Plastic pollution is destroying the Earth. What can we do about it?


April 20, 2022

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to our planet. In the few decades since single-use plastic exploded in the 1970s, it literally swallowed up the earth.

A million plastic bottles are currently being purchased every second. With up to 90 percent of plastic never recycled, large quantities flow into our natural environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is perhaps the most visceral symbol of our plastic problem – a giant mass of non-biodegradable plastic currently floating somewhere between Hawaii and California.

When thrown away, plastic debris can harm animals and break down into microplastics, enter marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and even leach into our food. Scientists have now discovered microplastics in Seafood across Australia and even in humans some blood. Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity.

In light of this crisis, countries are adopting policies to increase plastic recycling. Norway, for example, achieved a plastic recycling rate of 97% by imposing liability on bottling companies and taxing them if the recycling rate falls below 95%. In the UKa charge on plastic bags has drastically reduced their use and led to less plastic in coastal waters.

However, to curb plastic pollution, recycling alone is not enough. In order to restore the natural world and build a sustainable future, the focus must also be on eliminating plastic production. Without intervention, plastic production will triple by 2050 and will include 13 percent of the carbon budget – emissions that the world cannot afford if we are to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target for global warming.

“There is no way to reduce the impacts of emissions from [plastics] without changing the way we make and use them,” said Jane Patton, plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law. “Countries and companies are going to have to put strict limits on the number of toxic plastics that can be produced within their borders or by their entities each year.”

Earlier this month, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) received a landmark award mandate forging a legally binding international treaty to end plastic pollution. The treaty, which has the backing of mega-corporations like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Walmart, will be signed by 2024. A global agreement puts pressure on businesses and governments to reduce the massive impact of plastic on our environment.

What can you do to contribute to the plastic epidemic? In addition to the familiar slogan Reduce, reuse, recyclewe can also add Delete, Decline, and Rejoin. For example, you can help eliminate plastic in your neighborhood and join the Great Global Cleanup movement, to refuse straws, shopping bags and other plastic items as much as possible, and rally your local authorities to implement a plastic ban.

As the world is still waking up to the grave dangers of the plastic crisis, it is essential to keep up the pressure on stakeholders to cut plastic from its source.

Picture by Volodymyr Hryshchenko.

Bryce K. Locke