10 things you didn’t know about plastic

Warning: *data-heavy* post ahead 🙂

Plastic has been so on my mind lately. It is Plastic Free July after all, which means there are images, statistics about plastic pollution, tips and tricks to reduce plastic use in every corner of the Internet, and that’s caused me all kinds of feelings. So instead of beating myself up for still buying things in plastic, I set out to learn more about the state of our plastic use, where the real problems lie, and how we should change the way we talk about plastic so that we can gear towards finding effective solutions (e.g, shaming people who don’t carry metal straws everywhere they go isn’t one of them.)

First, let’s start with what you probably already know about plastic. 

Plastic is a fossil fuel-based material, and a relatively new one. Mass production of plastic began in the 1950s, and since then the world has manufactured an estimated 9 billion + tons of plastic, nearly half of which has been made since 2000. Here comes the kicker: only 9% of plastic ever manufactured has been recycled; 12% gets incinerated, and the rest ends up in landfills, open dumps or our ocean and waterways.

The devastating impact of plastic on marine life is perhaps most well-known: the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic enters the ocean every minute, adding up to 8 million tons each year and killing up to 1 million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals each year through ingestion and entanglement. Because plastic can take more than 500 years to degrade, the effects of our plastic use today will be felt for generations to come.

Now, let’s go deeper. (If you have to run because these stats just raised your blood pressure by a million, I understand! But do come back!)

1. Plastic waste ≠ mismanaged plastic waste

Plastics that are effectively collected, incinerated, or recycled throughout a tightly “sealed” supply chain do not kill wildlife. Plastics that are managed in a closed landfill do not end up in the ocean. More plastic use does lead to more plastic waste, but reducing production is only one strategy – capturing and managing new and existing plastics is also key. See graphics below from Our World in Data

This map depicts total plastic waste generation by country, which is related to population and industrial status (credit). See per person plastic waste generation by country here.
This map depicts % plastic waste that is mismanaged in each country (credit). An alternative map breaking down the global share of mismanaged plastic waste is here.

Plastic waste mismanagement is much more prevalent in the developing world, where there is little recycling or waste collection infrastructure, and where trash is disposed in open dumps or uncontrolled landfills. Because plastics are lightweight, they are blown by wind, and enter the ocean via waves, inland rivers, and wastewater outflows.

2. Most river-borne plastics come from Asia

It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year come from rivers, and 20 rivers are responsible for two-thirds of it. Fifteen are in Asia, in areas with heavy rainfall and dense coastal populations. While modeling data have uncertainties, the implication is clear: to make a meaningful dent in plastic pollution, we have to develop better waste management in the developing world, and focus on countries such as China, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam.

(You might have seen the headline “10 rivers responsible for 90% of the ocean’s plastic.” Please note that 90% of plastic and 90% of plastic FROM RIVERS are two completely different things, a nuance lost in most media reports. That statistic comes from a different study, where the authors used different methodologies and groupings of river systems vs. rivers. These studies differ in the particulars, but agree with each other in the big picture.)

3. One of the biggest sources of plastic pollution in the ocean is fishing gear

Plastics that are littered and blown away, escaped from dumps, and transported from rivers are all mismanaged plastic waste from “land-based” sources, which is responsible for 70% – 80% of plastic in our ocean. The rest are plastics abandoned, lost and discarded at sea: mostly fishing nets, lines, ropes and some vessels – known as “ghost gear.

For example, fishing gear make up half (!!!) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), entangling wildlife and causing abrasion to coral reef systems. In comparison, straws make up less than 1% of ocean plastic debris. What does this mean? Well, in addition to reducing plastic bags and straws, we must clean up the fishing industry, such as requiring registries for fishing items so ghost gear can be tracked back to commercial fishers.

4. Nearly all plastic drops to the ocean floor, as opposed to floating on top

This misconception is caused by nothing but the excellent reporting and stunning discovery of GPGP, but in fact nearly 95% of plastic in the ocean is estimated to end up on the sea floor, difficult to track and capture. Beach cleanup is currently one of the most cost-effective strategies, as the amount of plastic waste on beaches globally is 5 times greater than what is floating on or near the surface of the ocean.

Image credit: Eunomia, a research consulting firm.

5. All plastics are theoretically recyclable, emphasis on “theoretical”

We often talk about what plastic “can” and “cannot” be recycled, but that’s actually a bit of a misnomer. All plastic polymers are theoretically recyclable, but whether they are actually recycled depends on a myriad of factors: technology (for repurposing), infrastructure (for collecting, sorting, processing), economics of raw materials and the recycling market, as well as cost-effectiveness (i.e., no one will recycle something if it costs more to recycle than to make new, which is the case for most plastic packaging).

While municipal recycling tackles the most common and easily-recyclable items, companies like TerraCycle are leading the charge in finding solutions for hard-to-recycle plastics. (Note that this principle applies to other materials: glass can theoretically be recycled indefinitely, but they are for instance not recycled in my state currently due to a lack of markets.)

6. 40% of plastic is designed for single-use

The packaging industry gets a bad rep –  for good reasons – 40% of plastic production goes towards packaging, with a short “in-use” lifetime. A plastic bag is used on average for 12 minutes before being tossed, compared to a mean lifetime of 35 years for plastics used for building and construction.

Which brings me to my next point:

7. Paper and glass are not always better than plastic

Image credit: BBC.

Plastics are a coveted material by the packaging sector because it is flexible and versatile. It is lighter than metal and glass, which means less fuel use and transportation emissions. It is less permeable than paper – ever bought meat in butcher paper? You’ll notice how much faster it oxidizes than meat wrapped in plastic.

All materials have environmental impacts, and paper (from trees), glass (from sand) and metal (mined) are often much more resource intensive to manufacturer. And from a disposal perspective, papers that end up landfill emit much more methane and at a faster speed than plastic, which degrades much slower. Point is: durability and reusability have to be part of our conversation, because we are not doing the planet a favor if we all switched from single-use plastic bags to single-use paper bags.

8. Ocean pollution is not the only thing we should worry about (climate change hello?)

Now that we are on the topic of emissions, let’s look at the lifecycle profile of plastics. You see, the production of plastic generates far more GHG than disposal, which has significant implications for climate change. In the long term, we need to reduce the demand for plastic in general, but in the short term, replacing the type of energy used in production (from fossil-based energy to renewable energy) will make a huge impact.

Image credit: InsideClimate News.

9. Plastic revolutionized modern society

Ok I’m certain this is something you already know, but we do not talk about this enough: it is not a stretch to say that plastic fundamentally changed our modern way of life. Plastic film means food can be safely packaged and transported from far distances. The invention of PVC gave the construction industry an incredibly robust, durable, and cheap material for an increasingly urbanizing world. Not to mention plastic revolutionized medicine: from lightweight prosthetics, shatter-proof medicine bottles, to sterile surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes…

Finding alternatives that are as affordable, safe, and versatile is an enormous challenge for nearly all sectors. Calling all plastic evil is not only naive, but also unproductive and irresponsible.

10. Plastic as a material is not the problem, our widespread misuse and mismanagement is

Have I convinced you from this post??? The environmental advocacy community does a fantastic job raising awareness of ocean pollution from single-use plastics, and public policies geared towards consumers (such as tax and education) absolutely make a difference. For example, the average American uses one single-use plastic bag per day, compared to Danes who use just 4 per year.

Image credit: John Cameron via Unsplash.

Focusing on water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws is an important start to energize the average consumer, but our conversation should not and can not end there – we are in way too deep in our plastic problems for that.





5 responses to “10 things you didn’t know about plastic”

  1. Saurab Avatar

    I agree with the last point; if we improved our management of plastics and selectively manufactured recyclable plastic and ensure strong life-cycle management, there is no reason for us to not use this material.
    It is by far the most versatile substance we have created for daily use.

    P.S: Probably something you could add to this list is, when plastic was invented and became mainstream, it was widely seen as eco-friendly(!) because we used it as an alternative to trees.

    1. Yue Avatar

      Wow that is a great point – I never thought about that. Time to look for some archival coverage on plastic…I bet there is some very interesting rhetoric!

      1. Saurab Avatar

        There certainly is! Do write about it if you find something good 🙂

  2. jkaybay Avatar

    In love your posts, Yue – they are so well researched and edited down to the essentials. Don’t stop!

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