Editorial Feature

What Counts as Plastic Waste?

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Plastic pollution is a global problem that is growing exponentially. In 2016, the total global plastic production was about 335 million metric tons. According to estimates, roughly half of the global annual plastic production goes to making single-use plastic products, which are discarded right after the first use.

This is mainly due to a huge increase in plastic consumption in our day to day lives. Many of these daily-use plastic products are single-use items, which can be used only once and then must be disposed of. The most common type of plastic waste today is single-use or disposable plastics.

Other types of plastic waste include pre-use plastic and post-use plastic. Pre-use plastic is mainly production scrap that did not meet the product specifications. These scraps can be recycled and used in other applications. Post-use plastics include plastic bottles, tubs, pots, and trays, rigid plastics such as pipes and moldings, plastic foams or expanded polystyrene, and flexible plastics such as strapping and cable sheathing.

Types of plastics

Plastic can be broadly classified as follows:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate or PET - commonly used in making trays and beverage bottles
  • High-density polyethylene or HDPE – used to make milk bottles or liquid detergent containers
  • Polyvinyl chloride or PVC – which is used in making food wrapping films, food trays, and shampoo bottles
  • Low-density polyethylene or LDPE – used to make black trash bags or the widely used plastic grocery bags
  • Polypropylene or PP - used in textiles, plastic ropes, and labeling materials
  • Polystyrene or PS - used to make egg cartons, fish trays, take-out food containers, and plastic cups

From disposable cups, plates, and utensils to ink cartridges and batteries, most of the plastic wastes are composed of materials that we use daily. According to reports, the global rate of plastic bottles sold per minute is nearly 1,000,000. Americans alone buy about 50 billion water bottles every year, which averages about 13 bottles a month per person in the US. Only around 23% of plastic bottles are properly recycled in the US. Using a reusable water bottle could replace about 156 plastic bottles a year.

Some plastic ‘production, use, and throw’ statistics

In 2015, the annual production of plastic globally reached 381 million tonnes, a 200-fold increase from just 2 million tonnes per year in 1950. In 2010, China produced the most plastic waste at about 60 million tonnes, followed by the US at 38 million. Germany and Brazil were next in list at 14.5 million and 12 million tonnes, respectively.

Estimates show that the annual usage of plastic bags globally stands at a massive 4 trillion. Only 1% of these plastic bags are sent for recycling and Americans alone throw about 100 billion plastic bags away every year which ends up in the landfill.

Globally, half a million straws are used and thrown out every single day and nearly 500 billion disposable cups are used every year. Americans contribute to about 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups in the trash every year.

About 52% of plastics that were thrown away in 2015 were plastic packaging products. Reports show that only about half of plastic packaging goes to recycling and the rest is added to the growing pile of plastic waste around us.

Around 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced in a year-end up in our oceans, which is the equivalent of emptying one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. This trend is increasing and this could mean by 2050, there will be more plastic waste than fish in our oceans.

Marine plastic pollution

Marine plastic pollution is one of the most crucial environmental challenges we are facing today. The plastic that is thrown away accumulates in the environment and a lot of it eventually lands in the ocean.

Marine debris originates from two common sources: land and the ocean. While plastic littered in the beach can find its way into the ocean through various means, fishing debris and garbage disposed of by ships and boats are directly dumped into the ocean.

Single-use plastics waste is choking bodies of water, piling up on landfills and is very harmful to plants and wildlife. Plastic debris drastically affects the marine environment by destroying coral reefs and adversely affecting marine life.

Sources and Further Reading

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