Updated: Nov 14
As a material, plastic is generally viewed from a negative standpoint: as a catalyst for the environmental crisis and as a threat to ocean cleanliness, marine life, plant and animal species, and even human health. Yet in the first part of this article series, I argued that plastic has actually played a crucial role in the development of the modern world by allowing the mass production of vital commercial goods, increasing accessibility to medical equipment, facilitating the distribution of food, as well as lengthening its shelf life, (thus combating hunger and food-borne illnesses), and generally enabling the lives of people in developed countries to be safe, secure, and healthy. While plastic is often negatively associated with the impending environmental crisis, I believe that it is vital to acknowledge the important role that plastic has played for the overall prosperity of the modern world and the way it has benefited our lives since the mid-20th century.
Despite the undeniable harms that plastic brings to our environment, evidence shows that it may currently still be our best choice for production as we may not yet have access to an alternative material that would play the same industrial role yet yield less harm. According to the British Plastics Federation, replacing plastic with hypothetical alternative materials can actually result in 2.7 more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic itself. (1) Therefore, the importance of plastic may be widely underestimated. Without it, we would find it extremely difficult to build the stable societies that we have today, since plastic is used not only in conventional commercial goods, but in vital technologies and infrastructures, too. For example, out of the 49 million tons of Europe’s plastic demand in 2015 alone, 39.9% was used for packaging (facilitating the distribution of goods, as well as food safety), 19.7% for buildings and construction, 8.9% for automobiles, and only 5.8% for electronics. (2) Therefore, plastic production directly impacts our health, safety, living conditions, and transportation. Due to its wide applicability, it also plays a beneficial role in economic growth. In fact, the plastic industry is globally valued at a whopping 579.7 billion USD (3) and provides 1.6 million jobs in Europe alone (4). Economic growth - despite often being seen as the contradiction of environmental sustainability - is necessary for high living standards. It is thanks to economic growth that we are able to consume vital goods and services that meet our basic needs. Without a healthy level of economic ‘strength,’ we cannot have adequate access to government services, food, agriculture, clean water, imports, electricity, and other necessities. The stronger the economy, the better the life standards within a country, and since plastic plays such a huge role in the global economy, we can credit it as one of the indirect contributors to the wellbeing, prosperity, security, and safety that many of us in the developed world enjoy.
Yes despite the inarguable benefits that plastic has gifted the modern world with, it is still a double-edged sword. It is both a miracle and a curse. And now that we have addressed the ways that plastic has benefited humanity (click here to read the previous article with the main ideas), let’s dive right into the other edge of the sword. The most important aspect of plastic to today’s world is inarguably its unavoidable harm for our environment, planet, and health.
Plastic is killing our planet. It’s no secret. Yet with it being difficult to replace (as mentioned earlier), it may seem like our last hope is spread between two possible options. The first being to rely on recycling and the second being to reduce (rather than fully eliminate) plastic production. Since plastic is so unique due its wide applicability (to virtually every industry) and current inability to be replaced by an alternative material, completely ceasing and/or banning plastic production risks destroying the global economy and our life standards by harming global production and all the industries that directly and indirectly rely on plastic. So let’s talk about recycling. Unfortunately, the picture here is not too pretty, since out of the astonishing 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic that have been produced since 1950, only a mere 9% have actually been recycled. (5) Recycling is not counteracting the harms that plastic has posed for our planet, so relying solely on it is currently a fruitless thing to do. To change this, I believe governments should aim to provide subsidies to the recycling industry in order to trigger more innovative recycling technologies and cost-efficient methods. This has the potential to increase the percentage of plastic being recycled and even a 1% change can be extremely beneficial when we are dealing with billions of tons. These government subsidies to the recycling industry may also support economic growth, since subsidies are a form of government spending, which increase aggregate demand, employment, and, therefore, consumers’ income. Yet recycling the already-produced plastic will be less effective if we do not reduce new production. Therefore, the second option we have in terms of tackling this problem is reducing new plastic production. With less plastic being produced and more being recycled, we may achieve a stable balance that would lift some weight off our environment and perhaps enable us to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously making our planet a little bit cleaner. While my view is, somewhat, idealized, I firmly believe that government spending on technologies aimed at making recycling more efficient yields a win-win situation for the whole world.
The conflict between our pressing demand for plastic and our inability to successfully recycle it is not the only problem we face today. Apart from harming our environment, plastic can indirectly harm our health. During virtually every stage of its production (beginning with the extraction of oil), greenhouse gasses and other pollutants are released into our atmosphere in abundant quantities. In 2021, an estimated 850 million tons of greenhouse gasses were released into the atmosphere and this value is predicted to rise to 2.8 billion tons per year by 2050. (6) Plastic production plays a key role in air pollution, which, according to the World Health Organization, accounts for 4.2 million deaths per year “due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, acute and chronic respiratory diseases.” (7) Another estimate by the WHO states that 7 million premature deaths occur each year due to air pollution. (8) Additionally, 9 out of 10 people are reported to breathe highly polluted air. (6) Obviously, plastic production is not the only cause of air pollution, but since more than 380 million tons of plastic are produced every year (9), the plastic industry inarguably contributed to a large chunk of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And these values are predicted to grow in the future, thus worsening the situation even more. While the production of plastic grew by more than 20 times from 1964 to 2015, scientists predict that it will double by 2035 and quadruple by 2050 (10). This means that even more greenhouse gasses will be released, thus having an even greater influence over our health. Apart from being a major contributor to air pollution during its production process, plastic may also directly damage our health from a chemical standpoint. Chemicals in plastic -such as Bisphenol A (that can easily leak from plastic containers into their contents that we eat or apply on our skin) - are considered ‘endocrine disruptors,’ meaning that they may disrupt our bodies’ endocrine (hormonal) systems, negatively impacting the reproductive system, fertility, our overall health, and even raising the risk of cancer. Microplastics, on the other hand, have been found to enter our organs through the food we eat, air we breathe, and liquids we drink. (Click here to read a previously published article on this topic).
My interpretation of the story of plastic ends here with an indefinite conclusion. The real-life story continues onto this present day and into our shared future. How will plastic affect our planet, economy, technologies, and standards of life in the future?
I do not know.
Perhaps this is a question for each and every one of us to answer through our decisions, actions, purchasing habits, and intentions. While plastic can be seen as one of Earth’s greatest enemies at the moment, it is not an absolutely harmful or beneficial material. Plastic is both, depending on how we use it.
The future is ours to define. And it is up to us to decide how “Homo plasticus” will ultimately conclude in the decades (or centuries) to come…
Plummer, Robert. “Plastic Fantastic: How It Changed the World.” BBC News, BBC, 11 Jan. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-42646025.
Ununiversity. “Reducing, Reusing Europe's Annual 2.5 Million Tonnes of Plastic Components in Electronic Waste.” United Nations University, https://unu.edu/media-relations/releases/reducing-reusing-europes-annual-2-5-million-tonnes-of-plastic-components-in-electronic-waste.html.
This text provides general information. Statista assumes no liability for the information given being complete or correct. Due to varying update cycles, statistics can display more up-to-date data than referenced in the text. “Topic: Plastics Industry Worldwide.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/topics/5266/plastics-industry/#dossierContents__outerWrapper.
“Plastics, the Circular Economy and Europe′s Environment.” European Environment Agency, 27 Jan. 2021, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/plastics-the-circular-economy-and.
“Plastic Waste and Climate Change - What's the Connection?” WWF, https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-waste-and-climate-change-whats-the-connection#:~:text=Globally%2C%20in%20this%20year%20alone,rise%20to%202.8%20billion%20tonnes.
“Air Pollution.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_2.
(www.dw.com), Deutsche Welle. “Who: Air Pollution Causes 7 Million Premature Deaths a Year: DW: 22.09.2021.” DW.COM, https://www.dw.com/en/who-air-pollution-causes-7-million-premature-deaths-a-year/a-59264198.
Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “Plastic Pollution.” Our World in Data, 1 Sept. 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution#:~:text=The%20world%20now%20produces%20more,our%20natural%20environment%20and%20oceans.
“More Plastic than Fish in the Sea by 2050, Says Ellen MacArthur.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Jan. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/19/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea-by-2050-warns-ellen-macarthur#:~:text=Plastics%20production%20has%20increased%20twentyfold,and%20almost%20quadruple%20by%202050.
About the author:
I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!