The Plastic Plight: 10 Facts About The Environment’s Biggest Nemesis

By Imogen Campbell-Gray

Everywhere you look, you will find plastics. In the clothes you wear, the cars you drive, the screens you watch, the tea bags you brew and, scarily, sometimes even in the gum you chew! As the New York Times states, ‘there’s officially plastic everywhere and in everything’. Yet despite this prevalence, how much do you actually know about the stuff? Here are some facts to get you started:

  • The word plastic comes from the Greek word plastikos, which translates to ‘capable of being shaped and folded’. This versatility and flexibility saw it prized above everything following the Second World War and again during the 1960s and 1970s, when manufacturers and consumers called for a more convenient, sanitary and cheaper alternative to traditional materials.
  • Plastic has revolutionised the way we consume products. It has transformed the medical industry facilitating access to safe health and hygiene around the world and has afforded many living below national poverty lines access to personal consumables in small quantities such as soap and toothpaste.
  • Historically, plastic production has increased almost continuously since the 1950s and today, it is estimated that 380 million tons of it are produced each year. What is perhaps scarier are the reports that indicate that up to 50% of that is for single-use purposes only and as this number continues to grow, more and more of it ends up in the ocean. 

  • An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean per year, according to the advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, with a huge percentage of these in the form of microplastics. These minuscule pieces cast an environmentally damaging blow a thousand times greater than their size, and are almost impossible to clean up because they’re so tiny. However, certain enterprising projects are giving it a go, such as Alfa Laval’s pilot membrane filtration system which is taking considerable steps to remove this invisible menace from wastewater.
  • It’s been estimated that plastic bottles take up to 450 years to break down with the degradation process dependent on factors such as UV radiation, wind or, in the case of marine plastics, the turbidity of ocean currents, to break the bonds between molecular chains. According to National Geographic, the far smaller microplastics are then destined to wreak havoc in the oceans for hundreds or thousands of years to come, before they will truly decompose. As pieces of plastics break down, their weight lessens meaning that they also remain suspended in the water column which is where most animal activity occurs.

  • That’s probably one of the many reasons why marine animals seem to be consuming plastic at an alarming rate, but what else could be a driver? Some scientists believe that this is due to the shapes and sizes of plastic debris mirroring that of prey, whilst a new study by National Geographic puts it down to the fact that the debris smells like food! The report explores the strong odour that is released from decomposing algae – the key food source for sea critters such as krill – and which binds itself to plastic in the ocean. Larger marine animals, associating the smell of algae with their preferred food source, are drawn to the potent plastics and consume them in error.  The consumption can even alter animals’ DNA, says a study from the University of Plymouth, which reported that marine mussels exposed to plastic-tainted dryer lint had broken DNA and deformed gills.
  • Bits of plastic in the ocean are essentially a completely new environment where mini biospheres can develop. Plastics can provide a stable platform for organisms and bacteria to grow on and disrupt the fragile ecosystem of the ocean, or alternatively provide ‘olfactory traps’ for unsuspecting creatures such as those mentioned above.

  • Storms or bad weather can redistribute plastic not only throughout the world but also within the water column. Plastics are rarely sampled from the water column as until relatively recently, they were thought to either float at the surface or sink to the bottom. However, it has since been demonstrated that plastic can be neutrally buoyant and float at a certain depth, which makes continuous sampling all the more important in order to see if ocean pollution patterns emerge and determine actually how much plastic is out there.
  • The fossil fuel and plastic industry are deeply connected, with synthetic plastics derived from crude oil, natural gas or coal. However, as environmental concerns rise, so too do those to find a more planet-friendly plastic alternative, with companies exploring renewable resources such as waste biomass or animal-waste product.

  • Step by step, countries are banning single use plastics such as plastic bags, cups, plates, cutlery, coffee pods and expanded polystyrene takeout boxes, by integrating it into national law and introducing hefty fines. In May last year, the glamorous Italian island of Capri introduced a single-use plastic ban, banning shopkeepers from selling single-use plastic and fining tourists up to EUR 500. At an international level waste plastics are moved somewhat as a commodity with wealthier countries shipping their wastes to habitually less economically developed countries or those with less stringent waste management laws. But recently China has banned plastic imports, Malaysia has revoked permits, Vietnam no longer issues new permits to import and India is expanding its ban on solid plastic waste imports. Is the implementation of local regulations and further commitment to higher level international agreements such as the Basel Convention the solution to the planet’s plastic problem? Or is there more producers can do to eliminate single-use whilst still providing their products to the market?

Imogen Campbell-Gray

Imogen Campbell-Gray is an environmental manager with a wealth of experience in toxicology and site remediation of hazardous chemicals and pollutants around the world. She is currently specialising in the behaviour of contaminants in soil, air and water – the latter leading her to become a member of the all-female scientific sailing mission eXXpedition