Climate Change: The Basics Explained – III

Climate Change: The Basics Explained 

  1. The Dangers of Plastic 

In our day-to-day lives, it is almost impossible to avoid the use of plastic completely. We only need to take one look around our rooms to spot a few plastic-based products. 

While this is true, however, the most dangerous plastic items are those that are single-use, and not re-used.

These are plastic products such as food wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, and plastic stirrers.

These are all items that are used once and discarded, left to pollute our environment. 

What is Plastic Pollution? 

Plastic pollution is the build-up of synthetic plastic products that negatively impact our natural habitats and wildlife. Plastic pollution is one of the leading causes of climate change because it is nearly impossible to break down.

In addition, most plastic ends up in landfills or in other parts of nature (oceans, forests, rivers) where it adversely impacts not only our health but the health of other animals.

Another glaring problem with our overconsumption of plastic is that waste management often ends up being unable to effectively recycle most forms of plastic that end up at recycling centers. 

This means that a very small portion of the plastic we consume actually ends up being repurposed in any way. 

Some facts and statistics about plastic use and plastic pollution

Though most large organizations realize the negative impacts of plastic, plastic consumption is booming, with single-use plastics becoming more and more prevalent.

Eight billion tonnes of plastic were produced over the 65-year period from 1950-2015, according to one study that analyzed plastic production during that time period.

Out of these 8 billion tonnes, only nine percent was recycled for reuse. Of the remaining 91 percent, the largest majority ended up in landfills – 79 percent.

The remaining 11 percent, roughly 880 million tonnes of plastic, ended up in our oceans, forests, and other habitats. 

In recent years, single-use plastics have become barely less prevalent. In 201, consumers purchased at least one million plastic water bottles every minute worldwide.

Though some countries have instituted a ban on the use of single-use plastic bags to combat plastic pollution, it is estimated that over 500 billion plastic bags are bought annually worldwide.

In addition, plastic packaging – like food wrappers – accounts for almost half the amount of plastic waste.  

What are the causes of plastic pollution? 

  1. Plastic is cheap, readily available, and its use is widespread

Plastic is an affordable and durable material. This is because plastic is so easy to produce. As a result, it can be found in products of all kinds, from packaging materials to plastic bottles, plastic straws, plastic bags, and much more. 

Plastic is considered a convenient option when compared to other products that may be able to replace it. Take paper, for example. Though its price is relatively similar to plastic, it is nowhere near as durable.

Paper tears easily can carry less weight, and is essentially useless once it is wet. Plastic does not have any of these problems. Other products such as rubber, simply cannot serve the same purpose.

Not only are they far more expensive than plastic is, they are too heavy, and not moldable enough. As a result, it is hard to use them for a wide range of products, the way plastic is used. 

  1. The world’s population and rate of urbanization rapidly growing

To put it simply, the more of us there are in the world, the greater the demand for cheap materials. In turn, there is a higher use of plastic to excess.

In addition, it has been shown that poorer countries tend to have higher rates of population growth.

These countries do not have the facilities to ban plastic bags, as they cannot provide an effective replacement for them. Thus, the use of plastic bags and other single-use plastics continues to dominate. 

Urbanization and the influx of rural-urban migration are directly related to an increase in plastic consumption.

This is because, as more people move to urban areas, and urban areas turn to more capitalistic practices (as is the case with most cities and megacities globally), the availability and cheapness of a good is the most important factor. 

There is no space in cities for people to grow their own produce. Instead, they must go to a grocery store and buy their food.

In this process, they may buy plastic bottled water, and will almost always use a plastic bag. This is one demonstration of how urbanization relates to the increase in plastic use. 

A good illustration of this is that in the first decade of the 21st century, more plastic than ever has been produced. This is because of rapid urbanization and, in turn, demand. 

  1. We have a disposable mentality when it comes to plastic 

Plastic items are typically cheap to produce, and are therefore sold for cheap prices. This also means that plastic items typically have a very short lifespan – think about carrier bags, water bottles, straws, and food containers.

Because they are so cheap to make and purchase, we do not value them enough to hang on to individual items. 

Patterns of consumption show that when certain plastic goods cost more, people are more likely to reuse them. Take for example the UK, where free plastic bags are no longer handed out in grocery stores.

Instead, shoppers must pay five pence (or more) for a plastic bag. The price that consumers end up spending on the bag incentivizes them to reuse the bag or remember to bring their own, reusable bag next time. 

  1. Plastic takes over 400 years to decompose 

The chemical bonds that are found in plastic are strong. The decomposition rate of plastic depends on the type of plastic, however, it ranges from 50 to 600 years.

To put this in practical terms, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, almost every bit of plastic ever made and sent to a landfill or dumped in the environment still exists. 

New plastic items are manufactured every day and tremendous quantities are consumed every day as well. Thus, the cycle of consumption repeats. 

  1. Marine shipping and fishing industries 

The shipping and fishing industries are large contributors to plastic pollution, especially in our oceans and marine habitats. 

Plastic waste and fishing nets are often washed to shore or end up harming marine life in the oceans. Statistics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch show that over 80 percent of the plastics found in that region are from fishing nets. 

Again, the large prevalence of fishing nets can be traced to urbanization and population growth. As the number of people has grown, so has the number of demands for fish.

Thus, the fishing industry has had to grow to keep the supply up with the demand. 

  1. Improper disposal of plastics 

Plastics are durable materials that do not decompose quickly, as established earlier. When thrown away, and not treated properly, they start to pile up. This releases toxins into our environment which are dangerous for us to consume.

Most plastics, if used correctly and carefully, can be reused several times. It can also be re-purposed for different uses.

Not recycling and upcycling plastics causes the consumption of new plastics, thereby causing widespread plastic pollution. 

Why is Plastic Pollution Detrimental? 

Plastic pollution impacts almost every part of our lives, and it is a huge, rising, global problem.

Approximately 7 billion tonnes out of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced annually ends up in landfills or being dumped elsewhere.

Plastic pollution alters our natural habitats and processes, thereby reducing our ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change and natural disasters.

It directly affects the livelihoods, food production capabilities, and social well-being of millions of individuals across the world.

The body of work presented by the United Nations Environmental Programme also goes to show that the problem of plastic pollution does not exist individually.

The environmental, social, economic, and health risks of plastics need to be assessed in relation to other environmental stressors like climate change, ecosystem degradation, and resource use.

This analysis will reveal a lot about the tangible and long-term impacts that over-use and over-production of plastic will have on us. 

  1. Harmful to wildlife

Plastic that ends up in wildlife can often end up being ingested by animals. These animals mistake plastic for food, which causes internal health problems for them, and can prove fatal.

Many animals like birds, sea turtles, and other forms of marine life get entangled among plastic products like fishing nets. This makes it difficult for them to live, hunt, or escape predators. 

This ingestion of plastic, and resulting health problems has aided in the extinction of many species of wildlife.

Reduced wildlife means reduced biodiversity, which is dangerous when it does not happen as part of a natural process. 

Marine life is disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution compared to other natural habitats. Statistics show that roughly 73 percent of beach litter is plastic, composed mostly of single-use plastics.

This is mostly plastic bottles, grocery bags, plastic straws, and other products of such nature.

Roughly eight million metric tons of plastic is dumped in our oceans every year, which eventually winds up on our shores.

This marine plastic is immensely dangerous to ocean life. Plastic pollution in the ocean has helped to quadruple the number of dead zones found in our water.

Dead zones are areas in marine environments that suffer from low oxygen, meaning that marine animals may suffocate in these areas. These suffocations will lead to their extinction, which causes an ecological imbalance.

Many marine mammals and seabirds also face large amounts of injury from ingesting or becoming tangled in plastic debris. 

Besides single-use plastics, fishing gear is also a major plastic pollutant in marine environments. Fishing gear, including fishing nets, lines, and traps make up roughly ten percent of plastic pollution.

This amounts to about 640,000 tonnes of ocean plastic waste every year. According to one study, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 46,000 tons of mega plastic, of which 80 percent is fishing gear.

  1. Harmful to the health of all life forms 

The large majority of plastic is incinerated or dumped into landfills or other environments. The process of incineration and buildup of plastic in landfills results in the leaking of toxic chemicals into the soil.

It is estimated that 154 million pounds of plastic is incinerated every year.

This releases dangerous toxins into the atmosphere, which leads to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, these processes speed up and intensify the effects of climate change.

For example, extreme temperatures, more destructive natural disasters, and irregular rainfall patterns can all be traced to increased greenhouse gas emissions and a damaged atmosphere. 

The chemicals that leak into the soil can also end up in our food and water supply. Over 99 percent of plastics come from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, also known as petrochemicals.

These plastic toxins can seep into the ground and water, making it dangerous for there to be such a large amount of plastic waste produced daily. 

In addition, microplastics, which are often consumed by ocean creatures, are magnified in humans who eat these animals.

The ingestion of such chemicals and microplastics can cause developmental, neurological, and reproductive disorders which are extremely detrimental to animal and human health. 

  1. Provide transportation for invasive species 

An invasive species or an alien species is a species that is introduced to an environment that is not its own.

This species becomes overpopulated and harms its new environment by adversely impacting habitats and bioregions and causing ecological, environmental, and/or economic damage. 

Plastic pollution can help to accelerate the transportation of invasive species because floating plastic marine debris can carry non-native bacteria and other organisms to new locations.

Here, these new, non-native species can prove harmful. This would mean that native species could be at threat of extinction and ecosystems could change vastly. 

  1. Social issues 

Only 20 countries are responsible for the majority of plastic waste. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the US are some of the biggest contributors to plastic waste every year. A single American throws away roughly 185 pounds of plastic annually.

Roughly half of this 185 pounds is single-use plastic. Though the majority of plastic is produced by these countries, the brunt of climate change is felt by Southern countries.

These countries do not have the facilities to consume as much plastic as the average American does, yet the issue of climate change impacts them first. 

A good example of this is the recent floods in Pakistan. Pakistan is not one of the largest consumers of plastic by any means.

However, climate change issues that were caused, in part, by plastic pollution, and intensified rainfall, caused huge problems in the country. 

What can we do? 

The sense of helplessness in this situation is understandable. If not plastic, what can we use as a replacement?

The key is to be more mindful of our consumption of plastic and recycle the plastic we do end up consuming instead of discarding it. 

First, when discussing the mindful consumption of plastic, it is important that we plan ahead. When going to the grocery store, we can carry our own reusable bags.

Instead of buying bottles of plastic water every day, we can carry our own, reusable ones. Similar practices can be employed for plastic straws, stirrers, and other single-use plastic items. 

Second, it is important that we ensure that the plastic we do end up discarding is reused and recycled in the correct way. This could mean repurposing it into something else.

Or, it could be sent to organizations like Waste to Wealth, which aim to convert such waste into usable, durable products.