Plastic is an epidemic.
The amount of plastic waste that is generated each year is staggering. In Canada alone, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, Canadians use between 9 and 15 billion plastic bags each year, and those numbers do not include the vast amount of plastic water bottles and consumer packaging that also becomes waste. Globally, it is estimated that less than 1% of all plastic used actually ends up inside a recycling plant; this is due to the lack of recycling plants available to handle the influx of waste and also to the various chemical compositions of different types of plastic, which can lead to contamination within the recycling process. The separation of plastics is a difficult and labour-intensive endeavor, ultimately leaving the bulk of it to decompose in landfills or end up in the ocean.
Plastic is a relatively new term for a category of materials called polymers – long-chained molecules that originate in nature (such as cellulose – the material that makes up the cell wall of plants). Today, polymers used to create various plastics are synthesized using the abundance of carbon atoms found in petroleum and other fossil fuels. These synthetic polymers are made up of long chains of atoms, often much longer than those found in nature, which is what gives manufactured plastic it’s strong, lightweight, and flexible attributes. These properties make synthetic plastics extraordinarily useful, accounting for plastic’s essential presence in the world of consumerism.
As previously mentioned, the grievous overuse of plastics has rendered the Earth incapable of handling it.
Plastic has a disastrous effect on life. Not only does its production involve the extraction of fossil fuels, but thousands of metric tonnes of plastics are dumped into the ocean every year. This is causing a mass deoxygenation process that is heavily contributing to the destruction of coral reefs and is an ongoing threat to marine life. In some areas of the ocean, synthetic polymers are 6 times more prevalent than kelp. Specifically, in the North Pacific Gyre, currents have accumulated an indeterminate amount of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris – giving it the name the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Essentially, humans’ over-consumption of plastic is strangling the oceans.
Furthermore, evidence is slowly surfacing that plastic poses serious health risks to people. Two synthetic polymers, PVC (vinyl chloride) and BPA (bisphenol A), have recently been under fire over conclusive reports showing that these compounds disrupt endocrine function, cause insulin resistance, and can leach in foods. This outbreak led to the current trend of BPA and PVC being removed from some – but not all – canned goods and plastic products, such as water bottles. It is unknown what risks other types of polymers pose to human health, but surely, the evidence will continue to arise.
Recently, the consequences of the over-consumption of plastic have generated significant public concern. Municipalities have individually begun charging for the purchase of plastic bags in the hopes of deterring their use, but with little success. The mass production of plastics can only be stopped through a lack of public demand; as a society, it is our responsibility to rise to the challenge of eliminating unnecessary plastics (primarily bags and water bottles) from our day-to-day lives in order to reduce demand and, hopefully, reduce production.
Just consider this the next time you use a one-time plastic bag: it will outlive you, your children, and their children, and its pieces will probably wind up circulated within a junkyard that was once an ocean.