Take a second to think about the type and quantity of waste that you have generated this past week. Likely, the first thing that comes to mind is plastic, and probably a whole lot of it.
This guess was no feat of mysticism. Global plastic generation has increased from 1.5 million tons per year in the 1950s to 335 million tons in 2016, with a total generation of 8.3 billion metric tons to date. For reference, 8.3 billion tons is more than 160,000 fully loaded recycling trucks.
Plastic is a synthetic organic polymer derived from petroleum with properties allowing it to be used in a variety of ways. Given its versatility and cheap manufacture, the commercial forms of plastics below touch nearly every aspect of our lives: this includes food containers, toys, bottles, medical equipment, and household appliances, to name but a few.
Plastic is so ingrained in our daily lives that it makes sense that the average individual in the United States creates 12 ounces of plastic waste per day. The United States leads the world in plastic waste generated per year at 46 million tons, despite being home to only 4.25 percent of the world’s population. But the story does not end here.
Of this total, over 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year with an estimated total of 150 million metric tons currently in ocean circulation. This marine plastic pollution is often seen as broken-down five millimeter or smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics, which accounts for 80 percent of all existing marine debris.
What’s the Problem?
Okay, so a lot of big numbers were just thrown around, but what is actually the problem? Of the 8.3 billion ton plastic waste total to date, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 79 percent entered landfills or the natural environment. This break-up of plastic waste end locations leads to serious problems.
Impacts on Human Health
Not only are we frequently using plastic goods, but we are also consuming them. Microplastics in our ocean are absorbed at the lowest level in the marine food chain by plankton, and subsequently bioaccumulate (concentrate within a specific species trophic level) and biomagnify (transfer of concentrated chemical to higher trophic levels) all the way to humans. This process, combined with the fact that many of our food products are wrapped in plastic, has led to estimates that Americans consume from 74,000 to 121,000 microplastic particles per year. Experts agree that while the specific risks of having plastic in the human body are unknown, the chemicals that plastic is made of are known to interfere with human organ systems and biological development of all forms.
Additionally, the incineration of plastic waste releases heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants that enter our oceans and then human food streams via the same processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification.
Plastic production is also an issue of environmental racism. A 2018 report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looking into communities within 2.5 miles of petrochemical refineries (where raw materials for plastic are made) found that people of color are exposed to 1.5 times more particulate matter air pollution than Caucasians. This is especially noticeable in “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch in Louisiana that is home to 150 refineries and that has the highest cancer rates in the country. Not coincidentally, this area has high poverty rates and a Black population makeup almost 30 percent higher than the national average. Facilities exceeding legal emission limits have grown considerably in the area in the past 30 years, and future predictions for a drastically increased plastic and petrochemical demand in 2050 will further perpetuate environmental racism.
Impacts on Marine Life
The most well-known impacts of microplastic pollution are on marine wildlife. Plastic causes the death of more than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year via suffocation and entanglement.
Microplastics in the system of marine organisms can also cause lacerations of internal organs and reduced swimming ability. These particles are also able to carry bacteria harmful to organisms and ecosystems alike.
Impacts on the Environment
On a larger scale, plastic waste also directly contributes to climate change. The use of materials derived from fossil fuels in plastics means that burning this waste releases greenhouse gases (GHGs) that warm the Earth by blocking radiation (heat) from leaving the atmosphere.
In 2019 alone, a study found that the burning of plastic waste created 850 million metric tons of GHGs—equivalent to 189 new coal-fired power plants. According to this same study, current projections of plastic production and disposal will result in 1.34 gigatons of GHGs per year by 2030, and 56 gigatons by 2050—14 percent of Earth’s remaining carbon budget.
Rubicon’s Plastic Waste Solution
The invisibility of microplastics to the human eye and the seemingly fixed production and use streams of plastic makes this problem daunting no matter which angle you look at it from. However, that doesn’t mean there are no solutions.
Solving the problem of plastic waste starts with increasing the rate of plastic materials recycled. The current recycle percentage of 9 percent means that over 91 percent of plastic used today enters human bodies, destroys marine ecosystems, and contributes to climate change. For every ton of plastic waste recycled, more than one ton of CO2 emissions is avoided, petrochemical production demand decreases, and less microplastic is ingested by both wildlife and humans alike.
Rubicon’s mission is to end waste. By putting an end to plastic waste via better recycling habits, you are helping to put an end to the microplastic problem. For many businesses and municipalities, creating a plan around recycling initiatives can seem overwhelming. With Rubicon on your side, we do all the heavy lifting.
Our recycling experts at Rubicon work with you to build a cost-effective, environmentally friendly recycling solution to ensure you are saving money and keeping microplastics from being created in the first place.
If you have any questions, or you’re interested in learning more about Rubicon’s sustainability offerings, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org, or (844) 479-1507.
Nick McCulloch is a Director of Sustainability and Zachary Horowitz is a Strategy and Operations Intern at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.