Plastic pollution, accumulation in the environment of synthetic plastic products to the point of creating problems for wildlife and their habitats, as well as for human populations. In 1907, the invention of Bakelite sparked a materials revolution by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into world trade. However, in the late 20th century, plastics were found to be persistent pollutants in many environmental niches, from Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea. Whether animals mistake them for food, flood low-lying areas by clogging drainage systems, or simply cause significant cosmetic deterioration, plastics have drawn increasing attention as a large-scale pollutant.
The plastics problem
Plastic is a polymeric material, that is, a material whose molecules are very large, often resembling long chains made up of a seemingly endless series of interconnected links. Natural polymers like rubber and silk exist in abundance, but nature’s “plastics” have not been implicated in environmental pollution, because they do not persist in the environment. Today, however, the average consumer comes into daily contact with all types of plastic materials that have been specifically developed to overcome natural decomposition processes, primarily petroleum-derived materials that can be molded, melted, spun or applied as a coating. Since synthetic plastics are largely non-biodegradable, they tend to persist in natural environments. Additionally, many lightweight single-use plastic products and packaging materials, which account for about 50 percent of all plastics produced, are not deposited in containers for subsequent disposal in landfills, recycling centers or incinerators. Instead, they are improperly disposed of at or near where they end their usefulness to the consumer. Fallen to the ground, thrown out of a car window, piled into an already full garbage can, or inadvertently carried away by a gust of wind, they immediately begin to pollute the environment. In fact, landscapes filled with plastic packaging have become common in many parts of the world. (Illegal dumping of plastic and the overflow of containment structures also play a role.) Studies from around the world have not shown that any particular country or demographic is the most responsible, although population centers generate the most trash. The causes and effects of plastic pollution are truly global.
According to the PlasticsEurope trade association, global plastic production grew from approximately 1.5 million tons (about 1.7 million tons) per year in 1950 to an estimated 275 million tons (303.1 million tons) in 2010 and 359 million tons (almost 396 million tons) in 2010. 2018; between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons (5.3 million and 14 million tons) are discharged into the oceans annually by countries with oceanic coasts.
Compared to materials commonly used in the first half of the 20th century, such as glass, paper, iron, and aluminum, plastics have a low recovery rate. That is, they are relatively ineffective to reuse as recycled scrap in the manufacturing process, due to significant processing difficulties, such as a low melting point, which prevents contaminants from being removed during heating and reprocessing. Most recycled plastics are subsidized below the cost of raw materials through various deposit schemes, or recycling is simply required by government regulations. Recycling rates vary drastically from country to country, with only northern European countries having rates above 50 percent. In any case, recycling doesn’t really deal with plastic pollution, as recycled plastic is disposed of “correctly”, whereas plastic pollution comes from improper disposal.