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Plastic is ubiquitous: we use it for life-saving medical devices, clothing, toys and cosmetics; we use it in agriculture and industry. But we also know the growing risk of plastic waste in the environment, landfills and the oceans.
For example, the amount of plastic that some fulmars accumulate in their stomachs during their lives is equivalent to 31 grams in humans - that would be a full plate. But although awareness of the negative consequences of plastic is growing, we are experiencing an unbroken boom in plastic production. 99 percent of the plastic is produced from fossil fuels; the climate-damaging emissions involved are enormous. And only nine percent of all plastic thrown away since 1950 has been recycled; instead, huge amounts of our plastic waste end up in dumps in Asian countries every day.
We have only just begun to understand the huge dimensions of this crisis. A change of course requires in-depth knowledge of the causes, interests, responsibilities and effects of the plastics crisis. The Plastics Atlas 2019 wants to offer exactly that in 19 chapters.
- 12 BRIEF LESSONS ON PLASTIC AND THE PLANET
- HISTORY: BREAKTHROUGH IN THREE LETTERS
The first plastics imitated ivory and silk and attracted just a limited market. Things took off after World War II with the rise of PVC. Cheap plastics soon conquered the world.
- THROWAWAY CULTURE: WHY THE WORLD IS WALLOWING IN WASTE
Until the 1950s, people treated plastic with the same respect as they did glass or silk. Then consumer-goods companies discovered the advantages of polymers. A lifestyle emerged that generates increasing amounts of trash.
- USAGE: BLESSING AND CURSE
Plastics have become indispensable. They are found in plastic bags, smartphones and car dashboards. But almost half of all plastic products end up as waste within less than a month. Only a fraction is recycled.
- HEALTH: FOOD CHEMISTRY
The effects of runaway plastic production on the environment can no longer be ignored. Its consequences for human health are less well known — from the extraction of raw materials through to waste disposal.
- GENDER: OVEREXPOSED
Women are more affected than men by plastics. Biological reasons are part of the problem: their bodies react in different ways to toxins, and the hygiene products that women use are often contaminated. But alternatives do exist.
- FOOD: TASTY MORSELS
The food industry is a big user of plastic. Films and foams are meant to shield food from damage, keep it fresh, and make it look attractive. But beauty has a price: the plastic lands on fields and gets into our food system.
- CLOTHING: WEARING THIN
At first sight, fabrics made from synthetic fibers have many advantages. They are cheap, dry quickly, and shape themselves to the body. But they have become disposable articles and contribute significantly to climate change. They may also be harmful to human health.
- TOURISM: TURNING THE TIDE ON THE TIDE OF TRASH?
Sun-kissed beaches, swaying palm trees… and a knee-deep band of garbage at the water’s edge. Tourists come to see pristine beauty, but help destroy it through their carelessness, and because garbage systems cannot cope.
- CLIMATE CHANGE: NOT GREEN, BUT GREENHOUSE
Plastics are sometimes seen as environmentally friendlier than other materials — not least because of their light weight. But the plastics boom is pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
- WATER: ALL AT SEA?
Marine pollution is fed mainly by trash floating down rivers, like smog is fed by fires and smokestacks. But plastic does not stay long in the open ocean. It moves into shallower waters, sinks to the sea floor, or is washed ashore.
- CORPORATIONS: BLAMING THE CONSUMER
Masters in lobbying, petrochemicals firms and plastic producers focus attention on waste management and recycling so they can evade their responsibility for the true problem: the growth in the volume of plastics being made.
- AFFLUENCE: THE CHILD OF GLOBAL TRADE
Global economic growth since World War II would not have been possible without plastic. Plastics are both the result of globalization and a fuel that powers it. Online shopping is piling mounds of rubbish higher still.
- “BIOPLASTICS”: REPLACING OIL WITH MAIZE IS NO SOLUTION
Plastics made from renewable raw materials are supposed to be environmentally friendly. They degrade more quickly — at least, according to their corporate backers. A close look shows that they create a new set of problems.
- WASTE MANAGEMENT: WE CANNOT RECYCLE OUR WAY OUT OF THE PLASTIC CRISIS
It is a widespread misconception: as long as we separate our waste into different types, we do not have to change our consumption patterns. But the reality is different: a large proportion of plastic waste is not recycled, much of it incinerated or ends up in the environment.
- WASTE EXPORTS: THE RUBBISH DUMP IS CLOSED
What to do with your unwanted plastic bottles and bags? Simple: send them somewhere else. Until recently, much of the developed world’s hard-to-recycle waste was shipped off to China. That is no longer an option.
- WASTE PICKING: SCRAPS FROM THE TABLE
In many poor countries, waste pickers take over the tasks of the municipal garbage truck and waste-processing plants. They divert a significant amount of waste back into productive uses.
- REGULATION: SOLUTIONS AT THE WRONG END
There is no lack of agreements and initiatives to manage the plastic crisis. But almost all address waste disposal only; they are not coordinated with each other, and they absolve manufacturers of their responsibilities.
- CIVIL SOCIETY: HOW THE PLASTIC-FREE MOVEMENT IS EXPOSING THE GIANTS
The global Break Free From Plastic civil society movement is working to stop plastic pollution for good. It is using public exposure and transparency to put corporations under pressure.
- ZERO WASTE: STOPPING THE PROBLEM AT THE SOURCE
Recycling alone cannot solve the plastic crisis. New ideas are needed that tackle the roots of the problem. A growing movement is showing how that can work — and a few pioneering cities and towns are blazing the trail.
AUTHORS AND SOURCES FOR DATA AND GRAPHICS