Our Plastic Future is Now

Published on July 25th, 2017

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.” 

The Graduate scene
"Plastics" scene from The Graduate.

“Yes sir?”
“Are you listening?’ 
“Yes I am.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” 

– The Graduate, 1967

The Graduate, the classic film that shot Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman to Hollywood stardom, turns 50 this year, and this quirky scene is one of its most memorable.
Hoffman plays the disaffected young recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, and at a formal poolside cocktail party to celebrate his achievement, an unhip friend of his parents’, Mr. McGuire, offers him this bit of uncool career advice: “Go into plastics, young man!” Plastics! What could be more tacky to a generation of hippies seeking authenticity and rebelling against “the establishment”! 

But Benjamin Braddock would do well to have heeded this career counseling, for in the past half-century, the ubiquitous petrochemical product known as plastics have overtaken the world.
Plastic waste has also become so abundant in this age of overpopulation, overconsumption, and overshoot that it now threatens the biosphere. Because they are synthetic compounds unknown in nature, plastics are not biodegradable, and in fact take centuries to decompose naturally.
With regard to plastic bottles alone, a recent article in The Guardian tells how: “Annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top half a trillion by 2021, far outstripping recycling efforts and jeopardising oceans, coastlines and other environments.”

plastic pollution pile
Plastic pollution pile.

Worldwide, approximately 16,000 plastic bottles are manufactured every second, at a rate of almost a million a minute. According The Guardian, this number is predicted to surge by yet another 20 percent by 2021, double in the next two decades, and quadruple by 2050. This is creating an environmental crisis that the paper says some environmental activists regard as every bit as severe as climate change.
Demand for plastic drinking bottles is driven by a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the convenience and hip look of bottled water, which is now spreading from mass consumption countries like the United States to surging China and the emerging Asia Pacific region.   
In 2016, more than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were bought globally, up from approximately 300 billion just a decade earlier. If placed end to end, this annual output of plastic soda and water bottles would stretch to the moon and back about a hundred times. 
Most plastic drinking bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET bottles are eminently recyclable. Yet less than half are. Instead, most wind up in landfills, trash dumps, littering the landscape, or in the oceans and on its beaches.
In essence, as consumption of plastic drinking bottles skyrockets, hard-pressed efforts to collect and recycle the mountains of bottles – and prevent them from polluting the continents and the oceans – are simply not able to keep up with the rising tide of plastic.  

Explosive Growth in Global Annual Plastic Production, in Millions of Tons.

Every year roughly 5 to 13 million tons of plastics end up in the oceans. There the plastic is eaten by unwitting fish, sea birds, and other marine organisms. One startling statistic is that by 2050, by weight, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish!
In effect, humans are fishing out the Earth’s oceans and replacing depleted fish populations with plastics. It is sickening. What would The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock have thought of that?
In a fitting “what goes around comes around” scenario, or perhaps just poetic justice, some experts are warning that some of the plastic waste ingested by fish is already ending up in the human food chain. 
According to The Guardian article, scientists at one European university recently calculated that seafood consumers ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic (“microplastics”) every year. Another study in the UK discovered plastic in a third of all fish caught in the United Kingdom, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
In 2016, citing growing worries about food safety and human health, “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish,” the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research into the matter. 

polluted shoreline
Where a lot of the bottles end up:  littering the world’s beaches.

And by now, most of us have seen photos of the remains of dead seabirds that gagged on plastic waste. According to National Geographic, 90 percent of seabirds have now ingested plastic, a “rate that is growing steadily as global production of plastics increases.”
Scientists have been monitoring ingestion of plastic by seabirds for more than half a century.  In 1960, they found plastic in the stomachs of less than five percent; by 1980, it had increased to 80 percent. And now it is up to 90 percent.    

It is indeed a crisis. Large, majestic, soaring seabirds like the albatross consume huge amounts of plastics, including bags, bottle caps, synthetic fibers, and “tiny rice-sized bits that have been broken down by the sun and waves.” 

An albatross filled with plastic.

In June, researchers found nearly 18 tons of plastic on Henderson Island, an uninhabited coral atoll in the South Pacific, and one of the most isolated spots on Earth.

Even remote Arctic beaches are now heavily littered with plastic. Though local human populations are small, the plastic waste of course is generated by huge populations and huge and growing plastic consumption elsewhere, then carried afar by the sea currents which encircle our planet. In the U.K., plastic waste is fouling many of the country’s most scenic and pristine beaches.
Nearly four decades ago, I paddled with two Canadian friends by sea kayak for one month and 500 miles in an expedition north through the Inside Passage of British Columbia. This is the sheltered network of canals, channels, fjords, and islands that runs along the Canadian coast from Puget Sound in Washington to the Alexander Archipelago of the Alaska Panhandle.
It is a majestic wilderness waterway, and it looked pristine from a distance. But even four decades ago, the amount of plastic and Styrofoam trash marring these inaccessible beaches was appalling. It would only be worse now.

ocean wave in BC
British Columbia’s Inside Passage in 1979 – Kayaking through wilderness of
stunning beauty – until we saw the non-biodegradable plastic debris
cluttering these once pristine beaches.

Ironically, part of the surge in demand for bottled drinking water, especially in developing countries such as China and India, as well as in Latin America, stems from legitimate concerns over contaminated surface water and groundwater. 
What is to be done to reverse the tide of plastic waste? How can we avoid drowning in the wastes associated with this useful, ubiquitous substance that isn’t going away?
In addition to stabilizing California’s, America’s and the world’s population – which is necessary in addressing any and all environmental problems – a number of things can and should be done. These include peer pressure, greater education about recycling and the destruction waste plastics on the loose are causing for sea life, bottle bills (container deposit laws), taxes and charges on single-use plastic bags and bottles, recycled content standards, and so forth. 
Unfortunately, all of these sensible measures, from population stabilization to bottle bills and other legislation, are opposed by a range of powerful vested interests, which is why we are drowning in plastic waste.
We never did find out whether The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock went into plastics, but I’d like to believe that if he did, he’d now be part of the solution rather than part of the problem that plastic waste poses for our living world. 

We need to get control of waste plastic before it drowns or buries us.


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