Will the world really break up with plastic?

Environment | Oceans

By Abigail Costigan, Freelance Writer

Published April 11th, 2022

Plastic has become the defining feature of the current age, where human activity dominates the environment and climate, known as the Anthropocene. Plastic has been found in extremely remote places, from the deepest trenches of the ocean to the top of Mt. Everest. It is intimately part of our lives and has even been found in human blood.

It is a humid summer day and the students are starting to lose interest in my screen, which is connected to a microscope zoomed in on three drops of seawater. I am teaching a lesson on plankton, the generalist term for every living thing in the ocean that cannot swim against a current. Little chains of phytoplankton, which get their energy from the sun, show up in green.

Beach awash with plastic in Bali. | Killerturnip / Flickr

Their predators whiz by. Copepods, a type of large zooplankton, swim around. There is a larval squid, looking freakishly cute. One of the students asks, ‘what is that blue thing?’ It is a long, bright blue string, and I cannot find it in any of the identification books. I ask the Director of Marine Education, and a shadow falls over his eyes. ‘Aha! That is a tiny piece of plastic’. Then, a copepod ate it.

From 1950 to 2017, plastic production increased by 346 million tons. During that time, Americans were freed from the ethic of frugality they had fostered throughout the 1930s and increased in the 1940s as part of the war effort, and instead sold on disposability. A line from Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale rings true of our current propensity for waste—‘how did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?’ Plastic became the means through which our insatiability could express itself, as it created cheap products that could be easily replaced, and therefore discarded.

Of all the plastic we create, 14 million tons end up in the ocean every year through stormwater overflow, poor waste management, illegal dumping, lost fishing gear, and other human activities. Let us not forget that plastic lasts forever. Instead of breaking down over time, it breaks up into tiny pieces called microplastics, similar to what I saw under the microscope. Just like any bad breakup, it causes long term damage. 

‘Plastic became the means through which our insatiability could express itself, as it created cheap products that could be easily replaced, and therefore discarded.’

Marine plastic has many sources, including discarded fishing gear, consumer goods, and even wastewater. It harms fish, turtles, marine mammals, and birds through ingestion and entanglement. There is an estimated 1% to 5% reduction in marine ecosystem services due to marine plastic pollution, which equates to an annual loss of $500 to $2500 billion worldwide. Plastic pollution is a global issue that requires global solutions. 

The United Nations Environmental Assembly voted to create a legally binding global treaty to address plastic pollution by 2024, which was endorsed by representatives from 175 nations in Nairobi in March of 2022. The resolution will address the entire life cycle of plastic, promote international cooperation to reduce plastic pollution, and attempt to improve resource efficiency.

The treaty will allow countries to make their own plans on how to address plastics, just like how the Paris treaty allows countries to make their own regulations to cut emissions. As such, some countries may not make stringent enough regulations on plastics.

This artwork was created to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean. The blue whale made of plastic is lifesize, showing the enormity of the problem. | Fabrice Florin / Flickr

The United States is a leader in plastic waste production. In 2016, the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country. Much of the waste was exported to other countries. Since 2016, China began restricting waste imports, banning household plastic waste and other waste products, causing the amount of plastic shipped from the United States to China and Hong Kong to fall by 94%.

The Basel Convention, which regulates transboundary waste, was amended in 2019 to include regulations on plastic waste. In the same year, two pieces of federal legislation—the Recycle Act and the Recover Act—were passed to address domestic plastic waste. In 2020, the Break Free from Plastic Act was passed, which extended producer responsibility for plastic packaging. Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed plastic generation and treatment practices in ways that are still unknown.

Acknowledgment of plastic pollution’s harmful effects is not new. When Suffolk County, N.Y. banned certain types of plastic in 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry, now called the Plastics Industry Association, sued. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled to overturn the law, favoring the plastic industry.

An investigation led by National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) frontlines uncovered internal documents revealing that the plastics industry knew their product had to become more appealing to consumers. So, they sold the public an idea they knew could never effectively keep plastic from becoming litter or out of landfills: recycling. 

A greater adjutant foraging a plastic bag. | Shawn Dsouza / Flickr

It is much more expensive to collect, sort, and melt down used plastic than to make new plastic from oil and natural gas. If plastic waste does get recycled, its quality degrades, so it can only go through recycling once or twice, resulting in only 8% of plastic being recycled.

Often, the burden is put on the consumer to buy less plastic, but that burden should lie with the producer to make less plastic. Policy can be an effective tool to regulate plastic production. This could begin in the form of government bans, like Kenya’s ban on single-use plastic bags and the European Union’s ban on items like plastic cutlery and straws, but needs to grow to incorporate more items.

Of course, not all plastic can be eliminated, like plastic used in medicine or technology. However, limiting or banning single use packaging and products could be a meaningful step to a less polluted ocean.

To reduce plastic pollution, we must produce less plastic. This is especially true for types of plastic that are not easily recyclable, are unnecessary, or escape easily into the environment. Manufacturers must design new ways to package materials that first greatly reduces their use of plastic, and eventually removes plastic altogether. Further, plastic manufacturers must take responsibility for the end of their product’s useful life and pay for the cost of disposal.

Remnants of a trawl net found on a beach in Norway. | Bo Eide / Flickr

With the new treaty, the United Nations took a big step in addressing the world’s plastic problem. To continue to make progress, nations must make plastic producers responsible for the whole life cycle of the plastic they profit from. Public support for holding these companies responsible is crucial in the fight to alleviate the pressures plastic puts on the planet.

Featured Image: Fabrice Florin | Flickr

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