500 billion plastic bags used each year
13 million tonnes of plastic leaked into the ocean each year
17 million barrels of oil used on plastic production each year
1 million plastic bottles bought every minute
100,000 marine animals killed by plastics each year
100 years for plastic to degrade in the environment
90% of bottled water found to contain plastic particles
83% of tap water found to contain plastic particles
50% of consumer plastics are single use
10% of all human-generated waste is plastic
As the Word Environment Day 2018 shows, we have become addicted to disposable-use plastic, and in the next 10-15 years global plastic production is projected to nearly double.
This becomes even more worrying as, looking at the graph of plastic pollution, it is possible to see that in the period from 1950 to 1970 there were only small and manageable amounts of plastic wastes, which tripled in the next two decades, arriving, today at more than 350 million tons plastic wastes equal to total weight of latest human population in the world.
Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s. Only about 9% of this plastic has been recycled, 12% has been burned and the remaining 79% has ended up in landfills or in the environment, (https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/) with detrimental consequences.
For example, considering the impact on the water resources, data by Greenpeace show that up to 12.7 million tons of plastic enters the oceans every year and the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the oceans every minute. There are five trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, enough to circle the Earth over 400 times, but it must be said that this does not affect all the world evenly as countries like Canada, the U.S. and the UK export plastic waste to Asia and Africa, offloading their trash problem to other communities. People living along rivers and coastlines in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are the most impacted by plastic pollution and Henderson Island in the South Pacific is the most plastic polluted of any island recorded to date.
Furthermore, scientists have documented 700 marine species affected by ocean plastic: up to 9 of 10 seabirds, 1 in 3 sea turtles and more than half of whale and dolphin species have ingested plastic; in the Canadian Arctic, 87% of birds have ingested plastics of some sort; even crustaceans tested at the ocean’s deepest point, Mariana Trench, had ingested plastic.
This clearly show that it is necessary a radical change for a world with less plastics.
Of course, we can adopt more sustainable behaviours in everyday life, by avoiding throwaway plastic objects, reusing and recycling.
However, these measures present some undeniable limits as reusing and recycling can’t be done indefinitely or with all kinds of plastics. In addition, there are some physical and chemical properties making plastics a material not easily substitutable in many sectors and applications.
Thus, what could be done in these cases is to look for sustainable alternatives in the vast family of bioplastics that should guarantee similar performances, with a lower polluting effect.
Starch-based plastics constitutes 50% of bioplastics as starch – a complex carbohydrate that can be found in cereals like corn, wheat, rice or in roots like potatoes and tapioca – is cheap and abundant. As it absorbs humidity, these plastics are used in drug capsules, resins, films for food packaging and bags for collecting organic waste. Nevertheless, some products are hybrids or blends not completely biodegradable, containing a certain percentage of non-renewable resources.
Similarly, cellulose-based bioplastic is obtained from the extensive modification of plants’ cellulose but, as the processes are quite expensive, it is usually added to starch to improve its mechanical properties, like permeability to gas, and water resistance. In alternative, if treated with hot pressing, it can become thermoplastic and it is used to produce mainly biodegradable films and packaging for salad, fruits and vegetables.
Also proteins and other nutrients can be used to produce plastics.