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?