Do you know how many tons of plastic are produced every year? About the same as the weight of the entire human population.
That was roughly 320 million tons in 2012 (1). Six years later (in 2018) annual plastic production already increased to 359 million tonnes (2). And in 20 year that number is expected to be 600 million tonnes a year (3). And since the majority of monomers used to produce plastics are derived from fossil hydrocarbons, each year almost 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools of crude oil are extracted (4) and about 8% is used for the plastic production (5).
While this oil does not directly generate CO2, the plastic that is produced with it is not any better for the environment. In fact, basically none of the created plastic can be biodegraded. But it can be degraded by weathering processes, that is a combination of sunlight, wind, heat, and wave action (6). And while that might sound good, it’s actually a big issue for the environment. That’s because what is formed are the infamous microplastics which do not decompose fully into biologically usable components, and so this plastic reaches all corners of the earth, including the oceans where they accumulate (7). There they can even be found in the deep sea and the Arctic (8)! In fact, it’s estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year, which is equivalent to unloading one full garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. If this rate is not reduced, by 2050 the ocean will have more plastic than fish (by weight) (3).
But this plastic does not merely float around. It is well known that plastic waste is confused with food by marine animals, or in case of microplastics is absorbed unconsciously through their filters (9). The confusion with food has drastic consequences for the sea animals, because the plastic waste clogs up their digestive tract. These animals end up starving to death with a full stomach. Or they get caught in the waste and are strangled by it. It has been estimated that 100’000 marine mammals die each year as a result of eating plastic (10)
And maybe karma is getting back to us, because it’s estimated that through the food chain we might be eating 5 grams of plastic every week (11). What effects this has on our bodies is not known, but most likely not good ones.
Plastic is everywhere because it’s a very useful material since it’s so cheap and durable. Durable here means up to about 1000 years (12). So it’s quite ironic that something that can be used for so long is often used only once. That type of plastic is called single-use aka one-way plastic. Where do you find it? Think about all the packaging of food and sold items. In Europe, of the entire annual plastic production, packaging makes up an astounding 40% (13). In 2015, 146 million tonnes of packaging plastic were produced worldwide.
The issue is that since this plastic is mostly only used once, lots of it must be constantly produced. In fact, of those produced 146 million tonnes of packaging plastic 141 million tonnes turned into plastic waste.
In order to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment in the future, reduction in consumption of single-use plastic is one of the most important actions we can take today.
The uncomfortable truth about recycling, or why it’s the last of the 3 R’s
Of course recycling is good intention, but unfortunately the various main plastic-packaging are still disposed indiscriminately and represent an enormous burden on waste management systems. Although it would consume 66% less energy than making new plastic with many litres of fossil oil, because plastic is not just plastic, certain types need recycling using various separation and cleaning processes that are so expensive that it’s way cheaper to just make new one (14, 15). Do you know the little recycling triangle with the 7 numbers in it? Well, only the ones with 1 and 2 are actually commonly recycled.
The 1 is for PET, which is well collected in Switzerland. But then PET accounts for just 10% of our plastic. Of all the plastic in the world, only 9% is recycled and the rest is incinerated, ends up in landfills or in the environment (13). In Switzerland we don’t have landfills, so of our 90 kg plastic waste per person 80% is incinerated to recover energy (16). While this is unarguably better than landfilling it, it’s also the end of the line for that plastic, meaning that for the next plastics more fossil fuels needs to be pumped out of the ground.
And anyways, how much energy is actually recovered by burning plastic? According to one study, burning 1 kg of non-recyclable plastic in Europe generates around 2.8 kWh of heat and 0.9 kWh of electricity (17). That’s a total of 3.7 kWh/kg. To put this number into context let’s however consider the energy that also got into making the plastic, the so-called embodied energy. General plastics have an average 25 kWh/kg of embodied energy (18). That means that by burning plastic we only get back 15% of the energy. Not that amazing of a deal.
What can I do?
Many single-use plastics can often do more for you. For example, with a little bit of creativity you can upcycle your plastics into plant vases, decoration and containers to keep things tidy when it comes to smaller items. For even more inspiration click here.
If you would like to learn more about Upcycling, please contact Precious Plastic Zurich on Facebook, or visit their event at the Sustainability Week on Monday and Tuesday 11.30-13.45 in the HXE Foyer Hönggerberg. They also meet regularly on the Höngg and are engaged in the upcycling of plastics.
In order to increase your recycling you should opt for plastic packaging of type 1 and 2. When shopping, we should also always be aware that with every cent we spend we support someone. If we buy our food packaged, we also support the packaging industry. So let’s use the power of the consumer even if it often doesn’t seem to be big.