Plastic World: The True Impact of Plastic on Our Planet

Plastic World: A place we can’t seem to escape 

I come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes I’m important and other times I’m not. I’m able to live longer than any human. But most importantly, I’m harming the world.

What am I?

If you answered plastic, you’re right. 

Our reliance on plastic is having huge consequences for our planet. Across the world, plastic is dumped into the ocean at a rate of 8 million tonnes per year.  By 2050, experts estimate that the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the total amount of fish in the ocean.

At Caddle we’ve been taking a close look at the issue of plastic pollution. Over the course of the next while our series ‘Plastic World’ will set out the facts, shed a light on our attitudes, and spark a conversation.

So first up, how did we get to this point?

The arrival of our plastic world

Though you might think that plastic came to dominate our lives from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, it dates back far longer. 

Technically speaking, plastic is a type of polymer, which is made of materials made of long, repeating chains of molecules. Humans have been dated using this naturally occurring polymers since at least 1500 BC with the Olmecs in Mexico.

Plastics as we recognize them today, began to emerge in the 19th century. Then in 1907 Bakelite the first synthetic polymer made from fossil fuels appeared. Soon after came polythene, polystyrene, and nylon.

Plastic is our everyday lives

The uses for these plastics expanded rapidly. From the 1950’s onwards came consumer goods like tupperware containers or plastic drinks bottles. In many cases the switch to plastic offered key benefits – it would be easily shaped to fit the purpose, it was durable (so wouldn’t smash, but could withstand pressure) and it was cheap to produce.

Offering these benefits, plastic became a material that consumed our daily lives in one way or another. About 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year. It’s virtually impossible to escape no matter how hard we try.  

The durability and low cost of production is a blessing and a curse. For the plastic objects that are meant to last a long time, this is great as it means that we don’t have to worry about replacing them.

On the flip side, the abundance of single-use plastic objects that we have come to depend on are suffocating the planet. It’s as if we’ve put a plastic bag over the earth’s head and it can no longer breath (we don’t suggest you try this at home)

We’ve created a situation where the harm we’ve done has gone too far and is something that the generations to come with have to deal with.

Why is plastic bad?

At the end of the day, what can be said about plastic? Well, simply put, plastic = bad.

The things that make plastic so useful make it an environmental hazard. Its durability means it takes centuries to break down. The low cost means we use a lot of it without worrying even to the point of using a plastic item once and throwing it away. 

It is estimated that over 50% of those single-use products are thrown away, leading to a huge build-up of material in landfill and oceans that will not be going anywhere for a long time. 

The disposal plastics has played a major role in the growth of several large areas highly concentrated with plastic, including the famous Great Pacific Garbage patch and area that some estimates suggest has swelled to 600,000 square miles. 

In turn, plastic affects the environment as a whole in a grand way, not just the oceans alone. In particular, it’s the pesky microplastics that are affecting the environment.

Microplastic: Tiny but deadly

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that are being carried throughout all crevasses around the world. They have been found in the most remote places from the deepest waters to some of the highest peaks. 

These microplastics affect marine life as they mistake them for tiny bits of food, which ends up in our bodies as well if we eat seafood. People who eat fish are at risk of consuming 11,000 fragments of plastic each year, according to a recent Belgian study.  

Whether its affecting marine life, affecting the environment or human civilization itself, plastic has become a real issue for every form of life. 

Stay tuned for this blog to delve deeper into how plastic affects all things involved with the environment.

How long does it take plastic to decompose?

It wasn’t until we really started investigating on this topic that made us realize how long plastic actually takes to decompose. But you may want to think twice the next time you play beer pong. Those red solo cups could outplay you in matches far longer than your life – longer than your children’s children in fact. Certain plastic objects could take a much as a thousand years to break down. 

But how do we even know how long it takes for plastic to decompose if plastic has only really been in full production for around 50 years?

Science my friend.

Microorganisms and air: the perfect decomposition storm

If science is good at anything, it’s testing things. And that’s exactly what scientists have done in order to predict how long it takes for plastic to decompose.

When testing normal things like newspapers or banana peels, the waste samples will be placed in a microbe-rich compost which is then aerated. After that, science takes a step back and nature does its thing. The microorganisms come to life and fill their bellies with the waste sample and produce carbon dioxide which serves as an indicator of degradation. 

In case you’re wondering, newspapers take two to five months to decompose while banana peels take several days.

So what does that mean for plastic, how long does that take to decompose?

The science behind natural and unnatural products

Remember how science takes a step and nature does its thing when sample waste is placed in the microbe-rich compost? Well, unlike newspaper and banana peels, plastic is far from a natural product. Plastic is made from man-made polymer known as polyethylene which microorganisms don’t attribute to being food.

In order for plastic to decompose it relies on the polyethylene to photodegrade. That is attributed to when ultraviolet radiation from the sunlight starts to breakdown the polymer chains in plastic which makes it become brittle and crack. How long does that take? Science isn’t exactly sure but it suggests that it takes anywhere from 500-1,000 years for plastic to decompose.

plastic world graph

Plastic water bottles are doing more harm than good 

All forms of single-use plastic are a large contributor to world pollution but when you sit down and research the effect that plastic water bottles have on the environment, the numbers are quite alarming. 

With a million plastic bottles being bought around the world every minute and a 20% increased projection by 2021, plastic bottles themselves have been deemed an environmental crisis that is a large contributor to climate change reports The Guardian. 

While plastic water bottles and other bottles alike, they are highly recyclable but due to the high demand that these products bring, it makes actually recycling these products very difficult which results in water bottle pollution in both landfills and the ocean. 

Speaking of the ocean, roughly 7% of all recycled plastic bottles were actually turned into new bottles. Instead, between 5 million (yes million) and 13 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean. With plastic bottles in the ocean, this leads to the possibility of fish mistaking the plastic bottles for food, which ends up as food that we eat. It’s the plastic circle of life! Scary, isn’t it?

While recycling plastic water bottles is an easy task since they’re highly recyclable, they’re made of a similar polyethylene product as other single-use plastics. Therefore, it’s easy to conclude that it would take roughly 500-1,000 years for a plastic water bottle to decompose.

Which plastic destiny will you choose?

Like it’s been mentioned throughout this blog, plastic is everywhere. But plastic doesn’t have to be the go-to source when it comes to everyday products that we use. Yes, some plastic alternatives might not be as ideal as others or don’t have the same ease of usability that plastic offers, but the choice is yours: save the planet from setting itself on fire or using a paper straw that makes your pop taste a little funny.  

Regardless, action needs to be made for an alternative to single-use plastic products that we use and some initiatives have been set forth in order to reduce our plastic use.

So, how do we get rid of all this plastic?

Have you been to A&W lately for a classic rootbeer float or any drink that involves a straw for that matter? Their initiative to reduce and implement a plastic alternative was one that made national news. In an effort to display their decision to cut down on plastic waste, A&W Canada created a 35-foot-long “Change Is Good” sign that was made from 140,000 plastic straws that were remaining in the brand’s stockpile. By using paper straws as a plastic alternative, A&W Canada predicts that this effort will keep 82 million single-use plastic straws from ending up in landfills and bodies of water. 

Plastic straws aren’t the only alternative to plastic though. Many consumer packaged goods industries have recognized the importance of finding a plastic alternative and have changed many of their products from packaging, bags, and plastic wraps. 

But what about the single-use plastic that is already floating around your home? Well, you don’t necessarily have to make a huge art sculpture but there certainly are some ways DIY projects that you can do at home to find other alternatives for your plastic use.

But not every alternative is perfect. There are some products that appear to have a short term benefit but could end up hitting a roadblock later on down the road that could further contribute to environmental catastrophe. 

Stay tuned for this blog to find out more.

Plastic Straws: Canada takes action

To deal with the issue of plastic, world leaders and governments are beginning to take action albeit slowly. For example, here in Canada, the Government is looking at the issue of plastic straws.

It’s fair to say that plastic straws are pretty bad for the environment. Likely you’ve seen the plastic straw being removed from the sea turtle (watch at your own discretion). Despite how alarming that video may be, it really sets the stage for why plastic straws are bad. Plastic straws are perhaps the quickest single-use plastic there is which ends up in landfills and oceans that cause harm to all forms of wildlife. 

The action on plastic straws Canada plans will tackle more than just what you drink your frappuccino through. 

While there is going to be an implemented single-use plastic ban which includes straws, bags, and other single-use products, this initiative won’t be legislated until 2021. That isn’t to say that Canada hasn’t made efforts to reduce plastic straws or other plastics alike. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has encouraged leaders to sign a zero-waste plastics charter which would be an attempt to reduce plastic waste from ending up in the oceans.

Wrap up

So what is your stance on the plastic dilemma? Is this a crisis that has gone way past our capabilities of solving the problem or with the right frame of mind we can all tackle this issue and help create a greener planet?

With the help from your survey answers, further research and industry reports, these are all topics and questions that we were able to answer. We hope that it creates awareness and discussion on how we can unwrap this plastic world and let the planet breathe in some fresh air.