Plastic is polluting every corner of the planet. It has found its way to the depths of our oceans, to remote forest paths, to the ice of the Arctic, and onto the island beaches where turtles nest.
We don’t know exactly how long oil-based plastic will take to degrade (or even if it ever will), but we do know that once it’s in our soil, rivers, and oceans, it is impossible to clean up.
The plastic we see washing up on shores and floating on the water’s surface is only the tip of the trashberg. Over two-thirds of the plastic in our oceans ends up on the sea floor, creating an ever-growing wasteland beneath the waves. To make matters worse, bottles, bags, and other plastic junk gradually break into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics, which further damage ecosystems even as they’re invisible to the naked eye.
Plastic waste is an equally big problem away from the high seas, filling up landfill sites, clogging rivers, and generating pollution through open burning or incineration. Some plastics also contain and leach out hazardous chemicals, posing further risks to wildlife and people.
Globally, only 9% of plastic gets recycled. Even in developed countries, the recycling rate for plastics collected by households is often far less than 50%, with very little of that converted back into packaging. Most “‘recycled”’ packaging waste is downcycled into lower value or unrecycable products, meaning that the process is only delaying the plastic’s inevitable journey to the landfill.
Bad packaging design, a lack of infrastructure, and the absence of a means to track plastic waste all limit the effectiveness of recycling, and ensure that most plastic packaging will continue to become waste for the foreseeable future.
Even worse, much of the packaging collected for “recycling” in the Global North is exported to the Global South. Before it banned the trade in 2018, China alone imported nearly 8 million tonnes of plastic waste a year. Now the top destination for this waste is Southeast Asia, where the lack of infrastructure and regulations make it difficult to manage the influx of trash from both domestic and foreign sources.
In the meantime, the companies that produce fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) are opening up new markets in the Global South, pushing more products packaged in single-use and single-portion plastics.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C. More than 90% of plastic is made from fossil fuel, and a recent report by CIEL estimates that in 2019 alone, the pollution from global plastic production and incineration will equal the emissions of 189 coal-fired power plants. The same report estimates that by 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could make up as much as 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget. If the overproduction and consumption of plastic continues uninterrupted, it could account for 20% of the total global oil consumption by midcentury.
Where do we go from here? Short-term goals could include eliminating unnecessary packaging that is difficult or impossible to recycle, and expanding the use of reusable and refillable systems for transporting and storing goods. In the long term, we’ll need to change our consumption habits. We must, for example, buy fewer of the processed products and ready meals that leave behind so much waste.
Join the global movement to reduce single-use plastic:
Whether you’re planning a cozy dinner, a breezy picnic, or even a large-scale community event, there are creative ways to avoid single-use plastics.Take Action Today
Take the reusable container challenge and join the movement that is already changing the way we eat! Let’s make reusable the new normal!Take Action Today
Take the reusable container challenge and join the movement that is already transforming the way we shop for groceries!
One of the best ways to make change is to lobby at the local level. Your elected officials represent you so let them know what you think!Take Action Today
Citizen activists are cleaning up local riverbanks, parks, and beaches and using these events to identify the companies that are polluting their hometowns.Take Action Today
The classroom is a great place to start discussing plastic pollution and how to address it. Kids can develop their science knowledge and leadership skills, all while learning how to build a better future. Educators—you can inspire youth to change the world!Tools for Educators