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Never Say Die: The Problem of the Plastic Life Cycle

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Never Say Die: The Problem of the Plastic Life Cycle


By Casey Pearce

There’s no denying it: plastic is everywhere. And, in many ways, that’s a good thing.  Plastic in our cars makes them lighter, cheaper & more energy efficient. Plastic in medical supplies and devices makes modern medicine possible. And plastic makes things like smartphones, tablets, and televisions affordable.  

Plastic is light, cheap, and durable.  And that’s part of the problem.  Plastic is so durable, it never really breaks down or degrades.  Like diamonds, plastics are forever.  You use plastic every day, but you probably never pause to think about where it all came from or what happens to it once you’ve finished with it.  

In this article, we’ll explore the plastic life cycle.  The goal is to better understand where plastic comes from and where it goes when you discard it.  This will help you become a more conscious consumer, and help you reduce plastic waste.

Where Does All That Plastic Come From Anyway?

Plastic production has been on the rise since the beginning of World War II.  In 2013, plastic manufacturers produced 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging materials. Let’s get some perspective: 78 million metric tons is equal to over 14 million African elephants.

Just imagine— 14 million elephants worth of plastic water bottles, potato chip bags, plastic forks and other packaging materials. Total plastic production for 2013 was closer to 300 million metric tons. Production has grown by about 3.5% per year every year since then.

Most of the millions of tons of plastic produced comes from fossil fuels. 98% of plastic packaging materials come from fresh feedstock rather than recycled materials. Over 90% of the materials used to make new plastic comes from oil & gas. Experts estimate plastic production consumes 4 – 8% of total oil production.

As plastic production increases, so does the demand for petroleum products used to produce more plastic.  This is worrying because oil is a nonrenewable resource. Continuing to depend on oil has negative consequences for the environment.

What Happens To Plastic Once You’ve Finished With It?

Much of the plastic in our lives is designed to be used and then discarded after a single use. Think cling wrap, plastic drinking cups, take out containers, water bottles and many other common items.  

The problem with this is the plastic you discard disappears from your life, but it never really disappears for real.  Plastic recycling has been around for over 40 years, but only 14% of plastic packaging gets collected for recycling.  This is a shockingly low number, especially compared with the 58% recycling rate for paper.

Of the 14% of plastic packaging collected for recycling, 4% gets lost in the process. This leaves 10% actually getting reused and made into new products.  Most of the recycled material gets used to make lower-value plastic.  Only a tiny fraction gets recycled into something similar to the original product.

Another 14% of plastic packaging is incinerated and/or goes through an energy recovery process.  Recovering energy is a good thing, but the process is pollution intensive. It also results in the loss of plastics and the need to make new plastic from fresh petroleum feedstock. 

What about the rest of the plastic?  There’s still a lot left to account for.  Unfortunately, the news isn’t good. Most plastic goes on to a sort of zombie-like existence where it hangs around causing scary problems instead of being useful.

Zombie plastic?  It sounds weird, but it’s a useful way to think about the plastic that doesn’t get recycled or incinerated. 40% of plastic packaging ends up in landfills. The remaining 32% of plastic waste escapes or “leaks” out of the waste collection system. This means it’s never collected at all or is later mismanaged or dumped.  

Based on 2013 numbers, that’s over 10 million elephants worth of zombie plastic.

Sending plastic to a landfill is preferable to letting it leak into the environment, but not by much.  In a landfill, plastics have no chance to be reused or recycled into something useful.  

Plus, it takes hundreds of years for plastic to decompose in a landfill. Modern landfills are designed so some plastics may never decompose. Even biodegradable plastics don’t break down in landfills

Millions of tons of  plastic in landfills is bad enough, but the real trouble comes from the uncollected zombie plastic. Much of this leaked plastic ends up in the ocean—at least 8 million metric tons per year.  

A significant amount of uncollected plastic also ends up cluttering forests and waterways. Some also clogs up city streets and drainage systems.

Why Should I Care About Zombie Plastic?

At first glance, zombie plastic might not be as scary as “real” zombies, but a closer look reveals all sorts of reasons to care.  

As we already mentioned, in the current plastic life cycle most plastic is not collected for reuse and recycling.  A huge percentage ends up leaking into the environment.  This has some very real costs.

Since most plastic is not recycled, companies have to produce a lot of new plastic every year to meet the world’s needs.  Since plastic production is fueled by oil production, this results in a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.  

If the world is going to address climate change, greenhouse emissions have to come down.  Creating a new and improved plastic life cycle is key to making this happen.

Most plastics contain chemical additives.  When plastic ends up in the environment, these additives leak into oceans, rivers, soil and groundwater.  Scientists aren’t sure about the long term effects of this chemical leakage.  There are concerns about detrimental consequences for the environment and for human health.

Zombie plastic is devastating our oceans.  If nothing changes, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.  Millions of marine animals die from plastic pollution every year.  This is terrible for the animals, but it also harms humans who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.

Plastic pollution in the environment impacts tourism, fishing, farming, and other industries.  The annual cost of trying to repair the damage caused by zombie plastic is in the billions of dollars.  The costs will continue to rise if nothing changes.

Is Anyone Trying To Solve This Problem? Can I help?

The details of the plastic life cycle are not encouraging, but there’s good news! Lots of smart, passionate people are working hard to find good solutions.  And you can help.

The most effective thing you can do is to avoid single-use plastics as much as possible.  Research alternatives to single-use plastics.  Commit to changing your shopping habits and your daily practices at home. Share your experience with your friends and neighbors and encourage them to cut back on plastic, too.

Educate yourself about alternatives to the current plastic life cycle.  You can also support those who are trying to make a difference.  

Organizations like the Ellen Macarthur Foundation are studying plastic pollution. Read up on their proposal for a new plastics economy to better serve consumers and the environment.  

Let your elected officials know the issue of plastic pollution is important to you. Support efforts like taxes on single use products and packaging and bans on single use plastic bags.

You can also volunteer with organizations who educate people about plastic pollution and work to clean up our oceans.  Ocean Blue Project is committed to removing 1 million pounds of debris from lakes, oceans, and rivers by 2025.  

Click here to learn how you can support our ocean cleanup efforts.  You can donate, participate, or organize a cleanup in your local community. 

Author Bio: Casey Pearce is a recovering engineer and freelance copywriter based in Mississippi.  She’s curious about everything and will write just about anything, but her favorite subjects are sustainability, technology, finance, the outdoors, dogs & nutrition. 

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