The large-scale production of plastic began in the 1950s. But as of 2020, an estimated 24 million to 34 million tonnes of plastic waste will enter the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans. And to put this in perspective, this much plastic is roughly the weight of 21,000 rail locomotives.
And if things continue the way they are currently, we could be spewing as much as 90 million tonnes of plastic waste into the world’s waters by 2030. Already, an estimated 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste enter the Great Lakes between the United States and Canada every year.
But why is it so crucial for us to take action right now? New research published in Science shows that even if governments around the globe agree and commit to address plastic pollution, in 2030 we will still emit between 20 million and 53 million tonnes of plastic waste into the world’s aquatic ecosystems. So making global commitments at this point is not a viable solution in the long run.
Plastics are often tossed into mixed-recycling bins to be conveniently collected. We assume that they are then remade and recycled. But that’s where we’re wrong. The reality is that we are “wishcycling.” In fact, less than 10% of plastics are recycled.
Virgin plastics are cheaper to produce than recycled products, undermining the viability of the recycling sector. The abundance of disposable plastic has led to dumping large quantities of mixed-plastic waste in developing countries. Southeast Asia happens to be the most common dumping ground.
Apart from the listed environmental hazards, there are health concerns that are caused as well. Thousands of toxic chemicals are used in plastics production and most of them are unregulated.
Bisphenol A (BPA), banned from many consumer plastics, has been replaced with other bisphenols such as BPS or BPF, even though they may be as hazardous to human health. Due to this, plastics workers complain of high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cancers.