Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution facts and solutions

23 Aug 2023

We hear more and more about plastic pollution, but what are the facts and, importantly, the solutions? Plastic pollution is everywhere — at the top of mountains, at the bottom of seas. Microscopic plastic particles, microplastics, now seem to have reached levels of pervasiveness only matched by bacteria.

Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s. While there have been many solutions suggested for the plastic waste found in nature, the only real solution is to stop contributing to pollution - either by using bio plastics which leave no trace or better still by using less new material through proper circular programs. The obvious first step is, of course, to stop polluting nature with plastic waste through proper waste handling.

But this is a complex global problem that will take time to solve. What are the plastic pollution facts and solutions?

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What is plastic made of?

Plastic belongs to a group of materials called polymers, which consist of very long molecules that hook into each other giving the materials their special properties. Polymers can be made of many different materials found in nature. Some of them, such as latex, occur naturally, while others are manufactured.

Most industrially produced plastics are made from fossil fuels. Many types of plastic are still made this way but, in recent years, we’ve seen a lot of development towards plastic materials with a lower carbon footprint and less damaging to nature.

Today it’s not uncommon to find biodegradable, and by that, we mean quicker to biodegrade, plastics in products ranging from compost bags to knives forks and straws. Often they are made out of starch from plants such as maize and in principle, they are safe to consume along with your food and will degrade quickly if left in nature.

Being biodegradable doesn’t necessarily make plastic waste harmless to nature, though it will, eventually, break down into harmless substances normally found there.

Plastic Pollution Landfill

How long does it take plastic to biodegrade?

This is dependent on the type of plastic and where it ends up. Industrial composting creates the correct conditions for faster decomposing, but if this isn't available and the plastic ends up, for example, in landfill, it may decompose extremely slowly—we're talking hundreds or even thousands of years.

If a plastic bag or bottle ends up in the ocean, where it's exposed to light and salty water, research has found that it can break down in less than a year. This isn't a good thing though, as it simply produces to the aforementioned microplastics.

Is plastic harmful?

Plastic can be harmful to ecosystems, particularly marine life. They either get caught in old fishing nets, choke on pieces of plastic, starve because their stomachs are full of plastic, or are poisoned by chemicals that concentrate on the surface of plastics (sorry for these horrible images). Of course, not all plastics are the same, and some bio plastics can work well alongside nature.

Also, and sorry again, it's been found that plastic pollution can be harmful to people as well. Research is still in the early stages, but it's been found that chemicals found in certain plastics cause hormone imbalances and can negatively affect growth and development.

Facts about plastic waste and pollution

Everyone has their own ideas about plastic pollution and who's responsible. We're not here to point fingers but want to give you our take on waste management.

Plastic production and use

Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. This massive production rate has been steadily increasing over the years, contributing to the plastic pollution problem. Approximately 50% of plastics are used for single-use items like packaging and disposable products. This high prevalence of single-use plastic amplifies the issue of plastic waste.

Improper garbage handling

Plastic waste that ends up in nature comes from incorrect garbage handling, but also from weathering and wear of plastic materials, such as artificial turf. The improper disposal of plastic items, combined with factors like UV exposure, wind, and water erosion, contributes to the breakdown of plastics into smaller fragments, leading to microplastic pollution. Also, materials like artificial turf used in sports fields and landscaping can release microplastics over time as they degrade, adding to the complex issue of plastic pollution in ecosystems.

Plastic pollution in oceans

There are at least four big garbage patches in the world’s oceans, all of them contain a lot of plastic, with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch being the most famous. These patches are vast accumulations of plastic debris floating in the sea, posing grave ecological threats. Millions of marine animals and seabirds die each year due to ingestion of or entanglement in plastic waste, disrupting the natural balance of ocean life.

Plastic Pollution Affects Marine Life

Recycling challenges

It's estimated that, worldwide, only 9% of plastic is recycled, with rates varying widely by region and type of plastic. The rest finds its way into landfills of the environment. Many plastics are not easily recyclable due to complex compositions and the lack of recycling infrastructure.

Plastic has a long lifespan

Plastic is notorious for its exceptionally long lifespan, taking hundreds of years to decompose fully. Some plastic forms, such as certain types of polyethene and polypropylene, never fully break down, persisting in the environment indefinitely.

Environmental impact

Plastic pollution harms ecosystems, disrupts food chains, and damages habitats. Plastic waste can release harmful chemicals into the environment, affecting the quality of soil and water resources. These chemical releases have the potential to disrupt the delicate balance of natural environments and have long-lasting consequences.

Health concerns

Research suggests that chemicals from plastic can leach into food and beverages, potentially impacting human health. The full extent of health risks associated with exposure to plastic-related chemicals is still being studied.

Plastic pollution by country chart

According to 2016 data, the latest available, here are the countries that contribute most to plastic pollution (per person per year):

  1. US  In 2016, the United States was estimated to contribute approximately 105 kilograms of plastic pollution per person per year.
  2. UK  In 2016, the United Kingdom was estimated to contribute around 99 kilograms of plastic pollution per person per year.
  3. South Korea  In 2016, South Korea was estimated to contribute approximately 88 kilograms of plastic pollution per person per year.
  4. Germany  In 2016, Germany was estimated to contribute around 81 kilograms of plastic pollution per person per year.
  5. Thailand  In 2016, Thailand was estimated to contribute approximately 70 kilograms of plastic pollution per person per year.

Plastic Pollution Top Countries

Top plastic polluting companies (2022)

According to a recent report from Break Free From Plastic, these are the companies that contribute the most to plastic pollution (so companies to avoid):

  • Coca-Cola — Coca-Cola has consistently been identified as one of the top plastic polluters globally. The company produces a significant amount of single-use plastic bottles.
  • Pepsico — Like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo is a major contributor to plastic pollution due to its production of plastic beverage bottles and snack packaging.
  • Nestle — Nestlé is a multinational food and beverage company that also produces a substantial amount of plastic packaging for its products.
  • Unilever — Unilever is a global consumer goods company with a wide product portfolio, and its packaging has been a source of plastic pollution concerns.
  • Mondelēz International — This company is involved in the production of snacks, chocolates, and other consumer goods, often packaged in plastic.
  • Procter & Gamble (P&G) — P&G is known for manufacturing a wide range of consumer goods, many of which are packaged in plastic, contributing to plastic pollution.
  • Philip Morris International — As a tobacco company, Philip Morris produces cigarette filters, which are a significant source of plastic pollution due to their non-biodegradable nature.
  • Mars, Inc. — Mars produces various food and confectionery products, and its packaging has also been a concern regarding plastic waste.
  • Colgate-Palmolive — Known for its oral and personal care products, Colgate-Palmolive's packaging includes plastic components that contribute to plastic pollution.
  • Danone — While Danone has historically used plastic packaging for its dairy and beverage products, the company has made commitments to improve its environmental footprint and reduce its plastic waste. Danone has launched various initiatives to address plastic pollution, such as transitioning to sustainable packaging, supporting recycling programs and reducing single-use plastic.

Coca-Cola is Among the Top Ten Companies Contributing to Plastic Pollution

Why isn't more plastic recycled?

Recycling plastic is a bonus because it removes the need to extract raw material. However, there are a number of barriers to plastic recycling:

Selective recycling

Not all plastic can be recycled. Only certain types — thermoplastics — can be melted down and remoulded into new products. Even within this category, there are variations in plastic types, which makes recycling complex. Also, each time plastic is recycled, it degrades in quality, limiting the number of times it can go through the recycling process to about 2-3 times at most. This limits the overall recycling potential of plastic.

Material blending

Many plastic products are designed by blending plastics with other materials. For instance, in textiles and clothing, plastic fibres are often mixed with other natural or synthetic fibres. This blending makes it difficult to separate the plastic components for recycling. Such composite materials pose a significant challenge for recycling facilities.

Lack of recycling infrastructure

In some areas, there is a lack of adequate recycling facilities and programs. Many regions do not have access to the necessary infrastructure or resources required for efficient plastic recycling. This results in limited recycling options for residents and businesses.

Plastic Bottles Prepared for Recycling

Another contributing factor to low plastic recycling rates is a lack of knowledge and awareness regarding recycling practices and their importance. Public education campaigns and community engagement efforts are crucial to raise awareness about the benefits of recycling and to encourage responsible disposal.

Solutions to plastic pollution

Enough doom and gloom, time to work on solutions. There are still solutions to the plastic problem that we can start implementing today:

Responsible plastic handling and recycling

The first step is to ensure that plastics are handled with consideration and care throughout their lifecycle. This includes proper disposal and recycling. Communities and individuals must be educated on how to recycle plastics effectively to minimise waste and pollution.

Use less plastic

One of the most effective ways to address plastic pollution is to reduce our overall consumption of plastic products. While it may be challenging to eliminate plastic entirely, we can make conscious choices to use less of it in our daily lives. When plastic items are unavoidable, opt for high-quality, durable products that have a longer lifespan and can be recycled. However, there are a lot of reusable alternatives to single-use plastics. Also, you can learn how to reuse plastic at home.

agood company Bottle Reusable Alternative to Single-Use Plastics
Reusable Alternatives to Single Use Plastic - Stainless Steel Container

Choose biodegradable plastics

Choose biodegradable plastics whenever available. These materials, while not entirely harmless if improperly disposed of in nature, have the advantage of breaking down more quickly and eventually disappearing, reducing their long-term environmental impact.

Plastic munching bacteria and enzymes

Scientists have been working on developing plastic-munching enzymes and bacteria that can break down plastics rapidly and improve recycling efficiency. This could help us get rid of plastic waste quicker and make recycling easier. It's a big step towards a cleaner world.

The United Nations has set goals related to plastic pollution reduction and sustainable consumption and production as part of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Our solutions

Recognising plastic pollution for the problem that it is, we try our best to remove it from our products wherever possible. Alternatives we use are bamboo, glass, and other renewable materials. Any plastic we do use is BPA-free and recycled. To make our plant-based mobile cases we use a blend of hemp, flax, cellulose, and PLA - these are all renewable sources - plus some bio BPA. This material is not renewable, but is biodegradable.  To make our clear cases we use recycled plastic only. This is another way to reduce plastic use since we don't need to use any new plastics in the process.

Vista Blue Biodegradable Phone Case iPhone 14 Pro Max
Vista Blue No Plastic Compostable Phone Case for iPhone 14 Pro Max

We're not just stopping at using better materials for our products. We're always looking for clever ways to use eco-friendly packaging, and we encourage our customers to be responsible when getting rid of our stuff. When we do need to use plastic in our products, our goal is to use as high a renewable content as possible, and to ensure that our products can easily be recycled.  We do this through our circular system called agood loop™. We want to help make the world cleaner and greener for our kids and grandkids. When we all work together, we can really make a difference in reducing plastic pollution and making the world more sustainable for everyone.

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