Plastic was invented to make our lives better. But our dependence on it has created an environmental crisis. Can we reduce our use before it's too late?
Beep! Beep! Beep! The alarm on your cellphone shakes you from sleep. You stumble to the shower, dress, brush your teeth, and run a comb through your hair. There's just enough time to grab a cereal bar and a bottle of orange juice before the school bus rolls down your block. Throwing your binder, folders, and a bag of chips into your backpack, you race out the door.
You've been awake for barely an hour, but you've already used or touched plastic dozens of times. The material is a huge part of our lives; it's in everything from electronics and food packaging to medical devices and airplanes. Most plastic is human-made, produced using oil and other fossil fuels.
What makes plastic so popular? Unlike natural materials such as wood and glass, plastic is lightweight. It's also cheap and durable.
But the very qualities that make plastic so useful to us also make it incredibly dangerous to the environment. Plastic doesn't just go away. Instead, it breaks down into tiny pieces over time. And those pieces will stick around for hundreds--or perhaps even thousands--of years.
For decades, people have sipped from plastic straws and toted groceries in plastic bags without a second thought. And all that plastic--much of it used only once--has added up. Worldwide, we've produced a staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. (Think of it this way: One of the heaviest statues in the United States, the Statue of Liberty, weighs 225 tons.)
Where does all our discarded plastic go? Only a small amount of it is ever recycled. Much of the rest ends up in the ocean, threatening the lives of the creatures that inhabit its waters.
The problem is massive--and projected to get worse. "The amount of plastic produced is growing more and more rapidly," warns Ted Siegler, a global waste management expert. By 2050, it's estimated that we'll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.
That's why, around the globe, individuals, companies, and even entire countries are working to reduce their plastic usage. But will those efforts be enough?
The Rise of 'Throwaway Living'
Synthetic, or human-made, plastic was invented in the early 1900s, but production started to soar during World War II (1939-45). Natural materials were in short supply during the war, so people turned to plastic to help construct lightweight planes, parachutes, and supplies. Because plastic was cheap and plentiful, manufacturers continued to use it after the war. Production really ramped up when companies began to make household goods--such as plates, cups, and utensils--with the material. The items were marketed as disposable and as a way to save precious time.
A 1955 Life magazine article titled "Throwaway Living" celebrated the plastic revolution. The piece shows a smiling family tossing plastic plates and utensils into the air, noting that those items would typically take hours to wash and dry after use but now "no housewife need bother." People could make their lives easier by simply throwing out their family's plasticware after every meal.
And in many ways, plastic has made our lives easier. More important, the material actually saves lives every day. Plastic is in car seat belts and airbags, in the helmets that firefighters and soldiers wear, and in the incubators that help keep premature babies alive.
Such products are designed to last for years. But about 40 percent of all plastic produced is meant to be used just once then thrown away. Items like the sandwich bags that hold your lunch, the ketchup packets at your favorite fast-food restaurant, and the packaging of just about anything you buy online are all driving up the total amount of plastic waste we produce.
It's the plastic we use once and toss away, experts say, that is putting the environment in crisis.
Asia's Trash Problem
In your town, workers probably pick up garbage regularly and cart it off to a landfill. But imagine if the trash in your neighborhood were never collected. All that garbage would pile up.
In some countries--particularly certain island nations in Asia--that's a fact of life. They don't have reliable trash collection or properly maintained landfills. Instead, people leave their garbage in heaps on the ground or dump it into local waterways, where it eventually is swept out to sea. Experts estimate that 9 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year.
To make matters worse, people in these largely poor Asian nations have started using more single-serve packets of things like condiments, detergent, and shampoo. Many of them can't afford to buy bigger sizes. All that nonrecyclable plastic packaging only adds to the problem.
In the Philippines, for example, some rivers are now so clogged with trash that people can hop across the water on piles of discarded plastic rather than cross by bridge.