Material World – The problem of plastics

Plastic is everywhere. It is difficult to imagine how we could live our modern lives without it. According to UNCTAD, the UN trade and development agency:

‘Global exports of plastics or goods made from plastic has more than doubled in value since 2005, passing the $1 trillion benchmark in 2018 and reaching nearly $1.2 trillion in 2021’ (

The use of plastic encompasses products made from plastic, products with plastic components and products wrapped in plastic.

Invented in 1907, it is a very versatile and useful product, indeed, but the sheer scale of our dependence on it has created enormous and rapidly proliferating problems. According to the United Nations Environment Program:

‘Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once then thrown away’ (

As the article says, we are choking on plastics. It gets everywhere. Its effects are multiple. It can, for example, block up rivers, slow down the flow of water and so encourage mosquitoes to flourish in stagnant pools. It can be devastating for wildlife in many ways. A vast swirling island of floating plastic has been formed in the Pacific Ocean called the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. It is currently 1.6 million square kilometres in size and growing (by comparison the United Kingdom is a mere 243,610 square kilometres and not growing).

The durability of plastic as a product means it can hang around in the environment for hundreds of years or break down into microplastics that enter the human body via the food chain when we consume fish. Petrochemical plants producing plastic release gases with side effects that range from asthma to cancer to various hormonal disorders. Burning plastic waste can likewise pose serious health risks.

Globally just 15 percent of plastic waste is collected for recycling and only half of that actually gets to be recycled – sorted, baled up and sent to a processing plant to be melted down. Part of the problem is that much of this plastic is not recyclable anyway.

Furthermore, there are many different kinds of plastic each with a different chemical composition – no doubt, much of this diversity being in part a function of market competition. You can´t just lump together these different kinds of plastic in the process of recycling if you want to get a usable product at the end of it. It is constraints such as these that prevent recycling being anything more than just a small part of the solution.

All this plastic comes from fossil fuels like crude oil or natural gas (which is combined with other ingredients to form a resin that is then turned into pellets), fuels that we are supposed to be running out of at some point in the future. Until that happens or until the price becomes excessive there is unlikely to be any really significant move towards embracing sustainable alternatives to plastic. Alternatives are available to some extent but there are powerful commercial interests vested in maintaining a profligately wasteful and polluting way of life heavily dependent on plastic.

These same petrochemical corporations, in order to maintain the market for their products and to deflect public criticism of the environmental effects of these products, have not infrequently resorted to greenwashing tactics – for instance by providing funding for recycling campaigns. What this does is to shift the perception of who is actually responsible for such problems as plastic litter from the producer to the consumer. You can´t blame the producer, goes the argument, when it is obviously doing its best to clean up the environment as evidenced by all that money it spends on recycling campaigns. (Actually, that money is a drop in the ocean compared to the corporation’s revenue and it is good publicity anyway).

This is a tactic not dissimilar to the way Big Pharma blamed the opioid crisis in America on the users. It also overlooks the fact that most of that plastic that does happen to be conscientiously disposed of by consumers into the container for plastic will not actually get to be recycled. The fact that consumers may not be aware of this simultaneously helps to take pressure off tackling the problem at its source while ensuring the demand for more plastic just keeps growing.

While most plastic waste generated within countries tended to remain within the country concerned – buried in landfill sites, burnt, or otherwise disposed of – some of this waste is simply shipped abroad in containers. This doesn’t really solve the problem but merely relocates it and, in so doing, also perpetuates it. It also involves additional transportation costs with all that that entails for the environment. For the exporting countries (mainly in Europe and the US) it relieves some of the pressure of having to deal with the waste problem themselves and for the importing countries – particularly in the case of developing countries, it can be economically (if not environmentally) beneficial.

It is not just the disposal of plastic waste that presents a growing problem. There is also a problem of our growing dependence on plastic itself. Behind this, there are powerful commercial interests intent upon expanding the market for plastic.

Alarmingly, there are projections suggesting a fourfold increase in the global use of plastic over the next three decades. Mostly, this is predicted to occur in the Middle East and Africa, followed by Asia and China but also to a lesser extent in other parts of the world like Europe and America where already, ‘investors from those regions are currently planning to support expanded capacity for plastics-related infrastructure and production, often with government support’ (

In short, plastic as an invention has been a mixed blessing. One cannot deny the very obvious benefits it has brought when so much of what we possibly take for granted about our material reality is made of plastic – from our toothbrush to the clothes we wear to the laptop we type on. But as we have seen this also has serious drawbacks.

Minimising the latter by significantly reducing our dependence on plastic and by increasing the effectiveness of recycling, requires changing the purpose behind production away from profit-making. Do we really need all those tacky plastic tourist souvenirs that the tourist industry is so intent upon plying us? What about all those plastic toys unceremoniously dumped at the municipal tip after the novelty has all too rapidly worn off? One can multiply these examples many times, but they all point to the need for a significant cultural shift – something that can only really come about by changing the nature of the society we live in – if we are to mitigate the negative aspects of plastics.


Next article: The Party of Business ➤

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