It’s estimated that by 2040 more than 1.3 billion tons of plastic will flow into the world’s oceans and land without widespread intervention. But why is this happening and what can be done to prevent this?
Single-use plastic has been used exponentially in recent decades, filling up our oceans and lands with waste that can take decades or centuries to break down, adding to the plastic problem. Reducing use, disposal and manufacturing of these plastics can help curb plastic waste.
When Will Oceans Be Filled With Plastic?
A group of scientists commissioned by Pew Trusts have developed a new computer model to track the flow of global plastic pollution, stating that more than 1.3 billion tons of plastic (more than double current numbers) will flow into the oceans and land by 2040 without significant intervention.
With the rise in single-use plastic blamed and projected to increase by 40 per cent by 2030, the recent COVID-19 pandemic also caused disruption to recycling operations and moved away from reusable products due to health concerns.
The pandemic also interrupted global waste management systems and saw plastic prices significantly decrease. Experts say that even if Governments commit to reducing plastic waste, we would still see – in the next two decades – approximately 133 million tons of incinerated plastic, 77 million tons dumped on land and 29 million tons in the ocean.
Why Is Traditional Plastic An Issue?
When it comes to traditional plastic, there are many reasons it’s being recognised as toxic for the environment. Particularly when it comes to single-use plastics, which are overwhelming our land and sea. Some reasons plastic is toxic include:
- Plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose or break down in any environment, including landfill.
- When plastic decomposes, it breaks down into small pieces that may not be visible to the naked eye, however, these small pieces of plastic will never fully decompose and will potentially contaminate water, soil and air.
- Plastic can harm wildlife as they can get caught up in plastic – on land and in the ocean – or they can consume small pieces of plastic which will kill them either via choking or other health consequences or injury.
- The manufacturing process of plastic uses high amounts of electricity and water, while releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
- Plastic products have been found to be toxic to humans. This is due to the chemicals added to plastics and then absorbed by humans, such as from water or other bottles. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can also be toxic.
- There have also been studies shown that certain chemicals found in plastic can leach out of the plastic and into food and beverages. This has been linked to health problems such as reduced fertility, cancers or metabolic disorders.
Read more about how plastic has been toxic to humans here.
What Other Initiatives Have Been Used Before To Reduce Plastic?
As governments around the world became more and more aware of the negative impact plastic bags such as those you carry your shopping in were having on the environment, action was taken across the world to reduce the footprint.
The first introduction of a formal plastic bag tax was in Ireland, when the Irish Government introduced a 0.15 EUR environmental levy on plastic bags at point of sale. The goal being to encourage alternatives, reduce use of single-use plastic bags and thus reduce environmental impact.
Since then, many countries around the world have followed suit – mostly the USA, Africa and Europe. It’s been the developing countries most interested in outright banning certain types of plastic bags as they tend to have much worse pollution problems, particularly when it comes to plastic waste.
In 2021, it was estimated that around 32 countries had introduced a tax or fee to limit plastic bag use, and much of these were located in Europe. As mentioned, developing countries such as Africa have also been early adopters of this levy.
Exceptions currently include Italy, Austria and France, with Germany banning certain types of plastic bags in favor of compostable bags from this year (2022). This trend of switching out traditional plastic for compostable is also popular in other countries.
Many States across the United States have implemented or are planning to implement a plastic bag ban to reduce the amount of single-use plastics that end up in landfill and encourage consumers to consider reusable or bioplastics in their place.
China has a plastic bag ban and has had since 2008 while introducing a fee for the sturdier bags. In 2022, China decided to ban all non-compostable bags for the entire country by 2022.
Read more about the US and their bag ban here.
What Are Governments Doing to Help?
The government’s responsibility for the plastic problems depends on the actual government, as countries around the world have different plastic policies and mandates. There are several ways governments may be working on the plastic problem:
- Policies or mandates for banning single-use plastics
- Policies or restrictions on purchasing single-use plastics
- Incentives to use eco-friendly alternatives such as rebates
- Single-use plastic tax
- Regulations on pollution or incorrect disposal of plastics
- Encouraging the use of plastics through government purchasing of products (i.e. not switching to alternative cutlery, cups, etc)
- Regulations on manufacturing of plastic and limiting energy, water, greenhouse gas emissions
- Education for citizens on the dangers of plastics
- Provision of recycling options for plastics that can be recycled.
What Can We Do?
Consumers can choose plastic alternatives where they can and also consider a worm farm or home composter to take one step further. When it comes to plastic alternatives, consider reusable plastic bags such as fabric, recycled and others or compostable or biodegradable if you’re aware of how to properly dispose of these. Consider using reusable food and drink containers such as metal, glass, compostable, bamboo and others.
Read more about plastic alternatives here.