Cheap, lightweight, durable, moldable, and sanitary. No material has done more to shape modern life than plastics. From preserving food to improving medical safety, plastics have inarguably improved our quality of life. Plastics have been so effective in so many different applications that we’ve overlooked its drawbacks, and it’s the very same properties that make it so effective that also make it such an ominous problem.
Though invented in the 19th century, plastics only entered the mainstream during WWII to accommodate a rise in demand for synthetic alternatives to increasingly scarce natural resources. Since then the world has produced about 9.6 billion tons of plastic, most of which has become irreducible waste. Unable to decompose, plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics now found to be ubiquitous in water, air, soil, and food. Microplastics have even been found in sewage systems.
The long-term effects of plastics on human health are unknown, but their damage to marine ecosystems is well documented. Wildlife frequently mistake small plastic waste for food and, unable to break it down in their bodies, it eventually accumulates and kills marine animals. Yet despite growing plastic pollution, we continue to produce a prodigious amount of it, about 300 million tons each year, roughly 40% of which is meant to be single-use.