Where Does Plastic Come From?

PLANET PLASTIC

If you’re reading this, chances are your life is dependent on plastic and you are responsible for a chunk of the plastic pollution in the world today. However, not everyone asks the question, “where does plastic come from?” despite it being such an integral part of our lives. We may not notice it every time we use it, but take a moment to assess everything made of plastic around you now. It’s fair to say that a good majority of our lives are made of this controversial polymer.

There is no doubting that plastic has shaped our lives in ways that no other material has. It has allowed modern human society to explode into its current scale. Plastics provided solutions to problems that held us back and inhibited our development. They were able to revolutionize everything from medicine to automobiles to space travel to clothing and even food. Plastics have made our lives faster and more convenient than ever thought possible. This efficiency gave us the power to research and develop the components of our lives that we take for granted today.

Why We Love Plastic

Naturally, too much of any good thing can have negative consequences. Plastic is perhaps the most unfortunate example of this. In a nutshell, this ease, and convenience that plastic offers has convinced us to establish a throwaway culture. This idea that there is an “away” where things can be sent to, is gravely dangerous to our world. Most of us know of plastics in our lives in the form of disposable items. In fact, disposable plastics account for about 40 percent of the plastic produced annually. In reality, this name is far from the truth. While items like plastic bags, cutlery, and packaging are used for a few minutes, they remain in the environment for centuries. There is nothing disposable about plastics, in fact, their lifespan is one of the biggest challenges that humanity is currently facing.

Where Does Plastic Come From?

The global plastic industry was first established in 1907 with the production of Bakelite. However, the plastic industry was pushed to innovate during World War II. By the 1950s, new technologies had made Bakelite obsolete and birthed the rapid production of the global plastic industry as we know it today. The next 65 years had seen the rise of plastic production by more than 200 fold.  However, this relatively later development of the plastic industry left us with about 9.2 billion tons of plastic. Out of that a staggering 6.9 billion tons of plastic are now waste that we have to deal with. Of all this waste, only 600 million tons were ever recycled. So where do the remaining 6.3 billion tons go? Ultimately, in the ocean.

Where Does it Go and How Did it Get There?

The ocean is the final resting place of the majority of the waste plastic that gets cast aside by people. It acts as a sink, into which the river of the world drain, bringing with them the debris of the land. Oceans collect about 1.15 to 2.41 million tons per year of plastic emissions. Interestingly enough, the majority of these emissions come from Asian countries, not the countries that summon their production. Many of these countries are characterized by rapid economic development but lack the appropriate waste management to handle high volumes of emissions. 

Most plastic tends to stick around coastal waters once they reach the sea, becoming one of the most prominent ocean pollution causes. However, once they are swept away into the deep ocean, the plastics can be transported just about anywhere. It’s what happens on their way around the world that is particularly concerning. These pieces are broken down by the ocean currents, sunlight, and wind into minute particles. Typically less than a fifth of an inch in diameter, these bits of plastic are known as microparticles.

Tiny But Mighty Microplastics

Their stature and their name may seem unthreatening at first, these remnants of the plastic industry pose a particularly difficult threat. In fact, this threat is in many ways as urgent as climate change.

It isn’t necessarily the plastic itself that does the harm, but rather the fact that it is so small. It becomes almost impossible to remove from the environment and is one of the most serious ocean pollution causes.  Today, microplastics have migrated around the world, and have been found on Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench and everywhere in between. What does that say about the scale of plastic production and the impact of plastic manufacturers? What was once a new convenient material is now scattered from the highest point in our world to the lowest point.

The Victims of Microplastics

Their lifespan doesn’t just end there. Microplastics can degrade further, becoming even more microscopic and difficult to remove. Some even end up floating through the air or winding up in drinking water because of how easily they can pass through a filter. It isn’t just that they sit in the environment either. Microplastics act like little sponges, soaking up toxins and other chemicals around them. While they may remove the toxins from their near vicinity, they become microscopic reservoirs that now exist in huge numbers. These toxin build-ups find their way into the food chain, traveling up from fish to eventually us. 

When looking at ocean plastic waste as a whole, these pollutants kill millions of marine animals annually. It has been estimated that around 700 species are affected by plastic waste. And yes, this includes endangered species. Most of what we’re familiar with are what we can see, either in the news, internet or while strolling the beach. Plastic six rings, straws, bags, ties, and many others are the usual perpetrators. However, many many more are dealing with the invisible side of plastic ocean pollution. Everything ranging from the smallest plankton to the massive blue whale can and probably does consume microplastics during their lifetime.

Who is Responsible?

Have you ever looked at a polluted beach and wondered where does plastic comes from? Break Free From Plastic recent conducted an audit with the hopes of putting a spotlight on plastic manufacturers around the world. The audit was carried out by volunteers who swept up beaches, bodies of water and streets, collecting plastic waste. Their findings concluded that Coca-Cola was the largest plastic polluter in the world. 

Out of the  475,000 pieces of plastic waste collected by volunteers globally, 11,732 pieces were created by Coca-Cola alone. The multibillion-dollar company which is headquartered in Atlanta owns many other brands including Schweppes, Fanta, and Dasani brands. Granted, the sheer number of brands that Coca-Cola owns increases the likelihood of them being a top polluter. However, their vast ownership and stakes also give them the power to control and manage what their plastic manufacturers do. Despite this, plastic waste belonging to Coca-Cola brands was found in 40 of the 42 countries. The top polluters in the United States were a bit different, with Nestle, Solo Cup Company and Starbucks ranking respectively. 

Most of the unique selling points of these companies are the ease and convenience they offer. Bottled drinks, throw away cups, and dine and dash coffee, make them so attractive to consumers. However, we are now seeing that if what they’re selling sounds too good to be true it most likely is. Companies like these are constantly producing plastic products meant to be thrown away. Knowing what we know now, it is irresponsible and problematic to constantly manufacture non-recyclable waste. Such plastic manufacturers need to realize their role as ocean pollution causes. 

What Can We Do About It?

While the fight against plastic pollution looks bleak, it’s not necessarily as complicated as we may think. The scale is huge and the consequences are tremendous, but we do have a general idea of how we can fix it. In a way, plastic pollution is simpler to tackle than climate change. For starters, while we are heavily dependent on plastic it doesn’t power our lives as fossil fuels do. Combatting plastic pollution would not require us to reinvent the entire world’s way of powering itself. Additionally, there are no groups that actively deny the reality of plastic pollution that may push back on the action. That’s the advantage of having a problem that is at least partly very visibly a problem.

We do know what to do about plastic pollution. Even children know that garbage needs to be picked up from where it shouldn’t be. Adults know how to either properly dispose of it or recycle it. Why don’t we do it then? Essentially, we just lack the proper infrastructure and systems to carry it out on a wide scale.

The Fate of Planet Plastic

We as a society would need to go much further than simply recycling, as the answer is rarely that simple. For starters, countries would need to band together to work towards plastic pollution mitigation under a common framework. We all should be asking, “where does plastic come from?”

In the meantime, individuals can have great impacts on their actions as well. We need to re-evaluate our habits and what we really value when it comes to our environment. Which habits and goods are worth their environmental consequences and what can we adapt to live without? Plastic manufacturers also need to focus on extending the lifespan of their products to limit what ends up in landfills. Better built electronics, higher-quality clothing, and sustainably sourced materials are all goods we can personally seek out. Every purchase we make as individuals is a vote for what we demand manufacturers produce. Therefore, the average person can drive change, slowly yet surely.

The pollution of plastic has a huge impact on the health and environment of Earth’s wildlife. Through our fine art photography and gallery exhibitions in New York City, we promote awareness to support the animals being affected. Visit our CONSERVATION PAGE to learn more and how you can help too.

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