Plastic Pollution

By: Isabela Claret Torres, MSc, Ph.D.

Yesterday I was watching an amazing documentary called The Story of Plastic (2019) directed and produced by Deia Scholosberg. Everyone should watch, it is on Animal Planet channel, but maybe you can find in other ways. Actually, the documentary is terrifying. All those images of plastic everywhere, incinerating plants, sick population, pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans, mountains of plastic on top of the soil, you name a place, there was plastic. And I kept thinking where are we going to stop with all this plastic waste? How to solve the plastic waste problem? How to avoid the plastic pollution? We already are finding plastic in our blood!

Plastic Production

Have you ever asked the question where the plastic comes from and where it goes when you used one time and thrown away? How much plastic is produced annually, how much is recycled, and how much ends up in the environment? So today I wake up with the task to answer some of these questions. 

During my search I found a pro-plastic site which explain in a very simple way how do you make plastic (This Is Plastics: How Are Plastics Made?). Following the site description, plastics starts with raw material such as natural gas, oil, or plants and refined into Ethane and Propane. Ethane and Propane are treated with high temperatures in a process called cracking and they become monomers like Ethylene and Propylene. They are then combined with a catalyst that make a ‘fluff’ material, which look like laundry powdered detergent. The polymer is melted, and the plastic is made into long tubes and cut into pellets. Pellets are shipped everywhere where they will be melted again and transformed into bottles, car parts, food trays, plastic bags, anything that contains plastic.  

Plastic pollution from fast food companies.
Plastic Pollution (Photo: Unsplash)

Plastic Pollution & Fossil Fuels

Deia Scholosberg in her documentary explains that plastic came from residues from fossil fuels that the industry did not know how to deal and start making plastic out of it. The first synthetic plastic was made in 1907 (Plastic Pollution – Our World in Data). But just in the 1950 global production start to increase and plastic was sold as the modern life solution. It did not break, and made life easier. After that, plastic become more and more popular, used in everywhere, for anything. Today we cannot see our life without plastic. How are we going to throw out our garbage if there is not a plastic bag? It is a very difficult problem to solve. It depends on everyone. 

Plastic Lifecycle

In 2015 the production of plastic was 381 million tons (Our World in Data, 2022). And by 2050 is estimated to be 589 million tons (Global plastics production forecast 2025-2050). It is a lot of plastic. And in 2015, an estimated 55 % of global plastic waste was discarded, 25 % was incinerated, and 20 % recycled (World in Data, 2022). However other sites have different data. The site Fighting Plastic Pollution in the Oceans, reports that 9% of the plastic is recycle, 12% incinerated, and the remaining 79% ends up in a Landfill or in the environment. Moreover, roughly half of all plastic on earth has been produced in the last thirteen years. And if the current trend continues, around the year 2050, there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic in landfills and in the environment” (Plastic Soup, 2022). 

Plastic Pollution in Water

Rivers are important sources of plastics to oceans. There is also the impact of the coastal line. In 2014 Eriksen and colleagues found based on their study model an estimate of 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons currently floating at sea. This was in 2014, imagine in 2050 where the plastic production is estimated to be 55.5% higher. 

Plastic garbage on street.
Plastic on Street (Photo: Unsplash)

There is a great concern about this plastic building up in the aquatic food chain and getting into humans. It can be a good source for finding plastic particles in the bloodstream. Besides all that, plastics are also a global warming problem, as it has it source as fossil fuels, when it burns throw dangerous chemicals in the atmosphere. As previously mentioned, it is fossil fuels finding a new form and a new place to flow into economy”. We should keep this in our mind.  

About the Author:

Isabela started her work with the environment in 1993 as a Biology Bachelor student at the highly regarded Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG/Brazil). Later she joined the Graduate Program on Ecology, Conservation and Management of the Wildlife of the same University (UFMG/Brazil) where she received her Masters degree in 1999. Later, she received her Ph.D. on Soil and Water Science at the University of Florida (USA). During her Ph.D. studies she received an Outstanding Student Poster Award at the ASLO (American Society of Limnology and Oceanography) 2006 Summer Meeting held in Victoria (Canada). After working for the State Government Secretary, consulting environmental company and watershed management company she began her post-doctorate in the Geography Department at UFMG (Brazil). Throughout her career she gathered knowledge and specialized on Biology, Ecology, Soil Science, Limnology, Paleolimnology, Biogeochemistry, Organic Geochemistry, Metal and Environmental pollution.

Sources: 

Deia, S. (2019). The Story of The Plastic. Documentary 

Marcus Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, Galgani F, Ryan PG, Reisser J. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. Plos One. Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea (plos.org)

Our World in Data (2022) Plastic Pollution – Our World in Data. Visited on 18/04/22 

Plastic Soup (2022). Fighting Plastic Pollution in the Oceans – Plastic Soup Foundation. Visited on 18/04/22. 

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