Growing Concerns Around Plastics Pollution Prompt International Action

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Acting Director of the Hixon Center

Typically, when we hear the word “pollution,” our minds run to air pollution. As southern California residents, we see this daily. A stroll along any California freeway, or a look out the plane window just moments after lift-off, reveals the thick layer of haze that sits comfortably and persistently upon Los Angeles. However, concerns about pollution cut across different ecosystems and environments – we hear about “light pollution” as city lights cover up the night sky, and we know how our trash and liquid waste can enter various land and water ecosystems.

However, among environmentalists, plastics pollution specifically has been an ongoing and growing concern. Many of the plastics we make and use are designed for single use (e.g., straws, water bottles, grocery bags) – and yet despite how flimsy those items may seem for our uses, plastics are highly durable and resistant to processes of natural degradation. And more and more, we are finding plastics everywhere – more specifically, in our oceans and wildlife – which poses serious environmental and public health threats. Even the first plastics, made over 100 years ago, can still be found in the environment.

We use plastic all the time. From a materials standpoint, the creation and manufacture of plastics as we know them was a pivotal invention of the industrial period in the 19th century – which consequently commenced and exploded during the so-called “Age of Plastics” in the 1950s. Plastic, which can be made from a large range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds, is a highly durable, malleable, and versatile material. It is cheap and easy to produce, it is impervious to water, and can be used in just about anything. But after a closer look, this otherwise powerful innovation is a scary environmental concern. A recent study co-written by faculty and associates from the U.C. Santa Barbara, University of Georgia, and the Sea Education Association, suggests that as of 2015 nearly 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastics had been produced and 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste was created. Of that number, 79% has found itself in landfills or in the natural environment, and only 12% has been incinerated. Plastic is also a petroleum-based product, tying it to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution produced from its manufacture.

The numbers alone are intimidating, but hard to imagine. To put these figures into perspective, the study states that nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year – which according to National Geographic is “equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe.” Relatedly, a common visualization of the plastics pollution problem is the now infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where loose plastics and marine waste are collected by oceanic currents and never biodegrade: they just break down into smaller pieces and microplastics. The patch (which is only one of several) is approximately 1.6 million square kilometers – more than double the size of the state of Texas.

The common and more apparent concern is how plastic waste affects wildlife. We’ve all seen images of marine wildlife suffocated by tin can wrappers, or cut open to reveal the large ingestion of plastic that led to their starvation and ultimately killed them. However, as microplastics find their way into the food chain or into our water systems and eventually into our bodies. In some cases, depending on the material, these can lead to bacterial infections, interference with the hormone system, reproductive defects, and cancer. Plastics also contain persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are highly damaging toxins that are persistent in natural environments. This is an ongoing and growing area of research, but plastics pollution is as much a public health concern as it is an environmental one.

After decades of calls to action by environmental and public health groups, the topic has entered mainstream circles and has finally captured the attention of legislatures in countries representing some of the major plastics producers and users. In the U.S., multiple states have banned the use of certain polymers in different plastics like Bisphenol A (BPA), a component of baby bottles, plastic food containers, cars, and store receipts, as a result of scientific data linking it to reproductive defects. In addition, bans and fees on plastic bags are spreading. Recently, California passed SB 270, which bans single-use carryout bags.

Furthermore, countries around the world are seeking ways to reduce plastics pollution. The European Commission proposed new rules targeting single-use plastics last month, suggesting a plastic ban on certain products where there are available alternatives (e.g., dishware and cutlery, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, etc.), as well as consumption reduction targets for food and drink containers. The rules also include clean-up accountability and waste abatement on behalf of producers, increased collection targets of single-use items, labelling requirements, awareness campaigns, and more. More recently, the UK government proposed a ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton swaps, while India’s prime minister pledged that the country would eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022 – the most ambitious proposal on plastics pollution to date.

While we can be optimistic that momentum will build on an international scale for aggressive action on plastics pollution, innovators, companies and large research institutions can and must also devote their attention to abatement and clean-up of plastics in natural environments. There is some inspiration to draw from Boyan Slat, an 18-year-old Dutch entrepreneur who dropped out of school to invent a massive ocean clean-up machine to remove plastics and other waste from the ocean. The young CEO’s innovation and new nonprofit, “The Ocean Cleanup,” has raised more than $2 million from crowdfunding alone, as well as millions via investments from companies like Salesforce.

And ultimately, we also must not forget that we as consumers can seek alternative options and eliminate the use of single-use items from our consumption. It can be as simple as turning down straws at a restaurant, investing in Kickstarters that provide innovative, reusable alternatives, or committing to carrying around reusable utensils and containers with you. However you go about it, you do have tremendous power and influence – just by choosing not to use or purchase certain items.