Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

The true impact of plastic

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
The true impact of plastic
19 Jun
2019
Parkesine, celluloid and Bakelite – the first three kinds of plastics ever discovered – reshaped the world for the better. Their modern descendants are clogging it for the worse says Marco Magrini

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

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

Xavi Bou's artistic visions of flight beguile the eye

Energy

Hydropower is considered essential if the world is to reach…

Wildlife

An overlap between populations of grizzly bears and Indigenous groups…

Oceans

Climate change is having a huge impact on the oceans,…

Climate

The first COP26 draft agreement has been released

Climate

Marco Magrini explores the complex issue of carbon markets –…

Climate

The youth found marching outside the COP26 conference in Glasgow…

Climate

Energy day at COP26 was all about coal. Marco Magrini…

Climate

The world is reliant on the climate models that forecast…

Climate

Geographical editor, Katie Burton, spends the day at COP26: finance…

Climate

Lawyers are using the power of the courts to challenge…

Climate

Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society…

Climate

Will China's climate pledges be enough to achieve Xi Jinping's…