Although scientists have known for decades about the accumulating mass of ocean debris and its deadly consequences for seabirds, fish, and other marine animals, the science of sea trash is young and full of as-yet unsolved mysteries. Almost nothing was known about the amount of plastic in remote regions of the Southern Hemisphere, for example, until last year because few had ever traveled there to collect samples.
A study published in the journal Science Advances has revealed that the United States ranks in the top three countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution. This includes scrap plastic exports and the latest figures on illegal dumping and littering in the country. The new research challenges the once-held assumption that the United States is adequately “managing” — that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling, or otherwise containing — its plastic waste. Plastic waste management and recycling are a lie.
Plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have 9.2 billion tons of plastic to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling facility—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.
Scientists have now termed the waste as the “Plastisphere.” Plastic inherently contains toxins. Plastic pollution in the ocean acts like a sponge, collecting all kinds of different bacterium, and according to scientists, that includes bacteria of the genus Vibrio, the bacterium responsible for cholera. Bacteria colonizing on plastic pollution in the ocean are “as antibiotic-resistant as the toughest bacteria present in urban environments.”
Most plastic packaging is never even collected by waste management and a negligible fraction of the collected packaging is actually recycled.
Plastic is much more difficult to recycle than you were told. Most plastic ends up in a landfill, despite the promotion of plastic recycling. Plastic production has outpaced recycling more than 5x over the past decade.
Plastic is cheap and incredibly versatile. However, these qualities have also resulted in it becoming an environmental issue. We have developed a “disposable” lifestyle and estimates are that around 50% of plastic is used just once and thrown away. On average, plastic bags only have a working life of 15 minutes worldwide.