Recycling plastic is important, but not as important as reducing plastic waste. There are many reasons why plastic waste is one of the worst types of human waste generated by society, and why humanity should attempt to reduce the amount of single-use plastic they manufacture and dispose of.
Below you’ll learn some of the reasons why reducing plastic waste is so important for human society and the environment. Reducing plastic waste doesn’t just save money and resources, it helps keep us safer.
Reducing Plastic Waste Saves Energy
Some plastic can be recycled, but reducing plastic waste generated to begin with is where people can really save energy. Think of all the energy that’s wasted creating plastic bottles, straws, and inserts. The factories used to create single-use plastic items waste thousands of gallons of petroleum humanity could use to fuel other necessary industries.
Reducing plastic waste also saves energy used in recycling plants to recycle the plastic after it’s used. Reducing plastic waste allows recycling plants to focus on other waste materials such as wood and glass. These materials are often easier to recycle than plastic.
Single-Use Plastics Are Hard to Recycle
One of the biggest issues with recycling plastic is that single-use plastics are often difficult to recycle compared to other materials. Plastics come in a wide variety of different forms and types, and categorizing these items at a recycling plant requires massive amounts of labor and time to do effectively.
The same versatility that allows plastic to be molded into just about any form imaginable for human use also makes it difficult to standardize machines to recycle these objects. Many plastic objects are also tangling hazards for recycling plant machines because of the form they take or how malleable they are.
More Plastic is Consumed Than Is Recycled
Even if plastic was easier to recycle, the fact of the matter is that much more plastic is manufactured, consumed, and thrown away than is recycled.
There is five times more plastic consumed each year than ever gets recycled. (Source: Eureka! Recycling) That means a large percentage of the plastics used end up incinerated or sit in a landfill and take up valuable space in the environment.
As more and more plastics are invented to handle human problems, we’ll continue to have difficulties figuring out what to do with our waste plastic once we’re done with it. Even if we increase the amount of waste plastic that is recycled, there are still many plastics that are non-recyclable and will continue to pollute the environment.
Plastic Products Are Wasted Petroleum
Most plastic products are manufactured in factories that use petroleum to generate energy. This fossil fuel has been in a popularity decline for much of the last half of the 20th century due to its contribution to both pollution and global warming. While many vehicles are converting over to alternative energy such as solar, most plastic manufactured is still dependent on oil.
Petroleum use isn’t just a problem when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions. Dependence on petroleum is also related to the following global problems:
- International resource insecurity: Access to petroleum is the root of many international world conflicts that lead to increased suffering and war between nations. Reducing petroleum use helps reduce the need for international conflicts and fights over contested territories that contain petroleum.
- Environmental pollution: Petroleum production is a poorly regulated industry that is a major cause of environmental pollution such as oil spills. (Source: The Wilderness Society) These industrial accidents can be devastating to local wildlife and environments. Reducing plastic waste reduces the need for petroleum production.
- Limited resource: Unlike solar and other alternative energy sources, petroleum is a limited resource that becomes increasingly difficult to produce and find the more we use it. One of the reasons for the push towards renewable energy sources is to wean humanity off its dependence on limited energy resources like petroleum.
There are lots of problematic things with the production and use of petroleum. Cutting back on plastic waste helps us cut back on wasted petroleum at the same time.
Plastic Waste Contributes to Climate Change
Plastic waste is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Did you know that the transport of the petroleum products used to produce most plastics makes up 90% of the carbon emissions generated by human transportation? Climate change is the global warming caused largely by increased carbon emissions due to human expansion.
The effects of climate change are far-reaching, and reducing carbon emissions by reducing industrial manufacturing can help fend them off. Here are just a few of the catastrophes caused by climate change in the environment:
- Large-scale wildfires: While wildfires are a common occurrence in nature, rising global temperatures and droughts have led to an increase in uncontrolled wildfires worldwide. Not only does this lead to billions of dollars in property damage, it also has devastating effects on local wildlife and plant life.
- Increased storm events: Seasonal storms such as hurricanes are a normal part of the varying weather, but the last several decades have shown that increased global temperatures have led to a severity in the size, rate, and severity of storm systems. This is especially dangerous for coastal communities and communities below sea level.
- Crop shortage: Fluctuating temperatures and weather patterns caused by climate change have led to increased levels of disease and insect pests. This can cause mass crop failures that result in large-scale food shortages. In countries that are especially dependent on a single crop for survival, crop failure can induce a famine.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the twenty-first century, and reducing the consumption of plastic is a key component of reducing our carbon emissions.
Most Plastic Is Too Contaminated to Recycle
The biggest reason why reducing plastic waste is so important is because it’s so hard to recycle plastic without introducing contamination to the recycling system. Contamination is any non-recyclable material that ends up mixed in with the recycling. Removing and discarding non-recyclable materials is a large part of the recycling plant’s responsibilities.
Plastic recycling can be contaminated with everything from biohazards to food waste or plastic bags. Here are some of the reasons why contamination in recycling is such a problem:
- Recycling contamination causes recycling to be discarded. When a certain percentage of a recycling section is deemed contaminated, this causes the entire batch of recycling to be thrown out rather than recycled. This means contaminated plastic in recycling has far-reaching effects on the recycling system. (Source: University of Michigan)
- Contaminated plastic can damage recycling machines. If a batch of contaminated plastic brings down the machines in a recycling plant, this causes unnecessary delays to repair the machine and prevents recycling plant workers from doing their job.
- Contamination damages the value of recycled materials. Many recycled materials are sanitized, broken down, and resold to help offset the costs of recycling. Contaminated plastic can lead to a batch of recycled materials being downgraded in monetary value, making it less cost-effective for companies to recycle materials. (Source: Clean River)
Contaminated plastic isn’t just an inconvenience for recycling workers. It’s damaging to the entire process of recycling, and makes it less effective. Using less plastic waste means there’s less chance of contaminated plastic degrading recycling batches.
Plastic Waste is Dangerous to Wildlife
By far one of the worst things about excess plastic use is the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans and other parts of the environment. Plastic bags, straws, and the plastic rings used to package soft drinks can easily cause a slow and unnecessary death in wildlife if they are eaten or become wrapped around an animal’s leg or neck.
There is a large percentage of manufactured plastic that is completely non-recyclable, and the consumption of plastic goods outweighs the amount of plastic that is recycled by five times.
However, the plastic that ends up in the environment as a result of its inability to be recycled or discarded safely causes a massive amount of damage to wild animals, even wildlife in remote ocean environments that are otherwise protected from the dangers of human expansion.
Plastic Exposure Is Harmful to Humans
The most serious danger related to plastic exposure and the breakdown of plastic waste is the production of microplastics as a by-product.
Microplastics are so small as to be almost invisible to the eye, but ingesting and breathing in microplastics is dangerous to human health. Microplastics are associated with increased cancer risks, neurotoxicity, and metabolic disorders. (Source: ScienceDirect)
While some of these microplastics are filtered out by water treatment facilities, there are also smaller pieces of plastic invisible to the naked eye that inevitably end up in human bodies as the result of environmental exposure. These plastics also end up in the animals we eat.
Plastic Waste Contaminates Water Supplies
When it comes to microplastics, the biggest danger that microplastics pose to human consumption is in the water supply. Studies have shown that up to 83% of treated tap water is contaminated with microplastic that is small enough to pass through water treatment filtration systems. (Source: Earth Day)
Unsurprisingly, microplastics have also been found in 93% of the world’s top bottled water brands. Since much of this water is stored in plastic, it’s very easy for it to be polluted by plastic particles during the manufacturing process.
The fact that microplastics are small enough to pass most conventional water filtration systems means that there’s no good way to avoid ingesting microplastics except through a concentrated effort to reduce the amount of single-use plastic being dumped in the environment. Reducing plastic waste is the single best way to achieve this.
Plastic Waste Is Not Biodegradeable
A serious problem with manufacturing and consuming plastic is that it’s one of the least biodegradable materials that humans use. This means that over decades or centuries, many plastics break down very slowly or not at all. Over time, this causes them to build up in landfills and pollute the surrounding area. (Source: Plastics Make It Possible)
Thanks to modern technology, there are more and more kinds of plastic that are designed to break down more quickly in the environment. However, this still leads to the problem of microplastics, and these biodegradable plastics make up a small percentage of the plastics used overall.
The best solution for generating plastic waste that isn’t biodegradable means reducing plastic waste completely rather than aiming for recycling solutions only. Single-use plastic is the biggest contributor to plastic waste, so ideally these items should be replaced with either biodegradable products or products that are designed for long-term use.
Waste Disposal Causes Environmental Problems
When plastic can’t be recycled, that means it has to be disposed of instead. The practices used to dispose of plastics, such as incineration, can do damage to the surrounding environment. From a practical standpoint, it’s one of the most expensive methods of waste disposal, which means it is an unpopular method of waste disposal.
However, the practice of burying plastic in landfills can damage the environment by leaching toxic chemicals into the surrounding groundwater. For plastic that doesn’t get buried, single-use plastic like plastic shopping bags can end up being driven by wind and weather into surrounding areas where they negatively impact the ecosystem.
The amount of waste plastic that humanity puts into the environment is staggering. In 2018 alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States put 37.5 billion tons of plastic waste into the environment alone. (Source: EPA) Reducing plastic waste produced in the first place is crucial to driving that number down.
Plastic Waste Reduction Is Vital for Our Survival
Plastic has done many wonderful things for humanity, but unfortunately we’ve reached the point in our history where our over-consumption of this building material has outpaced our ability to process it after using it.
Increasing the amount of plastic recycled is helpful, but many plastics can never be recycled. To avoid living in a landfill in the future, it’s important for us to make drastic strides in reducing our plastic waste production now.