The June issue is the perfect primer on the world’s plastic pollution. In the magazine’s exemplary tradition, they have taken on a complex subject and described it in a clear and comprehensible article. Planet or Plastic written by Laura Parker and Elizabeth Royte with photography by Randy Olsen, gives you a world-wide perspective on the history of everyday plastics and the implications of today’s explosion of throw-away plastics.
Plastics were first created in the late 19th century but it was in the 1950’s when the use of throw-away plastics began in earnest, a trend that has led to the global crisis that the world faces today. Along the way “Planet or Plastic” presents you with with some extraordinary facts and figures. Here are a few along with a some of our own thoughts tossed in.
- Since our plastic world began we have produced about 9.2 billion tons of plastic, of which nearly 6.9 billion tons are now waste and of that, 6.3 billion tons has never been recycled.
- “Virtually half the plastic ever manufactured has been made in the past 15 years.”
- In 2013, a group of scientists declared that “disposable plastic should be classified…. as a hazardous material.”
- Coca-Cola annually produces 128 billion bottles, (that’s right 128 billion bottles) possibly making this one company the world’s largest producer of plastic bottles.
- The Waters Division of Nestle, supplies 11% of the world’s bottled waters.
- China produces in excess of 25% of all the world’s plastic items.
- “Half the world’s mismanaged plastic waste is generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.” But don’t gloat, most of the plastic waste that originates in Europe and North America is shipped to these same Asian nations, rather than being recycled at home.
- A plastic grocery bag is used for an average of 15 minutes but may live in the environment for hundreds of years. And there are very few recycling plants that will accept plastic produce bags.
- There are five trillion bits of plastic floating around in the ocean, many in the form of tiny and harmful microplastics.
- Globally only 18% of all single-use plastics are recycled. Europe manages 30%, China 25% and the US a dismal 9%.
- Plastic debris in the ocean is a threat to marine life and by extension also a threat to humans.
Planet or Plastic Offers Solutions For Individuals And Governments
What individuals can do?
- Here’s a telling comparison; in the US they use approximately 1 plastic bag per person per day, while in Denmark an individual, uses 4 per year. That leaves a lot of space for cutting back on your consumption of plastic products.
- Refuse plastic straws and take it a step further by talking to that restaurant or bar and explain to them why you are refusing a straw, ask them to join the “no straw movement.” The same applies to plastic cutlery, plates and carry-out food containers.
- Choose sustainable alternatives to throw-away plastic items, for example use a metal straw instead of a plastic one.
- Participate in local clean-ups and join groups that will apply pressure on local and national governments to make changes.
What Communities and Governments Must Do.
- Cleaning up the ocean plastic mess is certainly a big job and part of the solution, however keeping the plastic waste from ever getting into the oceans must be a top priority.
- Expand the garbage removal and recycling capabilities in developing countries especially in Asia. They need more landfills, better landfills and more garbage trucks.
- Governments from the local level to national levels have passed laws to ban throw-away plastics. What is your governing bodies doing? Find out!
What can industry do?
- Many of the “biodegradable” plastic products offered today do not decompose as promised, especially in the oxygen-free environment of landfills or at the bottom of the sea or even in your compost bin. Industry must design new plastic products that are truly biodegradable or more reliably recyclable.
- Producers of single-use plastic items must do more, for example Coca-Cola has announced its goal of collecting and recycling 100% of its bottles by 2030.
- Create a circular economy suggests Ramani Narayan a chemical engineering professor. Where everything is reused or recycled and anything that “leaks” into the environment is unacceptable. Norway for example, collects 97% of plastic bottles by offering high refunds for returned bottles and using machines in supermarkets that take in plastic bottles and returns a refund. Our area of Canada has similar programs.
Update: We got a lot of immediate feed-back on this article, some within our community, complaining that this issue of Nat. Geo arrived to them in the US in a plastic wrapper. That would certainly be in contrast to what is clearly stated in Susan Goldberg’s message in From The Editor that read: “That’s why, if you’re a U.S. or U.K. subscriber, this month’s issue arrived in a paper rather than plastic wrapper.” So if not true then somebody obviously didn’t get the message. I know that our copy was received in paper up here in Canada, however we are always on the cutting edge.
There were also comments about big corporations not doing enough or quickly enough to eliminate plastic bottles from their production, especially in Asia where recycling and disposal infrastructure is stretched to the limit or non-existent. That is certainly a problem and these multinationals need to be held accountable for the full cycle of their products, but so do the many Asian countries that have turned a blind eye to the problem and the necessity to build a recycling and disposal infrastructure. Obviously the plastic pollution crisis is huge and there is enough blame to go around.
What I have been gratified to see is the immense attention that mass media is paying to the crisis. I can’t recall another global issue that has galvanized governments, media and corporations as quickly as this issue has. Is it too late, it can never be too late, there is too much dependent on getting control of this crisis, our oceans and our very lives are in the balance.
Thank you National Geographic (but you have to sort out those damm wrappers) for Planet or Plastic and your input into this worldwide issue with a clear, concise article and the promise to do more, editorially and also in the very production and shipping of your printed products. Everyone, buy the June issues, Planet or Plastic, read it, pass it around. It carries important messages that will be very useful today and for the future.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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