There could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050, unless we change our production processes and consumption habits.
How can we keep plastics out of our oceans?
With demand for plastics projected to double over the next 20 years, cleaning up beaches and seas won’t be enough to keep our oceans free from plastic.
Plastic pollution is having a negative impact on our oceans and the health of our wildlife. There are many reports and documented cases showing the impact of plastic ocean debris affecting - and in many cases, killing - aquatic life. It's estimated that around three percent of global annual plastic waste enters the oceans each year - approximately 8 million tonnes.
Plastics in the ocean tend to break down into smaller particles. This means that they are very difficult to detect and remove. Therefore, technologies currently proposed for plastic removal are tending to focus on larger plastics. The easiest way to solve this problem is to stop plastic entering the ocean in the first place.
Currently the problem is only getting worse. In 1950 the world produced only 2 million tonnes of plastic per year. By 2017 it totalled 348 million metric tonnes – a nearly 200-fold increase.
The cheap, versatile, nature of plastic means that it is very widely used, requiring relatively little energy, water and land to produce. Any alternatives to plastic will need to be equally competitive economically in order to achieve wide take up globally.
What are the current options?
There are three key options for handling plastic waste: incineration, disposal in landfill, or recycling.
Incineration requires burning the plastic at a very high temperature. Burning creates greenhouse gases which lead to air pollution and is a further negative impact on the environment.
Landfill facilities need to be well managed to function well. With waste being gathered, compacted and safely stored, this often involves covering or burying. The conditions in landfills make it virtually impossible for many things, including plastic, to biodegrade. Plastic bottles take an estimated 450 years to break down. The resulting creation of greenhouse gases still has negative environmental impacts and badly managed facilities often magnify the problem with waste spilling out to the surrounding environment or left open and uncovered.
Mismanaged waste in coastal populations is the primary source of plastics entering the oceans, including bad management of landfills and littering. Studies report that 80 percent of global ocean plastics come from land-based sources, and the remaining 20 percent from marine
Recycling is the option with the lowest global warming potential and energy use and from an environmental perspective is usually the best option.
Recycling plastic water bottles helps to conserve space that can be used for other waste. Earth911 reports that 8 cubic tonnes of landfill space is saved for every ton of plastic that is recycled. Recycling can also help to reduce the number of plastic water bottles making their way as litter into roadways and water sources.
The concept of the circular economy
In a circular economy, the aim is not for a product to end up in a landfill or incinerator. The products are designed to be used and reused at their highest economic potential for as long as possible within the global supply chain.
PET packaging use and the circular economy
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most used packaging material in the world today.
Its characteristics of being strong yet lightweight, non-reactive, economical, and shatterproof mean that PET's safety for food, beverage, personal care, pharmaceutical and medical applications is recognised by health authorities around the world.
Fortunately, PET bottles are easily recycled. PET bottle recycling is the process of extending the life of a single-use plastic bottle, diverting it from our oceans and landfill and recycling it into polyester fibre.
PET can be recovered, and the material reused, through a series of special washing processes or by a chemical treatment to break down the PET into its raw materials or intermediates, which are then purified and converted into new PET resin. PET fibre is fully recyclable at end-of-life avoiding waste and pollution.
The longer term picture
As well as reducing waste going to landfills, recycling of plastic bottles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease air and water pollution, and conserve the energy required to create new materials from existing waste rather than new raw materials. The raw materials conserved include oil, which is a nonrenewable natural resource in limited supply.
Anything we can do to keep PET bottles within the circular economy will be making a positive contribution to our environment.
But still, we already have a large quantity of plastic in the ocean and this will continue (even if we can begin to reduce the amount that reaches the ocean in the years which follow). Ultimately, we need to totally change our relationship with plastic.
What can you do to make an impact?
Start by educating yourself about the things we can do as individuals and collectively as a society, including:
- Recycling – learn about what can and can’t be recycled in your area
- Reducing use of single use plastics and instead replace them with sustainable alternatives
- Avoiding use of non-essential plastics where possible
- Choosing to buy and use products that contribute to the circular economy
- Don’t litter and call out those who do
Ultimately these things alone, while making a contribution, won’t be enough to make a significant impact on the problem. Collectively we need to put pressure on governments and policy makers to collaborate at a global level. With effective waste management systems across the world, it is possible that mismanaged plastics at risk of entering the ocean could decline significantly.