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Plastic waste refers to plastic materials that are discarded after use and not recycled. These materials often end up in landfills, oceans, and other environments, contributing to pollution and harm to wildlife. Plastic waste includes a wide range of items, from single-use plastics like straws and shopping bags to larger items like broken plastic furniture or electronics casings. The issue is exacerbated by the durability of plastics, which do not break down easily and can persist in the environment for centuries.

What is Plastic Waste?

Plastic is synthetic or semi-synthetic amorphous solid material derived from oil and natural gas. The accumulation of such materials in the environment, which affects the ecosystems, is plastic waste or plastic pollution.

Globally, rapid urbanization, population, and industrialization development have led to a rise in plastic waste generation. The plastic waste generation rate is directly proportional to the urbanization rate and economic prosperity. Due to its low cost, versatility, and durability, plastic has become ubiquitous in manufacturing a vast array of products, from packaging and household items to construction materials and medical equipment.

The production and improper disposal of plastic contribute to ecological damage, prompting global efforts towards recycling and reducing plastic usage to mitigate its adverse effects. Efforts also include innovations in biodegradable plastics and policies to minimize single-use plastic products.

Also Read: World’s Plastic Pollution Crisis

Why Plastic Waste Is A Problem?

Global plastic production is more than 300 million metric tons per year, a massive increase from the 1.5 million metric tons produced in 1950. Since 1950, more than nine billion metric tons of plastic materials have been manufactured, with most of this produced in the previous decade. The improper disposal of plastic waste is a serious problem, as certain plastic items can take up to 500 years to decompose.

production of plastic waste

If we want to overcome the problem of plastic waste, we must reduce plastic consumption and promote awareness about plastic recycling.

Sector Wise Plastic Waste Generation

In this chart, we see worldwide plastic waste generation sector-wise. Primary plastics are most commonly used in packaging, accounting for 46% of total plastic waste generated. The textile sector is the second-largest contributor, with 14.9%.

distribution of plastic waste

Countries Wise Plastic Waste Generation

The United States is by far the world’s largest producer of plastic waste worldwide. The United States produced 42 million metric tonnes of plastic garbage in 2016. This was more than double the amount of food produced in China in 2016.  United States plastic waste per capita accounts for an average of 130 kg per person. In 2018, China’s rubber and plastics products industry generated over 468 billion dollars in revenue, likely to remain constant in the following years, making it the largest producer of single-use plastic.

Also Read: UNEP Plastic Pollution Report: A Blueprint For Drastic Change

Share Of Total Global Mismanaged Plastic Waste

The total amount of littered or improperly discarded waste is referred to as mismanaged waste. Inadequately disposed waste is not formally handled and includes disposal in dumps or open, unmanaged landfills. The bar graphs represent the share of global mismanaged waste by the top ten countries.

mismanaged plastic waste

Also Read: How Do You Measure Plastic Footprint?

Plastic Waste’s Impact On The Environment

Plastic waste has a profound and far-reaching impact on the environment, affecting ecosystems on land, in the air, and especially in the oceans. Here’s a detailed look at some of the key environmental impacts:

1. Wildlife Harm

Plastic waste poses significant threats to wildlife both on land and in marine environments. Animals, birds, and marine life can mistake plastic items for food, leading to ingestion that can cause internal blockages, starvation, and even death. Entanglement in plastic waste, such as six-pack rings, fishing nets, and plastic bags, can lead to injury, drowning, or suffocation for a wide range of animals.

  • Over 100 million marine animals are estimated to die each year from plastic waste alone [Source: Sea Turtle Conservancy].
  • Studies have found that around 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic debris, a number that is projected to increase to 99% by 2050 if current trends continue [Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences].
  • Entanglement affects approximately 136 marine species, including 15% of endangered marine mammals [Source: Marine Pollution Bulletin].

2. Habitat Disruption

Plastic can disrupt habitats both physically and chemically. Physically, large accumulations of plastics, such as those found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, can alter the physical characteristics of ecosystems, affecting species that depend on those ecosystems for shelter, breeding, and food. Chemically, plastics leach bisphenols, phthalates, and other substances that can be toxic to wildlife and plants, affecting reproductive and growth cycles.

  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is largely composed of plastic, covers an estimated area of 1.6 million square kilometers — nearly three times the size of France [Source: The Ocean Cleanup].
  • Research indicates that chemicals leached from plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA), have been detected in marine organisms at levels that cause disruption in reproductive systems and growth patterns [Source: Environmental Science & Technology].

3. Soil and Water Contamination

Plastics degrade into smaller particles known as microplastics, which can absorb and carry heavy metals and pollutants like pesticides. These particles contaminate soil and water bodies, affecting plant life and entering the food chain. Microplastics have been found in tap water, bottled water, and even in agricultural soils, potentially affecting human health through ingestion of contaminated food and water.

  • Microplastics have been found in over 114 aquatic species, and more than half of these species are consumed by humans.
  • Studies show that agricultural fields near urban areas can receive up to 300,000 fragments of microplastics per hectare per year through sludge and wastewater used as fertilizer [Source: Environmental Science & Technology].

4. Air Pollution

The production and incineration of plastic waste contribute significantly to air pollution. Burning plastics releases toxic chemicals, including dioxins, furans, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls, into the atmosphere. These substances can have serious health impacts on humans and animals and contribute to acid rain and ground-level ozone formation.

5. Climate Change

The lifecycle of plastic, from production to disposal, is carbon-intensive. The production process is reliant on fossil fuels, both as a raw material and an energy source, leading to significant greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the degradation of certain plastics in landfills can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Thus, plastic contributes to global warming.

  • The production of plastics is responsible for nearly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with projections suggesting that this could increase to 15% by 2050 [Source: Center for International Environmental Law].
  • Methane emissions from decomposing plastic in landfills are estimated at over 15 million tons per year globally [Source: Journal of Hazardous Materials].

6. Economic Impact

The environmental damage caused by plastics also translates into significant economic costs associated with cleanup efforts, loss of tourism revenue in polluted areas, and damage to fisheries and aquaculture. These economic impacts often necessitate governmental and non-governmental financial input, which can be substantial.

  • The estimated economic impact of marine plastic pollution on marine ecosystems is up to $2.5 trillion per year [Source: Marine Pollution Bulletin].
  • Cleanup costs for plastic pollution are estimated to be between $500 million and $2.5 billion each year for coastal cities around the world [Source: Journal of Environmental Management].

Also Read: Researchers Develop New Enzyme to Break Down Plastic Waste: TPADO

 

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