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Scourge of plastic production now part of a gigantic and unstoppable experiment

Thinking in a climate emergency: Sheer quantity of the material in our environment is beyond staggering

Waste used to be something that was conveniently out of sight, out of mind. If it turned up as litter, it could be collected. But not any more. Now plastic is in everything, everywhere, all at once. Tiny shards of plastic called microplastics have been found at the summit of Mount Everest, in storm clouds and the deepest oceans.

It is estimated that somewhere between 75 and 199 million tonnes of plastic waste are in the oceans, via rivers that carry dumped wastes into lakes and estuaries. Scientists have found 19 types of plastic in snow falling over Antarctica, the most remote and pristine location on Earth.

The sheer quantity of plastic in the environment is staggering. Globally, 400 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced annually, equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Up to five trillion (that’s 5,000,000,000,000) plastic bags are used worldwide every year, with an average working life of 15 minutes each before they are discarded. 479 billion plastic bottles are manufactured every year, at a rate of 1 million per minute. Ten million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year, a figure which is expected to triple by 2040.

Single-use plastics are a particular problem: 46 billion bottles; 36 billion straws; 16 billion coffee cups; and 2 billion plastic takeaway containers are consumed annually in the European Union. If historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050.


While some plastics can degrade in a few weeks, many last for hundreds of years, though of course, plastic production only really got started in the 1950s so we cannot know for certain how long they will last. Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces where their impacts on the marine environment and human health become much more difficult to eradicate.

These ubiquitous particles (microplastics and nanoplastics) enter the human body and have been found in our lungs, livers, spleens and kidneys, A study recently detected microplastics in the placentas of newborn babies. There is substantial evidence that plastics-associated chemicals, such as phthalates, bisphenols, methyl mercury, plasticisers and flame retardants, by both their potential toxicity and ability to disrupt the endocrine system, are linked to fertility problems, neurodevelopmental disorders, early sex development, and cancers.

The full extent of the impacts on human health is still unknown, but it’s clear that we are now part of a gigantic and unstoppable experiment being conducted by the plastics industry.

How is the plastics industry getting away with this epidemic of waste and pollution? The clue is in what plastic is made from. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, some 98 per cent of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The top 20 list of petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers bound for single-use plastic is a who’s who of the global fossil fuel and chemical industry. The biggest global producer of plastic is ExxonMobil, followed by Sinopec (China), Dow (US), Indorama Ventures (Indonesia) and Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia).

Unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry is desperately pivoting to plastics production and so-called “advanced recycling” technologies as oil and gas use in the energy system declines. But of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 per cent has been recycled. The evidence suggests that both mechanical and chemical plastics recycling is expected to remain, at most, a marginal activity for the plastics sector. In any case, the processes can be also highly polluting and energy intensive.

While we understandably want to see an end to single-use plastics, recycling is unfortunately a mirage. We would be much better off reducing plastics altogether and reverting to reusable and biodegradable packaging. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2040.

What a terrible waste of another limited resource. Such is the power of this sector that a UN resolution to kick-start negotiations on a new treaty to deal with plastics targets plastic “pollution”, not production, as if the two issues were somehow separate.

Is sorting our household rubbish a waste of time then? Soft and hard plastic waste is collected for recycling in Ireland, and even though some do end up in cement kilns and incinerators, this is probably better than landfill.

However, we should not settle for anything less than a strong treaty to phase out the manufacture and use of all problematic plastics and harmful chemicals and insist on environmentally sound circular economy approaches to all material use.

Sadhbh O’Neill is the senior climate adviser to Friends of the Earth Ireland

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