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Plastic Menace - A brief Overview

The world is focused on climate change. No wonders why.

  • Global temperatures have risen by 1 C in the past century.

  • The year 2020 was scorching, with an average temperature of 0.98 C higher than the 20th-century average

  • Seven warmest years on record have occurred since 2014

We are headed towards a catastrophe. Unfortunately, those facts, sobering as they are, tend to push into the background a more immediate problem – the menace of plastics. The world is literally drowning in plastic waste. Landfills are overflowing with discarded bottles, shrink wraps, and empty containers of every size and shape. In South Africa, plastic bags flapping in the wind are so ubiquitous that they have been dubbed as “national flower”. It’s not a disaster in the making, but a disaster that is happening. How can we overcome our reliance on plastic and shift to more sustainable materials? At Hemp Foundation, we choose to obsess over this question. And we’re close to finding the answer.

The Triumph of Plastics – a Brief Timeline

  • The first-ever plastic was a material known as Parkesine developed by Alexander Parkes in 1862.

  • In 1907, the first commercially successful plastic was invented by Dr. Leo Baekeland and called Bakelite.

  • In 1920, the German chemist Hermann Staudinger proved the existence of macromolecules, commonly known as polymers. Plastics are a type of polymer.

  • From the mid-1930s, the race for new materials led to the development of several varieties of plastics, including polyethylene, polystyrene, and nylon. The war in 1939 proved to be a catalyst for research.

  • After the war polyester was invented, the first synthetic fabric material.

  • By the late 1960s, plastics began to replace metal on a large scale. The use of plastics for everyday objects became the norm—bins, buckets, bags. Plastic was adopted by the automobile industry in a big way since it reduced vehicle weight and hence fuel consumption.

  • Plastic also became the de facto packaging material with high and low-density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE) completely replacing paper for wrapping.

Rapid growth in plastic production began in the 1950s.

  • In 1954, only 3 million tons were produced.

  • In a decade it had jumped to 15 million tons, a rise of 500%.

  • It crossed 100 million tons in 1987. The peak was 381 million tons in 2015 and it has currently scaled back slightly to 367 million tons.

A startling fact that does not get much attention: From 1950 to the present, 8.3 billion tons have been produced. There are 7.9 billion humans, and thus there is at least a ton of plastic out there for each of us.

The Rising Menace of Plastic Pollution

  • Though very useful, the continued use of plastic is an unmitigated disaster.

  • Plastic waste is choking the world.

  • The problem is that plastic does not degrade easily unless we apply UV light on the surface. All the 8 billion tons produced are somewhere, almost intact.

  • The chemical structure of plastic molecules makes them slow to degrade. Some estimate that a plastic bottle takes between 500 and 1000 years to decay.

  • Between one and eight million tons of plastics enter the oceans every year. Researchers have estimated that there are about 86 million tons of plastic floating around the world. By 2050, there might be more plastic than fish in the sea. Sounds scary? The reality would be far worse than expected.

Single-use Plastic Products – the Most Common Source of Plastic Pollution

Single-use plastic products (SUPPs) are the worst culprit. It is plastic designed to be thrown away after using it once.

1. Plastic shopping bags

Cheap and strong, plastic shopping bags are everywhere. Luxury stores or the neighborhood grocer all use it with equal gusto.

Plastic bags are made from thin sheets of polyethylene with a width of 40 to 150 microns. The thinner variation is known as a single-use bag. They lose shape as soon as they are used and cannot be reused.

Single-use bags choke the sewage system and create visual pollution. They are popular in less developed nations such as South Africa and India because of their low cost. There have been repeated attempts to ban them but to no avail.

2. PET bottles

Bottles made of Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET, are used for selling water and soda. In the USA 29 billion bottles of packaged water are sold every year. Only one in six gets recycled.

The result? American landfills contain at least 2 million tons of empty water bottles. Since plastic is made from hydrocarbons, their decay causes harmful substances to leach into the ground.

Moreover, it takes a lot of energy to produce PET. Each bottle of water requires energy equal to a quarter of its volume in oil!

Disposables such as shaving cartridges, face masks, and diapers compound the problem.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an Unfolding Tragedy of Biblical Proportions

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located between California and Hawaii Islands. At 1.6 million square kilometers, it is larger than Mongolia.

The gyre formed by California Current, North Equatorial Current, North Pacific Current, and Kuroshio rotates clockwise and covers an area of 20 million square kilometers.

The gyre has drawn in plastic trash from Japan, East Asia, South America, and North America. It was first witnessed in 1987 by a yachtsman, Charles Moore, sailing across the Pacific. He drew the attention of the scientific community to the problem.

A Dutch environmental organization, The Ocean Cleanup, has developed a system with two ships and an 800-meter-long containment boom between them to clean the trash. With each haul, it captures about 500 tons of plastics.

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