Plastic is everywhere. But just how prevalent, and how much of a problem, is it? Take a closer look and you’ll see humans have a deep addiction to plastics.
Just take a look down at your feet the next time you visit the beach or a waterfall while you’re on a bushwalk. Sadly, you’ll probably see plastic as it is the most common type of litter.
Plastic is everywhere. It can be found in the most remote, uninhabited parts of our planet – from the Antarctic, to the Himalayas and tiny atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Plastic trash has been even been found at the depths of every ocean in the world.
By weight, there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.
Nearly every bit of plastic ever made still exists. It can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and even then it exists in some form. All this seems a bit excessive when up to half of all plastics are used once for a few moments.
We’ve produced more plastic in the last ten years than we did in the entire last century, and global plastic production is set to increase by 40% in the next decade. So this is a real and immediate problem.
Most plastic is made from oil, which we’ve never (and will never) invested in at Australian Ethical because it’s a non-renewable, and very environmentally harmful resource.
All rivers – and plastics – lead to the sea
Even if you don’t live by a beach, you still have a big impact on our oceans. That’s because plastic can travel so far from its source and once it’s in the environment it can cause wildlife entanglement, suffocation, ingestion, and starvation.
We spoke to Dr Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist and eco-toxicologist at the University of Tasmania. For over 20 years she’s studied the impacts of plastic debris on marine life. She says that, “standing on beaches – and I’ve been on the most remote uninhabited islands – I’ve been to islands thousands of kilometres from any human civilisation that are literally covered in plastic debris”.
“The items I’ve seen on these remote beaches are some of the strangest things, like hard helmets from construction sites, Dominoes, little toys like Monopoly houses from the 70’s, toy soldiers from the 1980s, and plastic pigs from the 1970s and 80s. With many of these plastic toys it’s clear they’re very old styles and they’re also very worn and weathered, and obviously not made with modern techniques.”
“Inside marine animals, I’ve found just about anything you can probably imagine. If we’ve made it out of plastic in the last 70 years then it exists in the ocean, and then it more-often-than-not exists inside animal.”
“Some things really make you wonder why an animal decided to eat it: anything from baby’s dummies to toothbrushes and cigarette butts – and yes they’re a type of plastic too.”
“Remarkably, only 20 rivers in the world account for around 4 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean each year.” According to the researchers at The Ocean Cleanup, these are the worst of the 20 most-polluting rivers.
“That speaks to how important the decisions we make on land are and how fixing a few key areas could potentially address a significant portion of the ocean plastics problem,” says Jennifer.
Balloons don't go to heaven
“One of the most common offenders when it comes to plastic pollution in Australian seabirds is balloons,” says Jennifer.
In the past 25 years, more than 1,248,892 pieces of balloon litter have been removed from the world’s beaches – representing just under 1% of total litter collected. There’s plenty more balloon litter at sea, but that is much harder to measure.
When balloons pop and fall into the sea, they look a lot like seaweed, algae or jellyfish – all things which marine life such as various sea turtle species and different sea birds eat or collect for nesting.
Jennifer explained to us how harmful even just one balloon can be. “Balloons are the single-most avoidable type of debris. Balloons are made up of three damaging parts – the balloon itself (latex, rubber, or mylar foil), the string/ribbon, and the hard plastic clip. Many species are known to ingest the rubbery part of balloons, especially turtles, while gulls and other seabirds get entangled in the string. And the little clips are an favourite for seabirds to eat, especially Australia’s shearwaters (mutton birds).”
“So, one balloon can potentially hurt three different animals. And all of this is 100% avoidable. As adults, when we release balloons into the air, we need to accept responsibility for our actions: what goes up must come down,” says Jennifer.
Councils around Australia are banning the release of helium balloonsas they are one of the top three most harmful pollutants for marine wildlife.
The danger of microplastics
When plastic enters our environment, it degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, until it ends up as what’s known as ‘microplastics’. It’s thought there are about 300,000 plastic items/km2 of sea surface and 100,000 plastic particles/km2 on the ocean floor.
When plastic is this small it’s eaten by filter-feeders, such as clams, krill, sponges and even baleen whales. Ingesting even teeny tiny bits of plastic can have a negative impact on animal health – and yes, that includes humans. This accumulates up the food chain, and often we humans eventually eat it via seafood.
Our tap water also contains plastic – 83% of water samples taken – according to a global report in 2017. Plastic particles have also been found in beer, and even table salt.
Can't we just recycle?
Recycling is when material is put back into the system for reuse. While most of Australia has access to recycling everyday, the problem is that on a global scale we’re producing too much of it, too fast, and its being made in a way that it isn’t always possible or clear how to recycle it.
The growth of the plastic industry is faster than any other man-made consumer material – it’s doubled every 15 years. Recycling methods and consumer behaviour certainly haven’t kept up: globally to date, only 9% of the plastics that we’ve ever made have been recycled, and half of those plastics become trash in less than a year.
This is of course both a challenge and an opportunity for the recycling industry. And while focussing on recycling is really important, there’s so much plastic that we’re not going to be able to recycle our way out given the current situation. Recycling is only ever going to be part of solving the problem of plastic waste.
A circular economy for plastics
A circular economy is a system where materials are used in multiple ways many times during their lifecycle, which has huge potential to reduce resources, litter and landfill.
Interface, who we invest in at Australian Ethical, encompass the true meaning of a circular economy company. They turn discarded nylon fishing nets into carpets. Since 2012, Interface has removed 142 metric tonnes of fishing nets from vulnerable ecosystems and communities in the Philippines. When lost or abandoned, fishing nets continue to indiscriminately catch wildlife. The nylon (which is a plastic) netting is made into high-quality, durable carpet tiles. Going one step further, Interface has diverted 5,000 tonnes of old carpet, which is very difficult to recycle because of the mixed plastic content, from landfill.
Through a circular economy, some suggest that it is possible for plastics never to become waste. The Ellen Macarthur foundation says in their report ‘The New Plastics Economy’ that there’s “a compelling case for an overall redesign of the plastics value chain”.
How you can help – take part in Plastic Free July
“Doing the Plastic-free July challenge really helps raise awareness about how much plastic we as individuals have in our lives. Taking the challenge helps to connect people’s values with their choices and their actions,” says Rebecca Prince-Ruiz from a plastic-free initiative called Plastic Free July.
“The core message of the challenge is ‘Choose to refuse single-use plastic’ – it’s something positive that we can all do because pretty much no matter who you are, where you live, no matter what your circumstances are, we all engage with this material on a daily basis.”
“Unlike other environmental problems, there’s no denying this problem. I don’t think there are any plastic pollution ‘deniers’ out there. Eight out of ten people say they’re concerned about plastic waste and plastic pollution… and we all know that we’re the source of that problem.”
“Our recycling industry is facing great challenges – and of course opportunities – at the moment because of the way we’re producing and using plastic,” says Rebecca.
“While that needs to be remedied, the most important thing that we can do is to actually reduce our dependence on this material in the first place.”
“Pretty much all of the plastics that are out there causing harm to the environment have been in someone’s hands and I really believe that those same hands hold the solution.”
Download our Plastic-free Living Guide, which includes:
• 10 steps to ditching single-use plastic
• 10 sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic
• Even more ways to help.