Plastic isn't always the bad guy. We know that plastic has supplied our modern culture with many conveniences, and there are some real practical uses for plastic. It is durable, strong, lightweight and cheap. It saves lives in the form of medical equipment and personal protective devices. But where did it all go wrong?
“If you look back to the 1950s when we didn't have as effective food storage like we do now, you can see why it was so popular,” says Leah Bendell , a marine ecotoxicologist from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.
The dirty truth about plastic is that it comes from petrochemicals and furthers our reliance on the oil and gas industry. It takes centuries to break down, leaving a legacy of useless and sometimes toxic byproducts in our environment. Plastic became such a lucrative industry that its detrimental environmental impact was rarely discussed.
In the 1980's the solution to plastic waste became recycling. Unfortunately, although many consumers and businesses have worked hard to shift their behaviours and save plastic from the landfill, the recycling systems we have today are not the answer. The system that we were taught would save us, just isn’t working from an economic and environmental standpoint. Only 9% of the plastic we use gets recycled. The rest ends up in the landfill and often ends up in our oceans. 95% of plastic packaging material, or $80-$120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. The complexity of plastic sorting and inability to remake plastic into new viable materials is limited, leaving the rest of it floating in our oceans and sitting in our earth.
The use of plastic has increased 20x over the past 50 years, and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Plastic packaging makes up 26% of the total plastics produced and is the largest contributor to plastic waste.
Our plastic waste is causing all sorts of environmental problems. Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans - this is equivalent to dumping one entire garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. The rate in which we generate plastic waste is expected to double by 2030. If we continue going at the rate we are going, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
So, what can we do about it today? We can start making commitments to reducing our consumption of single-use plastics. Reusing one container, purchasing more local and less stuff, can make a significant difference. If we all took this little step forward, we know that we can turn around this trend and preserve the planet we love and need.