Humans Are Drowning the World in Plastic

Some 414 million pieces of plastic trash cover the white sands of Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. (Silke Stuckenbrock photo)

(CN) — Now found in humans’ bloodstreams and deep in oceans, plastic’s proliferation is growing exponentially: Yearly global production is expected to exceed 1 billion tons by 2050. But there are glimmers of change within the deluge. A movement calling on mankind to wean itself off plastic bags turns 10 on Wednesday.

Weekly news cycles are seemingly incomplete without a story about plastic’s perils, but those perils are hard to pin down because research on its human health effects is in its infancy.

A study released in June by Australia’s University of Newcastle found humans may be ingesting 5 grams a week, equal to one credit card, and that since 2000 the world has produced as much plastic as in all previous years combined.

An Austrian study in 2018 found plastic particles in the stool of people in eight countries.

Zero Waste Europe, a nonprofit funded by the European Union, launched its International Plastic Bag Free Day in 2009, calling for an end to single-use plastic bags.

Zero Waste backs its plea with some staggering statistics. It says it takes 100 to 500 years for a plastic bag to disintegrate; 1 million plastic bags are used worldwide every minute and 80% percent of marine litter is plastic.

According to scientists, the world’s seas are marred by five huge masses of plastic trash, which are formed by ocean currents and cover around 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — one, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is twice as big as Texas.

Perhaps because those floating dumps are so far from terra firma and removed from public view, there’s no consensus among U.S. states that plastic bags need to go.

California and Hawaii, for instance, have passed legislation barring grocery stores from offering single-use plastic bags, but Texas has moved in the other direction.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in January 2018 that plastic bag taxes are preempted by a state law that bars local governments from restricting use of containers and packages, leading more than 10 Texas cities, including the Austin, to scrap their bag taxes.

The United States, at the G-7 Summit in June 2018, refused to sign on to a nonbinding pledge, endorsed by five member countries, to work toward making all new plastic recyclable by 2030.

Environmentalists were not impressed with the pact’s vague goals. They say the only way to make a difference is to implement legally binding rules.

Despite U.S. resistance, more than 60 countries have enacted bans or taxes on single-use plastics, according to Rachel Meidl, an environmental expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.

She told Courthouse News that cheap crude oil, a feedstock for plastic production, and China’s decision to stop importing plastic waste in January 2018 is working against plastic recyclers.

“When cheap oil inundates the market, plastic producers can manufacture virgin plastic at a lower price. Consequently, it’s cheaper for manufacturers to buy virgin plastic than to pay for recycled plastic,” she said in an email.

Meidl said recycling companies are unable to cut prices to compete with plastic producers due to the steep costs of sorting and recycling plastic.

“There’s also the issue of the fate of all the unsold recycled plastic. When companies can’t find end markets and customers willing to pay for it, recycled plastics end up being stockpiled or landfilled, defeating the purpose of recycling entirely,” she said.

Before it swore off importing discarded plastic, experts say, China imported two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste.

Meidl said it’s understandable why single-use plastic bags are everywhere: “Plastic carrier bags outperform other materials.” Organic cotton bags don’t hold up, she said.

In its call to end the use of single-use plastic bags, Zero Waste Europe says: “They embody the message of the throw-away society that is trashing the planet.”

Meidl echoed that sentiment. “It’s important for us all to remember that human decisions and behaviors are the sole cause of plastic pollution in the environment,” she said.

She said progress depends on personal responsibility, learning what can and cannot be recycled and how to properly sort and prepare plastics for recycling.

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