We now make 20 times more plastic than in the 1960s, and plastic manufacturing aggravates climate change. Our oceans have come to resemble a huge polymer rubbish tip, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimating that they will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050.
Polymer waste degrades into tiny particles that not only pollute the oceans, but also find their way into agricultural soils, Arctic ice and even drinking water. These microplastics also end up in living organisms, and even though we have yet to detect any health impacts on human beings, the exponential growth in our use of plastic polymers and in the volume of plastic waste are making plastic a major environmental challenge in the long term. Global population growth and the spread of a culture based on disposable plastic commodities are making things worse.
Most of the plastic reaching the oceans comes from sources on land. Even though the rivers carrying the largest volumes of plastic waste to the sea are in Asia, sources in Europe and America are also part of this problem. Plastic waste from the European Union and the USA has long been transported for reprocessing in China and other Far Eastern destinations where waste treatment still falls short of standards in developed countries. The European Union has begun tackling the challenge of disposable plastic by strengthening the circular economy and seeking to discontinue use of the disposable plastic items that cause the worst pollution problems. Negotiations are under way to improve solid waste management at European Union harbours, and the European Commission is preparing legislation to ban the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics. The United Nations Environment Organisation is considering global measures to curb marine waste dumping, and the UN Environment Assembly scheduled for March 2019 is expected to issue some associated implementation decisions.
Even though a complete ban would be neither feasible nor sensible, we need to change our use of plastics. Indeed, they can already be replaced with more eco-friendly materials in some products.
Products made from organic materials of non-fossil origin such as wood can help us reduce our use of virgin plastic. Naturally recycling bio-based materials may be an easier alternative, especially if they are manufactured with no additives that harm the environment, and naturally biodegradable materials may be superior to plastics in items that eventually return to the environment. Plastics may even serve as a carbon sink, helping to combat climate change when used in long-life products and items. With growing demand for various types of biomass, it will nevertheless remain important to ensure that manufacturing of bio-based materials is sustainable from the perspective of biodiversity.
The environmentally aware trendy young people of Helsinki wear recycled clothing, carry tote bags and avoid cosmetics containing plastic microbeads. Interesting tote bags slung across young shoulders are the spirit of our times, and may also herald the twilight of the plastic era.