Plastic is insidious. Every day, almost every person on the planet will come into contact with plastic, it is everywhere and has infiltrated all aspects of our lives. This cheap lightweight material, while convenient, has become seemingly impossible to avoid. Here’s some of the reasons why:
We make so much of it –
- The world produces about 100 million tonnes of plastic annually (WWF-Australia), this has doubled over the last 50 years - Global Citizen Life.
- In Australia alone, roughly 3.5 million tonnes of plastic was consumed in 2018-2019, equivalent to about 100 kg per person. (Australian Government’s National Plastics Plan).
We use so much of it –
- A whopping 2 million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide, for an average of just 12 minutes (Global Citizen Life).
- Before the plastic bag ban on 1 July 2018, Queensland used an estimated 1 billion plastic bags each year (Queensland Government 2021).
- A report by The Guardian found one million plastic bottles are bought worldwide every minute, with this number set to increase by another 20% by 2021.
- Over one billion plastic water bottles are purchased in Australia each year (War on Waste 2018).
- Australians throw out 2.7 million disposable coffee cups every single day (Sustainability Victoria 2021).
- Roughly 10 million straws are used in Australia every day, roughly 3.5 billion a year (Clean Up Australia 2020).
- An estimated seven million plastic utensils are used every day in Australia (WWF Australia & Boston Consulting Group report 2020).
This plastic is being released into the natural environment at an alarming rate, clogging landfills, threatening our oceans and marine life, and directly choking wildlife and smothering their habitats. We’ve all heard stats like:
- 32% of all plastic packaging produced ends up in our oceans. This is the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day - Global Citizen Life
- There could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
- 99% of seabirds will be eating plastic by 2050 according to the United Nations.
- 73% of beach litter worldwide is plastic according to National Geographic.
This equates to 8 million tonnes of discarded plastic entering our oceans each year, a figure which is on course to double by 2030 (WWF-Australia).
The biggest problem with plastic is it takes hundreds of years to breakdown and releases powerful greenhouse gases as it does, contributing to global warming. As the planet gets hotter, plastic breaks down into noxious gases such as methane and ethylene, further accelerating the rate of climate change in a self perpetuating cycle.
Smaller particles (microplastics) break off and are ingested by marine animals such as plankton and even some of the fish we eat, thereby entering the food chain (the average person eats 70,000 microplastics particles each year - Global Citizen Life).
- Plankton plays a critical role in taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water and sequestering it in deep ocean sinks. When microplastics threaten plankton populations, more carbon will re-enter our waters and atmosphere (WWF-Australia).
- Our oceans are our largest natural carbon sink for greenhouse gases, successfully absorbing 30-50% of atmospheric carbon produced since the start of the industrial era (WWF-Australia).
Almost all plastic is derived from petrochemicals (like ethylene and propylene) which are derived from fossil fuels such as oil and gas. The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuels, a non renewable resource, we need and the more we exacerbate climate change (WWF-Australia).
- Currently almost 4% of the world's annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process (WWF-Australia).
- A report by the Centre for International Environmental Law concluded that the impact of plastic production on the world's climate this year will equate to the output of 189 coal-fired power stations. By 2050, when plastic production is expected to have tripled, it will be responsible for up to 13% of our planet's total carbon budget - on a par with what 615 power stations emit (WWF-Australia).
What are the solutions?
The only way forward is to significantly curb plastic production, especially single use plastics, and to ramp up recycling. In the 2018-2019 financial year in Australia:
84% of plastic used was sent straight to landfill, while 15% was recycled, used for energy production, or exported (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020) – only 9% of that was recycled.
To really make an impact on the plastic crisis, governments, industry and retailers need to act now. Less plastic needs to be produced, and less plastic needs to be consumed.
The Australian Government does have a National Plastics Plan which outlines actions to reduce plastic waste, increase recycling rates, find alternatives to plastic, and reduce the environmental impact of plastics. Like most government plans it’s a bit of a slow burn and we are likely to see more impact from social enterprises such as Terracycle, industry eg The Consumer Goods Forum, and community led action eg Plastic Free July.
As many state and territory governments now roll out long awaited bans on problematic single use plastics, such as cutlery, straws, plates and stirrers, unlike many solutions to climate change, we can also make a huge impact through individual action by simply reducing our plastic consumption and waste. Watch out for our next blog post to find out more about tackling plastic waste at home, school, and the workplace – Green Dandelion.