Global Plastics, an Environmental Crisis

By: Noah Weinberg

Date: 1/06/21

Since their inception in 1907, synthetic plastics have been used in almost all aspects of society. Created by chemist Leo Baekeland, synthetics first provided, and continue to offer, a cheap, comparable alternative to much more expensive metals. However, due to many of their artificial properties, plastics are extremely harmful to the environment.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 450 years for plastic water bottles to break down and 500 years for plastic toothbrushes to decompose. This lack of biodegradability coupled with the unfortunate reality that many of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean, has accumulated into a body often referred to as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’

This vortex, an amalgamation of synthetic waste located in the Pacific Ocean, is actually composed of two masses. As seen in the map above, one lies off of California’s coast, and the other off of Japan’s. As stated in an article by National Geographic, “these areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, located a few hundred kilometers north of Hawaii.”

In total, the Pacific Garbage Patch’s area spans approximately 617,763 square miles. To place that in perspective, here is a graph of the largest European countries (excluding Russia) in comparison to the body of plastic.

Hover over a bar to view info

The major differences in area are not helped by the fact that the Garbage Patch is continuously growing in surface area as time progresses, unlike the European nations.

To understand how this monstrosity of a body could become massive so within the last century, we have to look at the levels of plastic production, and subsequent waste, produced by humans. In 2019, 368 million metric tons were produced by humans, up from 270 million metric tons just in 2010. In that same year, approximately 5 to 13 million metric tons from the 270, entered the world’s oceans. Below, is an interactive graph of the estimated average plastic output per capita in the 24 largest economies in the world.

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The increase of plastics in the ocean has many detrimental effects to the environment. The impact that can be seen most directly is through the interactions between sea animals and the debris. According to National Geographic’s report, “Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded largely due to the inclement weather and illegal fishing. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets—a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing.’”

Not only do the build-up of ocean plastics damage their immediate ecosystems, humans are affected too in the form of microplastics. Microplastics are classified as any plastic debris measuring less than five millimeters in length. In the study, “Human Consumption of Microplastics,” scientists concluded that “annual microplastics consumption ranges from 39000 to 52000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase to 74000 and 121000 when inhalation is considered.” The visual below is a depiction of just how much plastic is consumed per year by the average human, a whopping 250 grams.

Plastics are in almost everything we use. In order to try and lessen the effects of plastic, not just on the oceans, but on the environment as a whole, humans must begin to use alternatives to the synthetic compounds. Efforts such as the plastic bag taxes imposed by states are a step in the right direction, yet there is much more that we must do to reverse the damages.

Sources For Data:

Area Comparison Graph: "Countries of Europe by Area"

Waste Per Capita Graph: "Plastic Pollution"

Sources For Story:

"The Great Pacific Garbage Patch"
"The Top 25 Economies in the World"
"Great Pacific Garbage Patch"
"Global Production of Plastics Since 1950"
Human Consumption of Microplastics
"A plateful of plastic - Visualising the amount of microplastic we eat"