We are drowning in a sea of plastic. Since its discovery in the late 19th century and explosion post World War II, the story on plastic has gone from wonder material of the future to problematic litter contributor to a serious health concern for humans and the planet. The problem with plastic relates mainly to two things: its persistence in the environment and how we use it. Plastic is needed in many industries, such as medical and construction industries, but due to the fact that it does not break down and return to the environment through natural processes such as rusting or rotting (like other materials such as wood and metal) any plastic we create sticks around for a very, very long time. So long in fact that a single plastic bag made and thrown away today, unless recycled, will be around to see the fourth millennium (year 3,000). That plastic water bottle you grabbed because it’s “convenient” will be around for about 450 years. Consider those time lines when looking at this horrifying statistic from the OECD’s recently released Global Plastic Outlook, that this year alone, the world created 353 MILLION tonnes of plastic waste. That means of the 460 million tonnes of plastic produced in 2019, that 353 million tonnes of it got thrown away!
Since numbers can be numbing and hard to wrap your head around, here are some conversions I put together for you. Also, remember that most plastic has a low weight to volume ratio, so given this relatively low density the visuals below are about the total weight of plastic, which will be much smaller than the total volume.
In 2019, the world threw away 353 million tonnes of plastic, this is equivalent to the weight of:
- 235 million mid-size cars (estimated at 1.5 tonnes each)
- 52 million elephants (a single elephant weighs about 6.8 tonnes)
- 608,000 AirBus A380s (each one weighing 580 tonnes)
- 1070 Empire State Buildings (the building weighs approximately 330,000 tonnes)
These numbers are shocking and on the increase. Global plastic production has quadrupled in the past 30 years, with the world only tipping over the 100 million tonnes mark of production in about 1985.
All countries are consuming far too much plastic, with the majority of consumption coming from industrialized countries such as the United States. On average, a single person in the US consumes 255 kg or 562 lb of plastic per year – as compared to 152 kg/337 lb consumed per person per year in the EU, 144 kg/317 lb per person per year in Australia and New Zealand, 69 kg/152 lb consumed per person per year in China, 22 kg/48.5 lb per person per year in India, or as low as 16 kg per person per year in Sub-Saharan Africa.
However, the majority of mismanaged plastic waste (the waste that is the most problematic for the environment as it is lost to pollution in aquatic or terrestrial environments) comes from developing nations with inadequate or underfunded waste retrieval and management facilities, which is why, despite the lower per capita usage stats, developing countries often have dire plastic pollutions issues. If you are interested in a more indepth look at where plastic in the world is produced, what its lifespan use is, and where it goes at the end of the day, please read the OECD report, it is long, but extremely well researched and written. The main summary that I will leave you with is this: 1) the developed world in particular is using far too much plastic and 2) the developing world is a big contributor to plastic pollution, not so much through consumption – though that is rising quickly – but rather through mismanagement of waste and a lack of investment in proper waste management systems and facilities. Given the facts above, those of us in the developed world need to rethink our relationship with plastic and work to decrease our consumption, all while supporting aid to developing nations that allow them to develop sustainable systems for waste management.
So what can you do at home to help solve this massive, very global problem of plastic waste? The answer is simple: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, recycle.
The catch phrase reduce, reuse, recycle has been around since the swinging 70s and while it has gained significant momentum since then, many still don’t understand it. See, reduce, reuse, recycle is a hierarchy, with reducing being the most important, followed by reusing, and, finally, if there is no other option, recycling. Despite the best of intentions, many people focused too much on recycling and forgot that, while recycling is still a part of the global waste solution, recycling alone is not enough. Globally, only a measly 9% of plastic is ever recycled, which means that 91% of all plastic produced in the world is either landfilled, incinerated, or not managed at all (littered). OECD countries send more of their plastic to landfill (57% landfilled, 29% incinerated, 9% recycled, and 6% unmanaged), while non-OECD countries are more responsible for the unmanaged or littered plastic (42% landfilled, 39% unmanaged, 10% incinerated, and 10% recycled).
Recycling is an important final step in the pathway to plastic reduction, but it is the final step and, currently, an imperfect step due to a lack of efficient and effective systems worldwide. So keep up the recycling, learn what can be recycled in your area (accidental contamination of recycling with un-recyclable materials often leads to the whole lot being sent to landfill), and, most importantly, think about what you can do to stop the plastic problem at the source by refusing single use plastic, reducing what plastic products we purchase, opting for reusables and reusing what we already own, rotting (aka composting) any organic waste, and, finally, recycling all inorganic waste possible.
That’s well and good, you think, but what does reducing, reusing, and recycling have to do with a travel blog? The answer is multifaceted, but I can promise you that when you travel you are exposed to the world in a way that those who stay at home struggle to be. When you dive on a stunning reef only to surface and see a dead green sea turtle, killed from the exhaustion of losing a flipper to a ghost net, you cannot ignore the plight of the oceans. When you are swimming on a pristine beach and pulling plastic bags and empty sunscreen bottles from the water, you begin to see the impact of our increasing global consumption and love affair with single use plastic. When you are brought to tears over the desecration of a sacred temple by piles and piles of plastic, you realize, we, as a global community, need to change, and I really mean we all need to change, no country is completely free of pollution. Yes, some are doing much better than others (Australia has some of the strongest marine protections I know of and it shows in the health of the oceans), but there are still problems everywhere, from the small-scale littering of a few selfish jerks, to the truly global problem of rising carbon emissions that threaten habitats worldwide.
We travel to see the world, to be exposed to new ideas and new places, and I hope that slowly the idea of protecting our global environment is spreading. So that is why I am writing about reduce, reuse, recycle, because it may be simplistic for some, but it may be a new idea for others and that is what matters. This is the beginning of a series on how to live a lower impact life, both at home and abroad, and more in depth posts will be coming. This is just the overview, a glimpse into the history of the environmental movement (this only really began in the 1970s), a peak at the scope of the problem, and a snapshot of how changing your mindset can help to change the world.
I know that it can be hard to see the impact of small, daily choices to reduce, reuse, recycle, which is why I led with those staggering global numbers. Yes, when you forget your coffee cup and opt for disposable instead of sitting down and enjoying it at the cafe in a mug, you are not dropping a ghost net into the ocean, but you are contributing to the 2.7 million coffee cups that Australia alone throws away every single day. There are a lot of us on this planet and our actions add up, either good or bad, sustainable or unsustainable. We are each only one person, but each of us impacts our family, our friends, our community, our national politics, and if each of us who cares speaks up and pushes for a more sustainable future then we will make change. The modern environmental movement was only born 50 years ago. The plastic problem was born 70 years ago. We have come far together, with more and more states and countries banning common single use plastic items such as plastic bags, plastic drink containers, straws, etc.; but, as always, there is far to go.
Plastic is a part of our daily life in the developed world and it can be hard to see alternatives, but it is possible, I promise you. I hope this series can help you find your way towards a lower plastic life, as it is the distillation of more than a decade of thinking, practicing, and changing for me to decrease my plastic consumption. In the meantime, take a deep breath and remember, no one is perfect, it is highly impractical to remove all plastic from your life, and to be honest, that isn’t the goal. The goal is to consume less plastic, not no plastic. The goal is to increase the lifespan of the products we use, to move away from a disposable society. The goal is to be one percent better every day. We will never be perfect, but we can be better. I hope you join me on this journey, because it affects all of us. The Earth is our home and I for one want to care for our beautiful planet so that it is just as beautiful and healthy for generations to come.
Stay tuned for more practical posts with tips to reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse and rot our way to a healthier, more sustainable future.