How plastic is suffocating the world

Southeast Asia is a major contributor to land-based plastic waste leaking into the oceans. (AFP pic)

In 1855, the world was introduced to the first human-made plastic, courtesy of English inventor Alexander Parkers. Today, plastic is an irreplaceable material being cheap, strong, flexible and durable.

However, humanity’s use of plastic comes with adverse repercussions for the environment. Plastic is even found in food which then makes its way into people’s bodies.

A petrochemical product, plastic is made from long repeating molecule chains called polymers. Polymers can be found in nature, but they can also be synthesised artificially.

By breaking down crude oil molecules and rearranging them, plastic polymers can be created. In addition to being light, malleable and durable, plastic can also be produced in massive quantities.

Different types of plastic serves different purposes and almost everything around you contains plastic in some form.

People take plastic for granted

With plastic use being commonplace, people take it for granted and dispose of it way too nonchalantly.

People toss plastic without giving it a second thought but in reality, the discarded plastic isn’t going to magically disappear.

Plastic takes between 500 to 1, 500 years to degrade, yet it is still widely used in packaging meant to be discarded.

A World Wildlife Fund report says that the average Malaysian uses 16.8 kilogrammes of plastic per year.

All that plastic has to go somewhere, and while a small part of it is recycled, the bulk of it ends up going nowhere useful.

The bulk of plastic waste is not recycled but instead dumped into landfills.

In fact, much of humanity’s plastic waste ends up floating in the seven seas, with eight million tonnes added yearly.

At the rate that humans are disposing of plastic, it is estimated that by 2050, the total weight of plastic in the oceans will exceed the total weight of all sea life.

Animals who don’t know better end up getting trapped in plastic or eating it. A horrific 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic during their lives. Surely you have seen the viral pictures of dead turtles or whales with bellies full of plastic.

To make things even more complicated microplastics, which are plastic pieces measuring less than 5 millimetres, are entering the human food chain.

Scientists have raised the alarm about the potential health risks of consuming plastic and the chemicals used in their production.

Bisphenol A (BPA, an industrial chemical) is theorised to affect your hormonal system and Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP, used to make plastic flexible) is possibly a carcinogen.

Almost everyone has trace amounts of plastic in their body

The plankton at the bottom of the marine food chain consume these microplastics and inevitably, microplastics end up in our bellies. Microplastics are pervasive, found everywhere from drinks to sea salt to household dust.

Almost everyone has trace amounts of a plastic additive called phthalates in their body and one research found that 93% of people have BPA in their urine.

While research into the matter is ongoing, it can be safely said that humanity’s dependence on plastic has dire consequences. So, what now? Ban plastic perhaps?

It’s not that easy.

The materials that can be used to replace plastic may have their own substantial environmental footprint.

Some developed countries export plastic waste to developing countries to be disposed of.

A Danish study found that the production of an ordinary plastic bag uses less energy and releases less carbon dioxide than the production of a reusable cotton bag.

In addition, some industries simply have no viable or existing alternative to plastic and cannot drop its usage.

Plastic also helps in its own way to reduce greenhouse gases, as plastic packaging prevents food from spoiling and rotting too quickly.

Asia and Africa have serious issues with the dumping of plastic into rivers and the ocean. Western countries have also been called out recently for dumping their plastic waste to developing countries.

Ultimately, the best way to deal with plastic is through investment in infrastructure, and to seek ways to minimise plastic use wherever possible.

Reduce your use of disposable plastic

Plastic pollution is a serious matter and humanity’s love for it may backfire if nothing is done about it.

One drop may not make an ocean, but an ocean is made up of many drops. Individual actions will have a small impact, but the actions of many individuals will have a large one.

Reduce your usage of disposable plastic and encourage family and friends to do the same.

On a larger scale, support companies and legislation that aim to keep waste out of the oceans and keep food safe for consumption.

Together, plastic pollution can become a thing of the past, rather than a perpetual predicament that will haunt us for years to come.