The World Is Stuck With Decades of New Plastic It Can't Recycle

Ants are useful creatures. As the most numerous insects on Earth, they have colonized nearly every habitat on land. So when a researcher wants to understand how far a contaminant has spread, they turn to ants.

In 2012, a group of French researchers found phthalates in the body of every ant they sampled. Ants from France, Hungary, Spain, Morocco, the Greek island Egine, and Burkina Faso all had at least some of the common plastic additive embedded in their skin. But there were not. Five years later, the team published their follow-up. They had sampled ants from the most remote forests of Guyana, and the areas in the Amazon rain forest farthest from any urban center. Again, phthalates were embedded in their skin. As a planet and a species, we are awash in plastic.

Plastic has also brought us durable, long-lasting products, including medical devices, car bumpers, and keyboards. But of all plastic produced, 40% is made to be used once, much of it in the form of packaging that serves a function for six months or less and then is thrown away.

Except that with plastic, there is no “away.” Ongoing research has shown that plastic, which lasts virtually forever in the environment, also breaks down into tiny pieces that are steadily infiltrating our food, water, and the very air we breathe—to unknown health effects. Its production also creates considerable greenhouse gas emissions, making plastic a major climate change issue.

At the same time the world is waking up to these facts, the petrochemical industry is pivoting more of its resources towards making plastic, as a way to use an overabundance of cheap natural gas. In the next five years  the rate of plastic production is expected to increase by another third. By 2050, it will have tripled.

Recycling is not the solution. Only 9% of all plastic produced gets recycled. Plastic waste exported from the country where it was discarded counts as “recycled,” regardless of its actual fate. And virgin plastic is so cheap that there is no financial incentive for companies to use recycled plastic in their products. In short, plastic recycling is a myth—and always has been.

In this field guide, we will take you through the forces shaping the coming surge in virgin plastic production, how we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that recycling is a solution, and what we are learning about the health effects of a life wrapped in plastic.

The Plastic Boom Cometh

Oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell is building a new plants to support what it sees as the future of its business: making millions of tons of new, virgin plastic out of natural gas.

Thanks to the advent of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the early 2000s, unreachable deposits of shale gas have been opened to extraction. Monthly production of natural gas has doubled over the last 10 years. As fracking boom continues to produce more and more natural gas, the glut of supply has led prices to plummet.

Shell, along with other major oil and gas companies like Exxon, see plastic as one avenue for growth as those gas price drop. For now, if Shell can't make money selling its plentiful natural gas, it can certainly make plastic with it. As a whole, the oil and gas industry aims to increase plastic production by at least 33% by 2025.

In short, the planet is on the verge of a renewed plastic boom. The market is already flooded with cheap virgin plastic: More than half of all plastic ever created was produced in the last 15 years, and as of 2019, about 335 million tons of new, virgin plastic is created each year. That flood is about to be a tsunami.

A Lifetime of Emissions

At every stage in its life, plastic contributes to climate change. Drilling for the fossil fuels that plastic is made out of is a greenhouse gas-releasing process. Fracking for natural gas, a main source of plastic-making fuel, releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and heats the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide.

Refining those fossil fuels into plastic—be it natural gas, oil, or coal—ranks among the most energy-intensive and carbon-polluting industrial processes. But the contribution to climate change doesn’t end after manufacturing. As plastics pile up, the practice of burning that waste is a growing source of greenhouse gases. Plastic also continues to emit greenhouse gases over its entire lifetime.

The Great Recycling Delusion

In theory, recycling plastic could prevent at least some of these emissions, by preventing the demand for new plastic. But unfortunately, recycling is broken. Right now, 9% roughly is global average. That means 91% of all plastic made doesn’t get recycled.

What consumers typically don’t know is that the vast majority of the plastic they encounter every day can’t actually be recycled—at least, not in the repetitive sense we’ve grown to expect. Unlike aluminum and glass, which can be melted down and remolded virtually endlessly into equally-useful objects, the vast majority of recyclable plastic can only be recycled once before losing so much of its integrity as to be rendered useless—and in some cases,  potentially toxic.

Countries relying on China to take their waste scrambled. Foreign plastic waste began piling up in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, where much of the material was so low quality as to be worthless, and was often burned in open pits or left in vast open dumps. Plastic from the dumps, particularly lightweight plastic, can migrate by wind and rain into the ocean, or into rivers that inevitably empty there. There they will break down into smaller and smaller pieces, contributing to the ocean plastic problem.

Big Plastic vs. The People

As it stands, the companies that make plastic are not responsible for the end of life of their product. Neither are the companies that use the plastic to make or package their own products. Instead, the cost of collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic is borne by taxpayers.

Since opposition to plastic pollution began during the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1960s, the plastic and packaging industries have been fighting to make their products without absorbing the cost of cleaning it up. Since they don’t currently bear those costs, companies continue to design packaging—multi-layered chip bags, multi-part plastic juice boxes—that can’t be recycled at all. Meanwhile, they’ve poured resources into messaging campaigns that blame pollution on bad consumer habits.

The Sea Within Us

While much has been said about the plastic filling up the global oceans, less is known about the plastic that suffuses us. Plastic is one of the biggest sources of contamination in the human diet. Researchers found that a person drinking the recommended amount of water per day is ingesting 5,100 pieces of plastic from their tap water per year.

Bottled water is not better—and in some cases, it was even worse. Of the bottled water sampled, 98% carried micro plastics, defined as pieces of plastic smaller than 5 micrometers in diameter (the width of a human hair is typically between 17 and 180 micrometers). The bottling process likely contributes significant amounts of plastic to the water itself. And bottled water is often just tap water wrapped in plastic. “If there’s one thing you can do to reduce your plastic ingestion? Don’t use bottled water.”

We are living in the age of plastic. There is no untouched centimeter on Earth. And this is just the beginning.

As tragic as its sound, we can revert the process. Its up to each of us to be well informed in order to reduce plastic consumption and to question government bodies  and organizations.

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1 comment
  • Absolutely horrifying. Although LOL, “If there’s one thing you can do to reduce your plastic ingestion? Don’t use bottled water.”
    Sweet Jesus.

    bob keene on

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