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There’ll be a lot of numbers and data. I believe that it’s necessary to make you aware of the great scale of the plastic era that we’re living in today.
How much plastic does humankind produce? Does a lot of it end up in the natural environment as garbage? How much polluted with plastic are the seas and oceans?
Plastic production in the world
It’s not hard to guess that we’re producing more and more every year. The data say that between the years 1950 and 2012, the average global increase in plastic production was 8.7% per year. In year humankind produced 1956, 1.7 MMT (million metric tons: 1 MMT = 106 * 1000 kg) of polymers. In 2014, it was almost 300 MMT, and in 2015 we produced 322 MMT of plastic. Between 2002 and 2014, the rate of plastic production per capita almost tripled when compared to previous years. Therefore you can see that these numbers are very disturbing. Who produces the most and what happens to plastic if it is no longer useful for humans?
Who‘s producing the most plastic and what is most often manufactured?
Asia accounts for the majority of world plastic production (45%), followed by Europe along with the USA (40%). In Europeans produced 2015, 40 MMT of plastic. From it packaging accounted for 40%, household items 22%, plastic for construction 20% and the remaining 18% was split between agriculture, cars and electronics. Additionally, the production of packaging is experiencing the highest increase. Unfortunately, they are very often single use items.
What happens to plastic when we don’t need it anymore?
Only 5 – 14% of the produced plastic is properly recycled. Equally, the remainder of polymers, if it’s no longer usable for humans, ends up in garbage dumps, is burned or ends up in the seas and oceans. In 2015, people thrown away 60-99 MMT of plastic. Scientists estimate that if we don’t change anything in the recycling and management of plastic garbage, in 2060 it will be 155 – 265 MMT of new waste per year. That is almost as much as the world production of polymers in 2005.
What you can’t see – plastic in and underwater.
Currently, 40% of unused plastic ends up as waste on land and 32% is thrown into water and ends up in the seas and oceans. Plastic is responsible for 60-85% of all marine pollution. Asia has the largest share in the pollution of the seas and oceans with polymers (82%). Therefore, Europe accounts for 2% and the rest of the world produces 16% of plastic waste in waters. Calculations indicate that if the current trend of littering the seas and oceans won’t change, by 2050 they’ll contain more weight of plastic than weight of fish! It’s estimated that there are currently from 485 to 5,400 billion (109) plastic trash in the oceans, weighing in total from 35,400 to 236,000 tons.
What happens to the plastic that ends up in the water?
Fortunately (or unfortunately) we don’t see most. 1% of garbage floats on the surface, 5% ends up on beaches or coastlines, however the remaining 94% sinks and stays at the bottom of seas and oceans.
How does this affect the organisms living in the water?
As it isn’t hard to guess, the increase in plastic and microplastic pollution of the seas and oceans results in “pollution” of living organisms and the natural environment. In 1997 and 2015, the presence of plastic in the digestive systems of animals was tested. In 1997 scientists found microplastics in 86% of sea turtles, 43% of sea mammals and 44% of seabirds. A dozen or so years later, in 2015, microplastics were already present in 100% of the studied sea turtles, 66% of sea mammals and 50% of birds. This demonstrates dramatically the increase in pollution of the aquatic environment, and the ever wider possible negative impact of microplastics on the organisms that inhabit it.
What is microplastic? What dangers can it cause for humans and animals? You can read here.
Is plastic already present in the wild and remote areas?
Scientists believe that sea currents could transform the Arctic Ocean into a “catchment” for MPs from around the world. The concentration of microplastics there is often higher than in much more urbanized regions of the Earth. If this black scenario were to come true, it would be extremely dangerous to the environment. A place where human interference is insignificant would be changed beyond recognition. There’s almost no heavy industry and there are only few human settlements in the Arctic. Nevertheless, there’s a very large amount of plastic and microplastic. Even in regions very distant from civilization, even not contaminated by human presence. Unfavorable changes are already taking place in the environment.
On the shores of south-west Svalbard, researchers found microplastic in amounts ranging from 0 to 11.5 particles per m3 of soil. The area where polymers were detected belongs to the national park. There are no permanent human settlements there, except for the Polish Polar Station Hornsund. This proves that the pollutants found were delivered to these regions by sea currents. Scientists found also microplastics in the organisms of both marine and terrestrial animals that inhabit Svalbard.
Will we drown in plastic? Do you see any green scenarios for our planet? Maybe it isn’t that bad and we don’t have to be concerned about the plastic era? Share what you think in the comments below.