Article

A father and son in Manila, Philippines, paddle through a river of plastic and other trash searching for bottles to sell to junk shops.

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

How Plastic is Trashing the Planet

Plastic was invented to make our lives better. But our dependence on it has created an environmental crisis. Can we reduce our use before it’s too late?

Beep! Beep! Beep! The alarm on your cellphone shakes you from sleep. You stumble to the shower, dress, brush your teeth, and run a comb through your hair. There’s just enough time to grab a cereal bar and a bottle of orange juice before the school bus rolls down your block. Throwing your binder, folders, and a bag of chips into your backpack, you race out the door.

You’ve been awake for barely an hour, but you’ve already used or touched plastic dozens of times. The material is a huge part of our lives; it’s in everything from electronics and food packaging to medical devices and airplanes. Most plastic is human-made, produced using oil and other fossil fuels.

What makes plastic so popular? Unlike natural materials such as wood and glass, plastic is lightweight. It’s also cheap and durable.

But the very qualities that make plastic so useful to us also make it incredibly dangerous to the environment. Plastic doesn’t just go away. Instead, it breaks down into tiny pieces over time. And those pieces will stick around for hundreds—or perhaps even thousands—of years.

For decades, people have sipped from plastic straws and toted groceries in plastic bags without a second thought. And all that plastic—much of it used only once—has added up. Worldwide, we’ve produced a staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. (Think of it this way: One of the heaviest statues in the United States, the Statue of Liberty, weighs 225 tons.)

Where does all our discarded plastic go? Only a small amount of it is ever recycled. Much of the rest ends up in the ocean, threatening the lives of the creatures that inhabit its waters.

The problem is massive—and projected to get worse. “The amount of plastic produced is growing more and more rapidly,” warns Ted Siegler, a global waste management expert. By 2050, it’s estimated that we’ll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

That’s why, around the globe, individuals, companies, and even entire countries are working to reduce their plastic usage. But will those efforts be enough?

Beep! Beep! Beep! The alarm on your cellphone shakes you from sleep. You stumble to the shower, dress, brush your teeth, and run a comb through your hair. There’s just enough time to grab a cereal bar and a bottle of orange juice before the school bus rolls down your block. Throwing your binder, folders, and a bag of chips into your backpack, you race out the door.

You’ve been awake for barely an hour, but you’ve already used or touched plastic dozens of times. The material is a huge part of our lives. It’s in everything from electronics and food packaging to medical devices and airplanes. Most plastic is human-made, produced using oil and other fossil fuels.

What makes plastic so popular? Unlike natural materials such as wood and glass, plastic is lightweight. It’s also cheap and durable.

But the very qualities that make plastic so useful to us also make it incredibly dangerous to the environment. Plastic doesn’t just go away. Instead, it breaks down into tiny pieces over time. And those pieces will stick around for hundreds of years. They might even last for thousands of years.

For decades, people have sipped from plastic straws and toted groceries in plastic bags without a second thought. Much of it gets used only once.  And all that plastic has added up. Worldwide, we’ve produced a staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. Think of it this way: One of the heaviest statues in the United States, the Statue of Liberty, weighs 225 tons.

Where does all our discarded plastic go? Only a small amount of it is ever recycled. Much of the rest ends up in the ocean, threatening the lives of the creatures that live there. 

The problem is massive and projected to get worse. “The amount of plastic produced is growing more and more rapidly,” warns Ted Siegler, a global waste management expert. By 2050, it’s estimated that we’ll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

That’s why the push to reduce plastic usage is gaining traction around the globe. Individuals, companies, and even entire countries are taking part in this movement. But will those efforts be enough?

The Rise of ‘Throwaway Living’

Synthetic, or human-made, plastic was invented in the early 1900s, but production started to soar during World War II (1939-45). Natural materials were in short supply during the war, so people turned to plastic to help construct lightweight planes, parachutes, and supplies.

Because plastic was cheap and plentiful, manufacturers continued to use it after the war. Production really ramped up when companies began to make household goods—such as plates, cups, and utensils—with the material. The items were marketed as disposable and as a way to save precious time.

A 1955 Life magazine article titled “Throwaway Living” celebrated the plastic revolution. The piece shows a smiling family tossing plastic plates and utensils into the air, noting that those items would typically take hours to wash and dry after use but now “no housewife need bother.” People could make their lives easier by simply throwing out their family’s plasticware after every meal. 

And in many ways, plastic has made our lives easier. More important, the material actually saves lives every day. Plastic is in car seat belts and airbags, in the helmets that firefighters and soldiers wear, and in the incubators that help keep premature babies alive.

Such products are designed to last for years. But about 40 percent of all plastic produced is meant to be used just once then thrown away. Items like the sandwich bags that hold your lunch, the ketchup packets at your favorite fast-food restaurant, and the packaging of just about anything you buy online are all driving up the total amount of plastic waste we produce. 

It’s the plastic we use once and toss away, experts say, that is putting the environment in crisis.

Synthetic, or human-made, plastic was invented in the early 1900s. Production of the material started to soar during World War II (1939-45). Natural materials were in short supply during the war, so people turned to plastic. It was used to help construct lightweight planes, parachutes, and supplies.

Plastic was cheap and plentiful. That’s why manufacturers continued to use it after the war. Production really ramped up when companies began to make household goods with the material. That included things like plates, cups, and utensils. These items were marketed as disposable and as a way to save precious time.

A 1955 Life magazine article titled “Throwaway Living” celebrated the plastic revolution. The piece shows a smiling family tossing plastic plates and utensils into the air. The writer notes that those items would typically take hours to wash and dry after use but now “no housewife need bother.” People could make their lives easier by simply throwing out their family’s plasticware after every meal. 

And in many ways, plastic has made our lives easier. More important, the material actually saves lives every day. Plastic is in car seat belts and airbags. It’s in the helmets that firefighters and soldiers wear. And it’s even in the incubators that help keep premature babies alive.

Such products are designed to last for years. But about 40 percent of all plastic produced is meant to be used just once then thrown away. Items like the sandwich bags that hold your lunch, the ketchup packets at your favorite fast-food restaurant, and the packaging of just about anything you buy online are all driving up the total amount of plastic waste we produce. 

It’s the plastic we use once and toss away, experts say, that is putting the environment in crisis.

By the Numbers

448 million

Tons of plastic produced globally in 2015

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

18%

Percentage of plastic recycled around the world annually

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

Asia’s Trash Problem

In your town, workers probably pick up garbage regularly and cart it off to a landfill. But imagine if the trash in your neighborhood were never collected. All that garbage would pile up.

In some countries—particularly certain island nations in Asia—that’s a fact of life. They don’t have reliable trash collection or properly maintained landfills. Instead, people leave their garbage in heaps on the ground or dump it into local waterways, where it eventually is swept out to sea. Experts estimate that 9 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year.

To make matters worse, people in these largely poor Asian nations have started using more single-serve packets of things like condiments, detergent, and shampoo. Many of them can’t afford to buy bigger sizes. All that nonrecyclable plastic packaging only adds to the problem.

In the Philippines, for example, some rivers are now so clogged with trash that people can hop across the water on piles of discarded plastic rather than cross by bridge.

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results are often tragic. Last year, rescuers found a sick pilot whale near the shore of southern Thailand. It couldn’t swim. In fact, it could hardly breathe.

In your town, workers probably pick up garbage regularly and cart it off to a landfill. But imagine if the trash in your neighborhood were never collected. All that garbage would pile up.

In some countries that’s a fact of life, especially in certain island nations in Asia. They don’t have reliable trash collection or properly maintained landfills. Instead, people leave their garbage in heaps on the ground. Or they dump their trash into local waterways, where it eventually is swept out to sea. Experts estimate that 9 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year.

To make matters worse, people in these largely poor Asian nations have started using more single-serve packets of things like condiments, detergent, and shampoo. Many of them can’t afford to buy bigger sizes. All that nonrecyclable plastic packaging only adds to the problem.

In the Philippines, for example, some rivers have become clogged with trash. There’s so much that people can hop across the water on piles of thrown-away plastic rather than cross by bridge.

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results are often tragic. Last year, rescuers found a sick pilot whale near the shore of southern Thailand. It couldn’t swim. In fact, it could hardly breathe.

By 2050, we’ll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

Later, as veterinarians tended to the animal, it vomited five plastic grocery bags. The whale died shortly after. Tests eventually revealed that it had more than 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including another 80 or so plastic bags.

That’s just one example of how plastic can be deadly to animals. Nearly 700 ocean species—from zooplankton and fish to sea turtles and dolphins—have been harmed by plastic. That damage ranges from eating it to getting stuck in it. For example, some animals get trapped in plastic six-pack drink holders. Others, including many bird species, suffocate inside plastic grocery bags.  

And, of course, many sea creatures—like the pilot whale—eat plastic. In the ocean, the material gets broken down by sunlight, waves, and heat, resulting in pieces that are often tinier than a pinkie fingernail. Those bits, called microplastics, become coated with algae over time, making them smell like food to many sea creatures. They stuff themselves with it, to the point that they don’t have room left in their stomachs for any actual food. They die from starvation as a result.

Later, as veterinarians tended to the animal, it vomited five plastic grocery bags. The whale died shortly after. Tests eventually revealed that it had more than 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach. That included another 80 or so plastic bags.

That’s just one example of how plastic can be deadly to animals. Nearly 700 ocean species have been harmed by plastic. That includes a vast amount of marine life, from zooplankton and fish to sea turtles and dolphins. The damage ranges from eating it to getting stuck in it. For example, some animals get trapped in plastic six-pack drink holders. Others, including many bird species, suffocate inside plastic grocery bags.

And, of course, many sea creatures—like the pilot whale—eat plastic. In the ocean, the material gets broken down by sunlight, waves, and heat. That creates pieces that are often tinier than a pinkie fingernail, called microplastics. These bits become coated with algae over time, making them smell like food to many sea creatures. They stuff themselves with it, to the point that they don’t have room left in their stomachs for any actual food. They die from starvation as a result.

Ocean Cleanup Foundation (Trash); dive-hive/Shutterstock.com (Sea Turtle)

Scientists studying the Pacific Ocean found all this plastic trash inside the stomach of a sea turtle, similar to the one pictured above.

Ecosystem at Risk

Eating plastic hurts animals in other ways too. The toxins in the material can seriously affect their behavior and digestion, and the ecosystem as a whole, says Matthew Savoca, a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.

“It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic, but the animals that eat those animals,” he says.

Many people are trying to help solve the world’s plastic crisis. In the U.S., for example, plastic grocery bags are now banned or taxed in some cities, including Seattle and Washington, D.C. And there is a nationwide movement to encourage people to stop using so many plastic drinking straws. Some countries are taking even bolder steps (see “How Countries Are Cutting Down on Plastic,” below).

Several global companies, including Starbucks and Hilton Hotels, recently announced plans to reduce or eliminate their use of plastic straws. And in the spring of 2018, Alaska Airlines switched from plastic stirrers to paper ones on its flights, thanks in part to one teen’s letter (see “Spreading the Word About Plastic’s Dangers,” below).

What’s more, in 2017 the U.S. and 192 other countries passed the United Nations Clean Seas agreement. The pact is a formal declaration of those countries’ intention to stop polluting the oceans with plastic waste.

Eating plastic hurts animals in other ways too. The toxins in the material can seriously affect their behavior and digestion. And this can affect the ecosystem as a whole, says Matthew Savoca, a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.

“It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic, but the animals that eat those animals,” he says.

Many people are trying to help solve the world’s plastic crisis. In the U.S., for example, plastic grocery bags are now banned or taxed in some cities, including Seattle and Washington, D.C. And there is a nationwide movement to encourage people to stop using so many plastic drinking straws. Some countries are taking even bolder steps (see “How Countries Are Cutting Down on Plastic,” below).

Several global companies recently announced plans to reduce or end their use of plastic straws. Starbucks and Hilton Hotels are part of this effort. And in the spring of 2018, Alaska Airlines switched from plastic stirrers to paper ones on its flights thanks in part to one teen’s letter (see “Spreading the Word About Plastic’s Dangers,” below).

What’s more, in 2017 the U.S. and 192 other countries passed the United Nations Clean Seas agreement. The pact is a formal declaration of those countries’ intention to stop polluting the oceans with plastic waste.

How to Make a Difference

Experts say such steps are promising—as long as the efforts ultimately include funding and the manpower to help developing countries manage their plastic trash.

“We need to develop waste-collection systems around the world that are capable of managing the waste that is being generated,” Siegler says. “That’s the key issue.”

Individuals also have an important role to play, experts say. They suggest focusing on plastic that’s meant for one-time use, either reusing those items or avoiding buying them in the first place.

“When I was a kid, Ziploc bags were a single-use item,” Savoca says. Now when he and his family use the plastic bags, they treat them like Tupperware. “We wash them and reuse them and don’t get rid of them until they’re practically destroyed. If more people do things like that, it would make a difference.”

Experts say such steps are promising. But they add that these efforts must ultimately include funding and the manpower to help developing countries manage their plastic trash.

“We need to develop waste-collection systems around the world that are capable of managing the waste that is being generated,” Siegler says. “That’s the key issue.”

Individuals also have an important role to play, experts say. They suggest focusing on plastic that’s meant for one-time use. We should either reuse those items or avoid buying them in the first place.

“When I was a kid, Ziploc bags were a single-use item,” Savoca says. Now when he and his family use the plastic bags, they treat them like Tupperware. “We wash them and reuse them and don’t get rid of them until they’re practically destroyed. If more people do things like that, it would make a difference.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium/Kremer Johnson

Spreading the Word About Plastic’s Dangers

A California teen tells why she decided to take action to protect aquatic life

By Shelby O’Neil, 17, as told to Nell Durfee

I’ve always loved the ocean. In seventh grade, I started volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. I was upset to learn that many sea animals eat plastic trash, thinking it’s food.

I decided to do something to educate people about this problem. In 2017, I founded Jr Ocean Guardians as part of my work with the Girl Scouts. We hold presentations at schools to teach kids about plastic waste.

I wanted to reach businesses too. I decided that if I learned of a company that used a lot of plastic, I’d send it an email urging it to cut back. What’s the worst that could happen if they don’t respond? I thought.

One day, I saw a commercial for a health-care company. People in the ad were using plastic straws. I googled the contact info of the company and emailed its president. I told him how plastic can harm the environment and asked him to consider using more sustainable options.

I was so excited when he wrote back to me. He said he had been thinking about reducing plastic waste. After reading my letter, he made sure that the company cut its use of plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cup lids in half. 

I kept going. Whenever I heard of businesses using plastic, I’d send an email. One of the biggest companies I wrote to was Alaska Airlines. A company representative wrote back and told me the airline was switching from plastic to paper stirrers on all of its 1,200 daily flights.

I always tell people: Everyone can make a change. Look for small things you can do, because they add up.

I’ve always loved the ocean. In seventh grade, I started volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. I was upset to learn that many sea animals eat plastic trash, thinking it’s food.

I decided to do something to educate people about this problem. In 2017, I founded Jr Ocean Guardians as part of my work with the Girl Scouts. We hold presentations at schools to teach kids about plastic waste.

I wanted to reach businesses too. I decided that if I learned of a company that used a lot of plastic, I’d send it an email urging it to cut back. What’s the worst that could happen if they don’t respond? I thought.

One day, I saw a commercial for a health-care company. People in the ad were using plastic straws. I googled the contact info of the company and emailed its president. I told him how plastic can harm the environment and asked him to consider using more sustainable options.

I was so excited when he wrote back to me. He said he had been thinking about reducing plastic waste. After reading my letter, he made sure that the company cut its use of plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cup lids in half. 

I kept going. Whenever I heard of businesses using plastic, I’d send an email. One of the biggest companies I wrote to was Alaska Airlines. A company representative wrote back and told me the airline was switching from plastic to paper stirrers on all of its 1,200 daily flights.

I always tell people: Everyone can make a change. Look for small things you can do, because they add up.

Where Most Ocean Plastic Comes From

SOURCE: Science