Plastic in its completely synthetic form has been around since the start of the 20th century with the invention of Bakelite. Its number of uses and the types of plastic created grew slowly before exploding into the mainstream during World War Two. In the 1950s and 60s, plastics entered the home and many saw an entirely plastic home as the future. In 1957, Disneyland introduced the Monsanta House of the Future that was entirely made of plastic. Even though there were a number of growing concerns with the discovery of plastic in oceans, this was considered a utopia where humans could create an unrestricted future for themselves.
The Monsanta House of the Future never quite came to fruition, but our homes and our lives are almost completely dependent on the existence of plastic. If you’re reading this article, I’m almost certain that you’re reading it on a device made of plastic or one that at least contains plastic components. You could be wearing clothes made with plastic synthetic fibres or sat on furniture that is plastic. We are aware of a lot of our plastic consumption but so much of it is almost unconscious consumption that we need to be more aware of.
This isn’t designed to make you feel guilty about how we consume plastic, but we need to be aware of just how ingrained plastic is within society and our lifestyles before we can make the changes needed to reduce our plastic consumption and the long list of issues that come with it -starting with a broader look at the growth of plastic over recent decades and into the future.
Our Plastic Consumption
Research into just how much plastic has been consumed since it was first created estimates that 8.3 billion metric tonnes of virgin plastic has been produced (as of 2017). Around 6.3 billion metric tonnes of that have become waste – 9% being recycled, 12% incinerated and the remaining 79% in landfills or the environment, still centuries from breaking down.
With that consumption of oil, there are emissions involved in the production of plastic. greenhouse gases released during the drilling of oil and the energy consumed in the production process mean that the plastics production is currently responsible for around 5% of global CO2 emissions – more than the aviation industry. That share is expected to grow to approximately 17% in the coming decades as other high greenhouse gas contributors reduce their emissions faster than the plastic industry.
What’s most worrying is that the global consumption of plastics and the waste generated is set to increase. There are a number of countries and industries that are looking towards a transition to a circular economy that will see our consumption of virgin plastic dramatically reduce, but developing countries and those that are still less developed will increase their consumption as they develop due to its low cost and still being widely-available.
Tiny pieces of plastic measuring no more than around 5mm called ‘nurdles‘ are the raw material for almost every plastic product currently produced. They’re produced in petrochemical plants all over the world and then transported to plastic factories where they’re then melted down and moulded into a product.
As the base of so many plastic products, billions, or more likely trillions, of these nurdles are produced each year to satisfy the global demand for plastic. The problem of a raw material being tiny pellets that don’t biodegrade and can easily be lost is that their ability to end up in the natural environment absorbing toxins and then consumed by wildlife mistaking them for food.
For all the plastic pollution that comes from our plastic consumption, there is a huge amount that is lost before it even becomes available for us to consume. A study back in 2016 estimates that 53 billion of these nurdles are lost JUST in the UK every year – the equivalent of 35 tanker-loads. This is often happens with little accountability for those that are producing nurdles and the industries using them to manufacture products.
Controlling Our Consumption
The invention of plastic has allowed countries all over this planet to develop at a much faster rate than it would have without; it has shaped global economies and ushered in a lifestyle of convenience for us all. It’s not our individual fault that plastic is everywhere though. The wide-ranging uses of the synthetic material have allowed it to integrate itself within society to a point where we depend so highly on it for growth. The problem is that we now know the impact we’re having on the environment and our health by continuing to produce and consume plastics.
The global trend of growth in plastic production and the amount of waste we produce, with only a limited increase in recycling is worrying. That means more oil, more emissions and the greater potential for more widespread plastic pollution. We can all play a role, and I truly believe that we should given the impact we can have on changing markets, but the level of change that is required is system-wide at all levels. In the same way that the climate emergency will take multilateral action to tackle, so will the problem of plastic pollution.