Nearly 400 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide last year. Since they practically last forever, they added to a stock of tens of billion of tons, only a scant percentage of which having been recycled. Nearly a third of packaging is estimated to be lost every year onto land, into rivers and oceans. According to some estimates, by 2050 the mass of plastics in oceans will exceed the mass of fish. The food chain, from minnows to humans, is already contaminated. And it’s not all just about terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems: last April microplastic fibres, raised into the air by water evaporation, rained down over the Pyrenees.
Most people, while serenely consuming plastics every day, are generally aware of this disaster on the make. What they may not know, is that plastics also contribute to global warming. First of all, because they are mostly made out of fossil fuels and their production emits greenhouse gases. Secondly, they release carbon dioxide when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light. Even during their recycling process (usually heated by fossil energy sources) they contribute again to the warming of our atmosphere. Not to mention what happens – and it happens frequently – when they are incinerated.
Plastic is forecasted to quadruple again in the next 30 years, yet something appears to be slowly moving in the opposite direction. The new European Union law banning straws, cotton buds, cutlery and other single-use plastic items (approved by a 560-35 majority), will enter into force in 2021. Last April, Etihad Airways banished single-use plastics on board. In some European countries, biodegradable shopping bags (made out of vegetable carbohydrates instead of hydrocarbons) are compulsory. A dozen African nations banned shopping bags altogether. A few recycling plants are now powered by renewable energy.
In other words, we already know what to do: reduce consumption, collect much more waste, refrain (when possible) from hydrocarbons and recycle with clean energy. Who hasn’t praised plastic for being so durable, inexpensive and multi-purpose? Without thoughtful and swift actions, that blessing may turn into a curse.
This was published in the June 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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