Our Mountain of a Plastic Problem

What 10 years of plastic bottle sales looks like. Image: Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez/Reuters

You might have heard the phrases, “we’re drowning in plastic” or “all the plastic we’ve ever made is still with us” and while this may get at the urgency of the plastic pollution crisis, it’s still difficult to visualize what this means. Sure, we’ve seen images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but what to do the billions of plastic bottles we buy each year look like when piled up? This week Reuters came out with stunning visuals about what global plastic consumption actually looks like when compared to famous landmarks.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are used for beverages and other containers because they’re cheap and easy to produce and also light to transport, however, because their environmental cost isn’t reflected in their price the world has been buying and discarding staggering amounts of these plastic containers. As Reuters reported, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once.

  • The world produced about 380 million metric tons of plastic in 2015, according to research published in Science Advances journal.
  • About 55% of that plastic waste was discarded, 25% incinerated and 20% recycled, meaning the majority of the bottles visualised above would likely end up in the environment, landfill sites, or oceans around the world.
  • The amount recycled is even smaller when calculated over the past 65 years. Globally, 8.3 billion tons of plastic was produced from 1950 to 2015. Most was single-use plastic, now discarded, and only 6% of the cumulative total has been recycled, the Science Advances study shows.

Take a look at what’s happened to all the plastic we’ve ever made:

Image: Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez/Reuters

Who’s To Blame: This certainly depends on who you ask. The plastics industry will tell you that petroleum-derived plastic is far more “sustainable” than glass, paper, metal or bio-based plastic if you look at the water and energy resources that are required to make it. BUT the problem is that while companies have made billions of tons of plastic, they’ve put the responsibility of collecting, sorting and recycling that plastic onto municipal governments that are often overwhelmed. This has resulted in plastic pollution piling up in landfills and polluting land and our oceans as no closed-loop system exists to adequately manage plastic.

Why This Matters: We need to seriously rethink how we buy and use plastics. Cutting down on unnecessary packaging is a big step but manufacturers of plastic also have to take responsibility for the end-of-life phase of the products they sell. Some have invested heavily in technology to breakdown plastics as well as create truly closed-loop systems for use and disposal of plastics. However other entrepreneurs like Kate Reimann who founded Hawaii-based Rogue Wave, a bio-based plastic beach toy company, have turned to making compostable plastic that doesn’t break down into harmful microplastics. We’re giving a s/o to Rogue Wave because they’re a cool, innovative, company founded by a woman who was looking to make the world a better place. Check out their products and their Kickstarter!

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