Plastic pollution is everywhere, it’s getting worse, and there’s no simple solution to turn back the clock. By the year 2050, scientists estimate the amount of plastic produced every year is set to double.
(CN) — Plastics have become omnipresent — they’re everywhere from oceans, river beds and mountain tops, to the stomachs of the unsuspecting creatures who live there. The proliferation of affordable plastics has exploded since the 1950s and it’s difficult to go an hour without encountering them in some form.
Fueled by cost and convenience, plastics have replaced much of the wood, metal and glass containers of yesteryear and they’re causing new problems that weren’t considered back when cheap plastics were hailed as a space age miracle invention.
Scientists looked at the rise of plastics and the array of challenges they create in a new collection of studies published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology.
Scientists were already growing concerned about the abundance of plastics being produced back in 1972. A team working in the North Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea correctly predicted that “increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste disposal practices, will probably lead to greater concentrations on the sea surface.”
“Researchers have struggled to keep tabs on plastic production and waste ever since,” according to an analysis of the studies. “The first global assessment of mass-produced plastics, reported in 2017, estimated that manufacturers had produced 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics, creating 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste — with only 9% recycled, 12% incinerated, and the rest either piling up in landfills or entering the environment.”
That proliferation has led to over 15 million tons of plastic entering the Earth’s oceans every year, killing untold marine mammals, entering the stomachs of fish sold for human consumption and essentially creating a new floating island in the Pacific Ocean. These plastics degrade when exposed to salt water and sunlight, causing them to break into microplastics (defined as pieces smaller than 0.2 inches), which further complicates the cleanup effort.
Another concern is that the identities of many additives in modern plastics are hidden from researchers and the general public because they’re either classified as trade secrets or lack proper documentation in public databases. Researchers said these “complex mixtures of chemicals on microplastics may exhibit mixture toxicity effects making their identification complicated.”
A recent study on wild-caught fish found many had ingested enough microplastics to raise their levels of BPA, a toxic chemical, above safety thresholds established for adults and children in Europe. The authors note these fish would not have exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards in the United States as the EPA’s threshold is 12.5 times higher — a troubling revelation for those living stateside.
“Much early research on microplastics focused on ocean pollution. But the ubiquitous particles appear to be interfering with the very fabric of the soil environment itself, by influencing soil bulk density and the stability of the building blocks of soil structure,” explained Matthias Rillig and colleagues in their essay.
The authors warn that microplastics created through the breakdown of regular-sized plastics are affecting the carbon cycle. They explain that plastics contain carbon, and when bits and pieces are deposited in soil, they influence the microbial processes that allow plants to grow naturally. That could lead farmers to increase their fertilizer usage, a compounding problem of its own.
In 1950, about 2 million pounds of plastic were produced, a respectable number compared with the jaw-dropping 380 million tons produced in 2015. Far from a rosy outlook, that number is projected to double by 2050.
These plastics have half-lives ranging from 58 to 1,200 years, meaning best case scenario without intervention or further production they’ll biodegrade sometime in the next century. Worst case, people and animals a millennium from now will be neck deep in 20th century garbage, like someone today mucking through medieval k-cups.
“Our throwaway culture has led to the widespread use of plastic packaging for storing, transporting, preparing, and serving food, along with efforts to reduce plastic waste by giving it new life as recycled material,” argued Jane Muncke, an environmental toxicologist who wrote one of the studies, in a related statement. “But these efforts ignore evidence that chemicals in plastic migrate from plastic, making harmful chemicals an unintentional part of the human diet. Addressing contamination from food packaging is an urgent public health need that requires integrating all existing knowledge.”
According to recent polls, the public knows plastic pollution is a major problem for the environment and public health. Unfortunately, if history is any indication, asking people to forgo short term convenience and cost savings for the long-term benefits of others is quite a heavy lift.