Since its conception in 1907 by Belgian Chemist Leo Baekeland, plastic has played a significant role in shaping how modern society is structured today. According to The Conversation, over 320 million tonnes of these synthetic polymers are produced worldwide. Plastics have several different applications, yet their most common usage is in packaging – over 35% of plastic use is for the packaging industry. Their durability, versatility, and lightweight properties make them the perfect material for bottles, containers, and wrappings (we have all at least once drank water or cola from a plastic bottle). Yet, with scientists constantly ‘raising the alarm’ about the severe environmental damage of plastics, many have begun to ponder whether the usage of plastics – especially in the packaging industry – is worth its detrimental expense.
The majority of plastics are made from monomers (i.e. hydrocarbons) that are joined together through polymerisation to form polymers – a chain of monomers chemically bonded together. Many of these monomers tend to come from a natural and valuable resource called crude oil. However, this non-renewable resource, according to the METGroup, is expected to run out in approximately fifty years.
Not only is the constant production of plastics contributing to the draining of crude oil, but the extraction process of the oil also causes vast environmental harm: the construction of oil rigs leads to the destruction of habitats, and oil spills can lead to further ecological harm. Furthermore, fossil-fuel based plastics are said to contribute approximately 1.7kg to 3.5kg of CO₂ for every kilogram of plastic manufactured. With 99% of plastics made from fossil fuels, and with plastics being crucial components in every aspect of our daily lives, the amount of carbon emissions from just manufacturing plastic becomes astronomical. However, the way plastic is disposed arguably causes greater environmental deterioration.
Although there has been a recent global push for biodegradable plastics and recycling worldwide, one only need to take a stroll down Versova Beach in Mumbai to realise that the majority of plastics are not recycled, but littered and dumped carelessly. The problem with plastic is that it takes decades to break down – and when they do eventually decay, they release methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas: it can contribute to global warming by trapping the sun’s heat from radiating back into space. In addition to releasing methane, microfibres (which form when plastic decays) can end up in soil and water systems. This allows plastics to eventually find their way into the human food chain. Although the exact health consequences of eating microfibres are currently unknown, we know from observing the fatal results of birds consuming plastic that these consequences have the potential to be extremely harmful.
Over half of all seabird species are known to consume marine debris and plastic, with this figure predicted to reach 99% by as soon as 2050. Furthermore, many of these plastics end up in our oceans: according to National Geographic, over 8 million tonnes of plastic escape into the oceans every year. The bulk of these plastics are types of packaging like water bottles and disposable bags. Birds and marine life, such as turtles and fishes, end up mistaking these polymers for food and consume these plastic bags, cups, and – infamously – rubber duckies. This can lead to harmful, if not fatal, consequences such as organ puncture and starvation of the organism.
Plastic pollution is undoubtedly one of the most pressing ecological issues the world faces today. There are still over 85% of plastic packaging ending up in landfills or dumped as unregulated waste worldwide. These cigarette butts, plastic bottles, grocery bags and plastic straws have now become a dangerous hazard, integrated into all biomes and ecosystems globally.
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