New research from the University of California, Santa Barbara indicates we’re just not doing enough to recycle our plastic waste.
Plastic production began only 60 years ago, but since that time, more than 8.3 billion metric tons have been used.
From automobiles to clothing, office supplies to toys, storage containers to food and drink utensils, we’ve grown accustomed to the ease and versatility of plastic.
Yet a recent study by Dr. Roland Geyer and colleagues of the University of California, Santa Barbara estimates that only 9 percent of all the plastic we’ve ever created has been recycled. The study found that 12 percent had been incinerated, while a whopping 79 percent (or 6.3 billion tons of plastic) has either accidentally, carelessly, or purposefully been tossed in landfills and the natural environment.
Single-use plastics only exacerbate the problem
Half of all the plastic we produce becomes trash in less than a year. For many plastic products, the lifespan is even shorter.
Single-use plastics, or plastic products that are used once and thrown away, account for 73 percent of the plastic found in landfills. This includes plastic water bottles, straws, cutlery, and food and drinks containers.
Only 9 percent of these products get recycled into something new.
With plastic production almost doubling every 15 years, our addiction to this available material is causing massive destruction in the marine environment.
As the human population continues to rise, so will our dependency on plastic.
Unless there is a significant shift in the dynamics of materials production, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
While we’re disappointed, we’re not all that surprised
While many American children were taught to “reduce, reuse, recycle,” only 23 percent of the waste that can be recycled is recycled in our country.
People in developing nations often find that single-use plastics are the most affordable option. However, these countries have yet to develop comprehensive recycling and waste management plants and policies, which means that the entire population has little choice but to throw away what could and should be recycled.
But even in countries with comprehensive recycling facilities, the percentage of plastics recycled is still frustratingly low. Austria has the best recycling rate at 63 percent. Germany gets second place with a rate of just 62 percent.
The vast majority of this waste either directly or indirectly finds its way into the ocean.
We can, and we must, do better.
There are currently seven types of plastic manufactured, yet only two of them (Type 1 and Type 2) are widely accepted as recyclable.
Widespread adoption of technology that makes the other five types of plastic easier to recycle has not been widely adopted in commercial markets and there is no set timeline for when that adoption should take place. We can push to see that change.
We can also support companies who are researching and investing in safer biodegradable options that offer the same affordability and convenience as plastic and/or offer incentives to increase adoption worldwide.
Some of these are already on the market, including reusable bottles that eliminate a demand for plastic bottles and disposable cups as well as eco-friendly paper straws made from recycled materials.
Finally, we must continue to educate individuals, communities, corporations, and governments on the impact of plastic pollution and encourage them to take action to clean what’s already be allowed into the ocean while making more informed decisions about the products they consume (and manufacture) going forward.
If we can change people’s attitudes about plastic and show them the devastation it causes, we can drive policy change, develop more sustainable infrastructure, and not only clean the ocean, but ensure our plastic and trash never makes it there in the first place.
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4Ocean is partnering with SeaLegacy throughout the month of August to advocate for marine protected areas and support sustainable fisheries around the world.