Jun 15, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Deep Dive: Our plastic planet

Assembled plastic objects found on the UK coast, 1994-2019. Photo: Steve McPherson

We have sipped, packaged and played our way into a global plastics crisis.

Why it matters: Activist consumer groups are pushing for less use, and to some extent, less production, while industry aims for increased recycling.

The big picture: Plastics demand is projected to only increase — and the footprint of plastic pollution with it.

  • Plastics made from oil and natural gas are an integral part of our daily lives, from cell phones to shipping materials to lifesaving medical devices.
  • But we use many plastics only once — and promptly discard them.

Driving the news: This week, Canada announced it plans to ban single-use plastics — likely bags, straws, plates, etc. — by 2021.

  • Canada's move is part of a broader trend at various levels of government to restrict or ban certain types of plastics.
  • And there's a growing "zero waste" movement on social media.

Microplastics — bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters in length — have been found lurking in the deep waters off California, on otherwise pristine mountain peaks in the Alps and in the gastrointestinal tracts of sea creatures large and small.

  • It’s quite possible that, as a legacy of our consumer habits, each of us is consuming microplastics on a regular basis as well.
  • What's not yet known is whether it's taking a toll on our health.

What's happening: There are calls to ban single-use plastics and force companies to rely less on petrochemicals. That industry is taking notice, trying to stay ahead of consumer backlash by focusing on recycling.

Details: Roland Geyer, the lead author of a comprehensive 2017 study on plastic production and end use, estimates that about 9,200 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced since 1950.

  • Geyer's study projected that by 2050 about 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste could be in landfills or the natural environment.
  • Globally, less than 20% of plastics were recycled in 2015. In the U.S., it's worse. Just 9% of plastics were recycled that year, according to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • In 2018, China banned most plastics headed for its recycling processors, shutting down the U.S.'s largest recycling export market and compounding our waste problem.

Since most plastics come from fossil fuels, our plastics dependency is also exacerbating climate change.

  • A recent report from an environmental group found that by 2030, plastics-related emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year — equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

Unlike with other global environmental problems, consumers have more control over how this story plays out in the future.

  • Efforts to replace plastic straws and switch from single-use plastic water bottles to reusable containers can make a difference when it comes to marine pollution, says Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Super Bowl spends $500k to ditch single-use plastic

Trash in the aftermath of Philadelphia celebrating the Eagles' Super Bowl LII win. Photo: Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Ahead of Super Bowl Sunday, the Miami Dolphins and concession services for the Hard Rock Stadium invested $500,000 in replacing single-use plastic cups with aluminum alternatives, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: By one estimate, nearly 80% of plastic waste has accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment, and it’s uncertain how long it takes to degrade. Plastics are slowly permeating our bodies, oceans and even the air.

Go deeperArrowFeb 1, 2020 - Sports

Malaysia sends back 150 containers of waste to mostly rich countries

Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin (front second left) and officials inspect a shipping container filled with plastic waste on January 20, 2020. Photo: AFP via Getty Images.

Malaysia is refusing to turn into the world's dumping ground amid growing disposal needs, the AP reports.

What's happening: The nation has returned more than 150 shipping containers of plastic garbage to 13 mostly rich countries since the third quarter of last year. Hauls of plastic waste have been rerouted to Southeast Asia since China issued a ban on importing plastic trash in 2018.

Go deeperArrowJan 20, 2020

Exclusive: What’s in Republicans’ new climate-change push

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Trees, plastics and favorable tax policy are at the core of House Republicans’ new push on climate change — an effort to reassure voters they care about the problem after a decade of dismissing it.

Why it matters: The policies reveal how Republicans hope to counter Democrats’ Green New Deal and show the political saliency of this topic that in the past has been on the electoral back burner.

Go deeperArrowJan 21, 2020