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.
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.
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: