IntroductionThe problem with plastics

Yesterday’s solutions can become today’s problems. None more so than with plastics. This “miracle material” of the modern world has rapidly become one of our worst environmental nightmares.

Plastic production is set to more than double by 2030.

The plastics crisis is a wildlife crisis, a health crisis, an economic crisis, a climate crisis and an accountability crisis all melted into one.

Since plastic production took off in 1950s, it has skyrocketed to 448 million tonnes by 20151Parker, L. (2018) We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we’re drowning in it. National Geographic (ONLINE) Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/. – and half of all plastics ever made have been produced since 2005.2Plastic Soup Foundation (n.d.) What to do with plastic waste? (ONLINE) Available at: https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/files/what-to-do-with-plastic-waste/ From this just 9% of all plastic has been recycled, while 12% has been incinerated and 79% has ended up in landfills or the natural environment.

Plastic is pouring out into the natural world at a rate of 8 million tonnes a year, or one garbage truck per minute.3Jambeck, J. R., et al. (2015) Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 13 Feb 2015: Vol. 347, Issue 6223, pp. 768-771 (ONLINE) Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768 The largest end-use market segment for plastics, accounting for just over 40% of total usage is packaging – most of which is single use.4Plastic Oceans (2020) The facts (ONLINE) Available at: https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

Figure 1.1: The exponential production of plastics – Source: UN Grid-Arendal

We are on the brink of being locked into a fresh glut of plastic, and we have no hope of curtailing pollution while production intensifies.5Yale Environment 360 (2019) The Plastics Pipeline: A Surge of New Production Is on the Way (ONLINE) Available at: https://e360.yale.edu/features/the-plastics-pipeline-a-surge-of-new-production-is-on-the-way Plastic pollution is unprecedently problematic now, and we need urgent, systemic and coordinated legislative action that will bring this crisis under control.

    Also in this chapter

  • 1The problem with plastic
  • 2Blaming consumers and a crisis of accountability
  • 3A turning point for plastic pollution?
  • 4Covid-19: co-opting a crisis
  • DRead the Full Chapter