The Plastics Problem

“We are addicted to plastics, simply because they do the job so well that we cannot live without them. We don't think what will happen to the plastics that we just threw away. That plastics we just wasted will be on this planet for thousands of years. The plastics we disposed are already coming into our food system.” Gibb 2019, Plastics are forever, Nature Chemistry, 11: 394–395.

Plastics are typically designed to have a service life of 1–50 years and by far the largest sector for plastics is short-term, single use packaging for food, beverages, tobacco products and the like. Thus, of the ~348 million metric tons produced in 2017, ~40% was for single-use products composed of (linear) low, medium and high density polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Not surprisingly, these polymers are three of the four most heavily utilized plastics, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the production of non-fibre plastics. Only the key construction material polyvinylchloride (PVC) rivals these numbers (it accounts for ~12% of the market). Polystyrene, and thermosetting polyurethane are way behind, and every other polymer you can think of or name pales into insignificance.

In the open water, plastics are consumed by fish, seabirds, and mammals — which are washing up dead in harrowing numbers. Last year, whales in Italy and the Philippines died just weeks apart, their stomachs packed with indigestible plastic bags. In December, a sperm whale washed ashore in Scotland with more than 200 pounds of plastic in its gut. The pollution visible on the ocean surface represents just one percent of what humans have dumped into the oceans. The rest lies beneath, including seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench, where researchers have spotted plastic bags and measured microplastics at concentrations of 2,000 parts per liter. Without dramatic change, the amount of plastics entering the oceans every year, already intolerable, is projected to more than double by 2025. The plastic industry’s damage to the planet is vast, but not immeasurable. In fact, the industry has published a detailed accounting that reveals its pollution is on pace to cause trillions in environmental harm by midcentury.

Much of the world is waking up to the plastics crisis. As China has shut its doors to the global plastic-waste trade, the European Union, Canada, and India are stepping up bans on single-use plastics like cutlery, plates, straws, and ear swabs. “How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches across the world, their stomachs jam packed with plastic bags?” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked, introducing his country’s initiative. “As a dad, it is tough trying to explain this stuff to my kids.” As the global plastics crisis grows — and photos of albatross chicks decomposing around the indigestible plastic waste that killed them go viral — the industry is quietly agonizing over backlash from the metal-straw and Hydroflask-toting members of Generation Z. “The [plastic] water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes,” a senior sustainability manager for Nestlé Waters confessed at a conference last year. “It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.” The companies of the plastics industry, Lowenthal says, are ultimately “going to have to deal with the sticker shock that they are now responsible and they're going to have to pay” to keep plastics out of the environment. (