The properties that have made plastic popular, like its light weight, water impermeability, and long life are the same reasons that make its disposal difficult. The fact that it is inexpensive has made it ubiquitous, and the volumes of plastic waste generated has lead to a cascade effect. It is important to know what happens to old plastic to understand what will happen if it is not recycled.
The American Plastics Council (APC), reports that "94% of Americans can recycle plastic bottles locally, and more than 70% of us can recycle flexible wraps and bags at 18,000 grocery stores across the U. S." In this way, 32% of bottles and 17% of flexible wraps and bags were recycled in 2014. Though it is possible to recycle more types of plastic due to new technology, most plastic that is recyclable is discarded.
A 2016 Worldwatch Institute Report found that Americans and Europeans use an average of 100 kilos of plastic packaging every year. Less than 10% of the plastic used is recycled every year in the U.S. The remaining 33 million tons goes to waste, with 22-43% ending up in landfills, and the rest being incinerated or littered; all three impact the environment and affect human and wildlife health leading to enormous costs.
Plastic Pollution in Landfills
Recycling at consumer, community, and national levels is fairly inadequate and inefficient. PET (1), HDPE (2) and polystyrene-PS (6) are commonly accepted for recycling. While polypropylene-PP (5), LDPE (4), Polyvinyl Chloride -PVC (3) are sometimes recycled, polycarbonate and polylactide (7) used for medical devices, or in electrical and electronics, are seldom recycled.
Most plastic can be recycled. The partial amounts of PET, HDPE and PS recovered make up only 16.5% of the plastic which can be recycled, with 65% of material made of other kinds of plastic ending up landfills according to a study from Columbia University (p. 28).
- Decomposition estimates - In the landfill, PET can take 10 years, PS 50, HDPE 100, LDPE 500, and PP 1000 years to break down; the MDPI notes that PET can take up to 50 years to fully degrade. This process could occur faster if plastic is exposed to light. The material recovery facility Mercer Group International notes that most plastics take 200 to 400 years for decomposition.
- Health concerns - The toxic chemicals in plastic interact with water and leach into the ground and pollute groundwater reservoirs harming wildlife and people. Plastic uses bisphenol A (BPA), a carcinogen, and more recently bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF) as hardening agents. Other chemicals are added as flame-retardants or coloring agents, all of which affect hormone activity. Phthalates, contained in food packaging and medical devices, and BPA are found in 90% of premature babies according to Environment Health News, while BPS and BPF have effects similar to BPA.
Incineration, another common plastic waste management method, can be injurious to health, due to release of toxic chemicals listed as Persistant Organic Pollutants, or POPs, when they are inhaled. Materials made of HDPE, LDPE, PS and PP burn fast with an explosion and cause drips. PET needs higher temperatures and longer to ignite; while PVC and other thicker plastics are ones that require the highest temperatures. PVC, which burns with an acrid smell, produces dioxins, and products with flame retardants release many toxins. These cause severe health problems like cancer, neurological damage, birth defects and child developmental disorders, asthma, and multiple organ damage to name a few issues for people, and are also toxic for animals.
While some countries still incinerate plastic to generate energy, groups like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives are quick to point out the health hazards and problems of incineration. Incineration is a controversial option for dealing with plastics that aren't recycled.
The largest impact has been on marine ecosystems, with 10% of all plastic produced ending up in the oceans. Plastic is very 'mobile' given its low density and light weight, and items from illegal litters, dumps, and landfills blow over to streams and rivers, and is carried to oceans or is washed up on beaches. Eighty percent of marine waste comes from land sources and an additional 20% is dumped by ocean liners and platforms, and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has found that 33 to 66% of these are single-use plastic packaging for food and drinks, cups, utensils and cutlery, that could be recycled.
- Floating plastics - HDPE, LDPE and PP items float, and gyres are formed when they accumulate due to currents and cyclonic action. Some gyres are colossal in size. The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is larger than the state of Texas. There are four large gyres in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans too.
- Sinking plastics - The other kinds of plastics are heavy and sink to ocean floors. Thousands of animals from small finches to great white sharks are killed as they get entangled in discarded fishing nets. Three hundred species of animals ingest plastic mistaking it for food; for example sea-turtles mistake bellowing plastic for jellyfish. Nearly 100,000 animals die every year; some starve to death as plastics fill their bellies and there is no place left for food. Others are affected by the toxic elements added to plastic according to National Geographic.
- Micro-plastics - Plastic breaks down into micro-plastics rapidly, though it takes a long time to decompose completely. Because of the size, even small insects eat micro-plastic. Once ingested by small animals, plastic can find its way to people's tables by a process called bioaccumulation. When animals are eaten by bigger predatory fish and other sea-life, plastics, and the chemicals in them, get more concentrated as they move up the food-chain. Up to 67% of edible species of seafood, and 25% of catch in the U.S. has plastic in them.
Waste of Resources
Energy used to make base plastic from feedstock and manufacture different products accounts for 2.5 to 4% of U.S. energy consumption. If a plastic item is thrown away, it cannot be reused or remade into another plastic item. The base plastic in the item becomes a total waste. Raw materials and natural resources, such as water and energy, are needed to create new plastics. If the plastic item is recycled, the base plastic can be reused to create a new plastic item, frequently using fewer natural resources in the manufacturing process.
Most of the beaches worldwide suffer from littering of single-use packaging of food and beverages, leading to loss in livelihoods when tourism is affected. In California, more than half a billion dollars are spent annually to clean beachfronts for tourism. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region report losses of $622 million a year due to littered beaches, while fishing industries lose $364 million per year, and the shipping industries lose $279 million each year. So the total cost of marine debris in this region alone is $1.265 billion per year.
The UN News also estimates a "natural capital cost" of $75 billion due to use of plastic. Thirty percent or more of the cost derives from greenhouse emissions due to petroleum extraction and energy use in its production. On the other hand, recycling of plastics has helped recover plastics worth $4 billion each year.
Reduce Plastic Waste
Decrease plastic production by increasing the amounts of plastic recycled. Without recycling, this "wasted" plastic cannot be reworked and reused. Instead, new plastic must be made, requiring additional natural resources. You can help to save the environment by keeping wasted plastics out of the landfills, air, and oceans as well as cut down on natural resource use to make new plastics.