Our escalating global plastic pollution crisis — what can be done?

In the name of profit and convenience, corporations are choking our planet with plastic.

Between the 1950s and 2015, we produced a whopping 8.3 billion tons of plastic.

To put this in perspective, this is the weight of around 1.5 billion elephants.

The worst part is that it’s not like we’re even getting better at reducing our plastic consumption — we’re actually continually getting worse.

According to Roland Geyer, an associate professor at the University of California — Santa Barbara, we made the same amount of plastic between the years 2002 and 2015 as we did between 1950 and 2002.

6.3 billion tons of it has already become waste.

And out of this 6.3 billion tons, only around 9% of it has been recycled and 12% has been incinerated. This means the vast majority — around 79% — has ended up in landfills or the natural environment.

If we carry on the way we’re going, we’ll be on track to dump over 12 billion tons of plastic into landfills and the natural environment by 2050.

Our plastic crisis is more urgent than we realize

Plastic is in our oceans. It’s wrapped around our birds. Our marine animals are eating it and choking themselves to death. It’s predicted that 50% of sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, the retired English sailor who broke the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe back in 2005, has claimed that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

But it’s not just our wildlife we should be worried about. It’s harming us, too.

Researchers from Orb Media and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health took samples from tap water in seven different countries. They found that 83% of these samples contained plastic microfibres.

A similar study carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) analyzed 259 bottles of water in nine different countries from 11 different brands and found an average of 325 plastic particles per every liter of bottled water.

We’re literally drinking plastic particles.

Recycling isn’t enough

Despite what we’ve been told, simply ‘doing our part’ by recycling bottles isn’t going to be enough.

And no matter how hard we try, we’re not going to save the world simply by bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store with us.

Plastics’ largest market is the packaging industry, which means most plastics are used once, then thrown away.

The majority of plastic isn’t biodegradable. This means that even after we use it and reuse it, it still has to go somewhere.

Most of the time, it fragments into tiny particles called microplastics when it is exposed to sunlight, oxygen, or waves in the ocean. The microplastics in our ocean now outnumber the stars in our galaxy.

These microplastics then end up in our air, in our food chain, in our water supply, and ultimately, in our bodies.

We need to tackle the problem at its source

We’ve taken some small steps.

Banning plastic bags, cups, and straws is a start.

London is rolling out new fountains and bottle-refill points around the city to improve access to tap water and reduce packaging waste.

The high-end department store, Selfridges, has stopped selling its carbonated drinks in single-use plastic bottles and is instead opting for more environmentally friendly alternatives such as glass and aluminum cans.

But it’s still not enough.

What we really need is for corporations to cut down on their production of plastics.

In 2017, Greenpeace conducted a survey of the plastic footprints and policies of the top six global soft drinks brands. The results showed a worrying lack of action.

They discovered that five of the six companies surveyed — PepsiCo, Suntory, Danone, Dr. Pepper Snapple and Nestle — produced a combined total of over 2 million plastic bottles every single year.

The sixth company, Coca-Cola, refused to even disclose the size of its footprint, making the actual figure considerably higher.

None of the companies that were surveyed show any signs of commitments, targets, or timelines aiming to reduce their production of single-use plastics.

It’s no surprise why. Plastic items are so popular largely because they’re significantly cheaper than the alternatives.

But surely there’s a better option than destroying our planet in the name of profit.

Last year, Coca-Cola’s revenue surpassed $9.7 billion.

We need more accountability.

We have the power to choose

We have the power to choose what we buy, and where we buy it from.

So the next time you’re about to use a plastic item, if you can, take a moment to stop and think to yourself: is there a better way I can do this?

Tech journalist & copywriter. Contact me at aimee.pearcy@gmail.com