Global climate change isn’t the only human-made catastrophe threatening the Earth.
Plastic production has increased to 418 million metric tons in 2015 from 2 million metric tons in 1950, according to research by Roland Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is currently collected for recycling.
Much of the rest of it ends up in the sea, posing a critical and growing danger to the future of the oceans and the wildlife that they sustain.
In 2010 alone, between 4 million and 12 million metric tons of plastic entered the marine environment. Four-fifths of it was carried by wind or rivers into the ocean, while the rest was dumped from ships. The U.N. Environment Program estimates that each square mile of ocean today carries 46,000 pieces of plastic litter.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlighted the issue last year in a report that said the weight of plastic in the oceans would equal that of fish by 2050 if current trends continue.
Much of the plastic litter collects in five key areas known as “garbage patches,” where winds and currents collide to create gyres of trash. The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which bobs along a stretch of ocean between Hawaii and California.
Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit, recently reported that if all the garbage in that patch were heaped together — including all the plastic bottles, bags, packaging and containers — its total area would amount to twice the size of Texas.
Already, the patch contains at least six times more plastic matter than plankton biomass, the bottom of the food chain.
Eventually, plastic degrades into microplastics, tiny particles smaller than the width of a human hair. Microplastics already account for 8 percent of the debris and could increase to 50 trillion particles, according to Ocean Cleanup’s study. The plastic material kills and maims wildlife as it makes its way into the food chain.
High levels of microplastics already are found in fish for sale at supermarkets. The effects on humans who consume microplastics are unknown.
Tackling the problem will require action on multiple fronts, and leadership from companies that use plastic, experts say.
“It’s not about one innovation, one regulation, one action. We need all of them at the same time,” said Rob Opsomer, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy project. “We need to have more and bolder ambitions.”
Shunning plastic as ‘virtue signal’
Market research group Mintel says we may eventually see “social stigmatization” of plastic cups and cling film, with firms developing soluble packaging and more retailers shunning products encased in plastic.
“There is money to be made, but more importantly there’s money to be lost,” said Ben Punchard, global packaging analyst at Mintel. “It is being used as a virtue signal. It’s showing you are doing the right thing.”
Governments and other institutions have also begun to focus on the issue.
The EU has set a provisional target to recycle 65 percent of urban waste by 2035. Britain last year outlawed the use of plastic microbeads, and the government says it will consider taxes on single-use plastic as part of an effort to eliminate all “avoidable plastic waste” within 25 years. The Church of England suggested its members reduce their plastic use for Lent.
Geyer says initiatives are nice, but recycling and reuse campaigns have done little to stem the tide of plastic pollution over the past 30 years. He believes society needs to contain its rising demand for plastic as companies and governments pursue ever-increasing growth. Oceans are simply “collateral damage” in the consumer economy, he said.
“That’s how we build our lives, that’s how we consume, that’s how the economy is set up now,” he said. “On the one hand, everyone says this is terrible, we have to stop it. On the other hand, everyone gets terribly upset if the economy doesn’t grow by 3 percent. Honestly, I think we can’t have our cake and eat it, and that’s what we’re trying to do here, I think.”