Although mass production of plastics began about 70 years ago, humans tapped into naturally derived plastics long before that. About 3,500 years ago, the Olmec culture was thriving on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Famous for their carved colossal heads, the Olmecs also shaped primitive plastics made with a natural polymer extracted from the sap of gum trees. Today, human-made plastics are derived from fossil fuels and the production rate is expected to double in twenty years and triple by 2050. This reliance on fossil fuel derived plastics (especially single-use plastic) has been a key contributor to climate change.
Plastic releases a smorgasbord of toxic chemicals as it decomposes, resulting in dire consequences for animals, plants and the environment. One study estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean. Specifically, straws, grocery bags, and packaged products make up 40% of plastic waste that is rarely recycled. Rather, this waste is sent to our community landfills and even our oceans.
One of the common ways to make plastic is through “cracking.” When land is fracked to produce fossil fuels, a global-warming, air-polluting ethane gas is produced as a byproduct. Cracking facilities—also known as “crackers”—convert ethane to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene plastic. Crackers, like so much of the climate change causing infrastructure, are often constructed in or near communities with less wealth and less political influence—compounding issues of environmental and social injustice. In the next ten years, 263 new cracking plants are planned to be built in the Gulf Coast and the Mid-Atlantic regions.
A recent study conducted at the University of Hawaii reported that as plastics decay, they emit methane and ethylene, two powerful greenhouse gases. Sunlight triggers these emissions, which contaminate both our air and our water. The researchers tested plastics found in construction materials, textiles, food storage and other kinds of products.
“Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.” (The authors of the University of Hawaii study)
The chemical industry counts on ethylene, and its production in 2016 exceeded 150 million tons—more than any other organic compound. A chunk of it is used to produce polyethylene-based shopping bags (the plastic bags of the iconic “paper or plastic?” question). Polyethylene waste is not passive as it releases dangerous additives and other degradation products into the environment throughout its lifetime of decay.
Are we stuck with single-us plastic or are there solutions?
“Given the expected growth in plastic production worldwide, it is important for plastics manufacturers, as well as governments wrestling to curb climate change, to understand the extent of methane and ethylene emissions from plastic and their impact on ecosystems,” says Niklas Hagelberg, a climate change expert at the United Nations Environment Programme.
In 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme launched the #BeatPlasticPollution campaign partnering with governments, organizations and community activists aiming for a plastic-free environment. And this year, National Geographic asked the world to take the Planet or Plastic? pledge. Changing our single-use plastic habits is a key part of these campaigns and other initiatives.
Communities and countries are reducing waste by banning, taxing, or otherwise limiting the use of single-use plastic bags.
Thirty-two (and counting) countries have plastic bag bans and almost half of them are located on the African continent, where clogged drains ignite mosquito swarms—leading to the spread of malaria. In China, a ban adopted in 2008 has led to a 40 billion bag reduction. India, where cows often died from the plastic ingestion, established a ban in 2002. Eighteen other countries tax plastics instead of banning them. Ireland’s plastic bag tax reduced usage by as much as 90%. Portugal’s use has declined by 85%. Denmark put a tax in place in 2003 and has the lowest plastic usage in Europe, averaging just 4 bags per person per year.
In the United States, only two states, California and Hawaii, have banned plastic bags on a statewide level. Four states—Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Delaware—have mandatory recycling or reuse programs in place. Two hundred municipalities have banned or are taxing plastic bags. Saying no to single-use plastic can be done on the individual level. The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a good place to start for information and to take action.
Beyond banning and taxing single-use plastic, other innovative solutions to the plastic problem are now available. Organisms like waxworms and mealworms can dine on plastics and transform them into compost. A newly discovered microbe reduces the time it takes for plastic to degrade from hundreds of years to just a few days.
In addition, manufacturers are working hard to make plant-based packaging and products that will replace conventional plastics. These innovative companies are utilizing all natural products that degrade faster and cleaner in our environments. Even better, they are pushing the envelope further by developing edible single-use products—meaning you can eat your spoon or your cup when you are finished. So, next time when you say “all done” you won’t just mean the food, you will also mean the plastic pollution. Small changes can add up. Choosing to eliminate or greatly reduce your dependency on conventional plastic products is an everyday action that you can take to ensure a pollution-free future.