fuel and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. From computers and cell phones to televisions and microwaves, durable, lightweight and affordable plastics have helped revolutionize the electronics we rely on every day.

How much plastic do people use? ›

We produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items. That's nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Reducing plastic use is the most effective means of avoiding this waste (and the impacts linked to plastic production and use).

What is plastic made of? ›

Plastics are made from natural materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil through a polymerisation or polycondensation process. Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.

What are the main effects of plastic pollution? ›

Physical impact on marine life: entanglement, ingestion, starvation. Chemical impact: the buildup of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs and DDT. Transport of invasive species and pollutants from polluted rivers to remote areas in the ocean. Economic impact: damage to fisheries, shipping, and tourism.

How we can protect our oceans? ›

To minimize your impact, remove unnecessary single-use plastics from your daily habits. Even eliminating straws could go a long way towards reducing ocean debris. If every American sipped out of just five fewer straws per year, we could keep more than 1.5 billion straws out of landfills—and our ocean.

How can we as students help in reducing plastic pollution? ›

Do not litter the environment by throwing plastic items. Do not use Thermocol (resin code #6 PS) for your school projects. Do not use one-time use or throwaway plastics like plastics bags, tea cups, Thermocol plates and cups, and plastic straws.

Videos

1. Marine Litter Learning Kit – Activity 9: Role-play on Plastics
(UN-Habitat Philippines)
2. The Problem with Plastics | Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez | TED
(TED)
3. Marine Litter Learning Kit – Activity 10: Writing Letters to Leaders
(UN-Habitat Philippines)
4. The Problem with Plastics
(Shedd Aquarium)
5. The world has a plastic waste problem. These scientists have been out to solve it since high school
(CBC Docs)
6. Focus On Plastics Recycling And Its Impact On Environment + More | Earthfile
(Channels Television)

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