The tide of plastic waste engulfing the world

On the surface: Researchers say 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic float in our oceans. © Getty

Will humanity ever manage to break its plastic habit? Western governments are taking steps to fight it. And now the UN has declared the levels of plastic in the oceans a “planetary crisis”.

The human race wastes 275 million tonnes of it every year. The amount on the surface of the world’s oceans could circle the globe 425 times. Plastic, for one anti-waste campaigner, is the defining material of the current period of human history.

“We might see ourselves as living in the space age or the computer age,” wrote the chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall last year. “But to archaeologists of the far future, our times will be demarcated by a thin layer of faded but stubbornly persistent plastic.”

The human race’s plastic habit has a significant environmental impact. It kills an estimated 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine animals each year. And it allows toxic chemicals, which bind to the material’s surface and pores, to enter the food chain — harming our own food supplies.

“The scale of the challenge is absolutely enormous,” said Lisa Svensson, the UN’s oceans chief. This week at the UN environment summit in Nairobi, Svensson will back a resolution to eliminate disposal of plastic waste into the ocean. But environmentalists argue that the lack of a timeline is a problem.

Last year the UK government announced a ban on microbeads, and introduced a 5p charge on plastic bags in major supermarkets. But these are tentative steps against a long-term trend. Celluloid, the first commercially successful plastic, was created in the 1860s. Plastic has since become ubiquitous in modern consumerist societies.

We use it because it is light, durable and highly versatile. It has enabled the mass manufacture of items as diverse as car parts, coffee cups and mobile phones. It is also cheap: the chemical process used to manufacture it is less expensive than mining and forging many metals. But it takes many years to break down; even small amounts can pollute the environment for centuries.

Would we ever be prepared to reduce our plastic consumption by any meaningful degree?

The plastic addiction

Yes, say some. Humans are naturally inclined to care about the collective good. Given the right information, we will feel ashamed of the damage we are doing to our planet. We do not really need many of the cheap luxuries we enjoy. And nobody wants to eat toxic food. The path ahead, according to Fearnley-Whittingstall, “seems so obvious that I’m not sure choice is the right word”.

Don’t be so sure, respond others. Plastic has given us many wonderful objects which we have used to enhance our lives. Many poor parts of the world need to increase their plastic consumption to improve their services and infrastructure. And human nature is self-centred: we have known that plastic is a problem for a long time, but that has not stopped us increasing our usage of it.

You Decide

  1. Could you live entirely without plastic?
  2. In the whole of history, is there anything useful and cheap that humanity has voluntarily given up because it is not good for us?


  1. Keep a log of how much plastic you use on a normal day. Report back to class. Did you miss anything? And what can you learn from the experience?
  2. Choose an item that you value which has plastic in it (for example, your mobile phone). Try designing a plastic-free version of it. Then present to your class: how would your new design be better or worse than the original?

Some People Say...

“Humans are inherently self-centred and short-termist.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many of the things we use every day contain plastic. And items like food, drink and toiletries may be sold wrapped in plastic. Even things like toothpaste or face cream can have lots of small beads of plastic in them. The UN’s current commitment is to substantially decrease plastic waste inputs into the sea by 2025. This new resolution would be an improvement on that, but some environmentalists think we need more urgent action.
What do we not know?
Whether all nations will agree to the resolution, but if they do it will be considered a success. We also do not know if we could survive without plastic. It is inexpensive, and its uses are numerous and varied. But by implementing restrictions on its use we may be able to reduce our reliance on the material.

Word Watch

275 million
According to academics at the University of Georgia.
Around 268,000 tonnes of plastic floats in our world’s oceans. Far more has sunk to the ocean floor.
The word derives from the Greek verb plassein, meaning “to mould or shape”.
1 million
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. An estimated 90% of sea birds now eat plastic; almost every sea bird is expected to have done so by 2050.
Small pieces of plastic found in cosmetic items and household products. Some estimates suggest having a shower uses 100,000 microbeads of plastic. These go down the drain and into the sea. Some companies have voluntarily committed themselves to stop using microbeads by 2020.
5p charge
Government figures report an 85% drop in the number of bags being given out in the six months following its introduction.
Exhibited by Briton Alexander Parkes in 1862. It was soon used to produce objects such as knife handles, boxes, cuffs and collars.
Scientists remain divided over how long plastic takes to break down — but some estimate 500 or even 1,000 years.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.