Plastic has become one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. But what exactly makes the careless consumption of plastic so dangerous for people and nature?
Production - raw material consumption and emissions
Plastics are produced either from crude oil or from renewable raw materials.
As much as 8% of the crude oil extracted each year goes into plastic production. Crude oil is a finite raw material - at some point it will be used up.
Renewable raw materials are also criticized - because if corn, potatoes or milk are used for plastic production, they can no longer be available as food. In addition, cultivation consumes space and energy and is often done with fertilizers and pesticides that can harm the environment.
It takes quite a bit of water to make plastic - for one kilo of the plastic polyethylene (HDPE), it takes liters. Plastic production also consumes a relatively large amount of energy. megajoules go into one kilo of polyethylene (HDPE).
During energy generation emissions are produced. Climate-damaging substances such as carbon dioxide, methane or nitrogen oxides are also released into the atmosphere through transport and disposal of plastic. Between and kg of equivalents are thus produced per kilo of polyethylene.
The impact on people and nature
Plastic waste becomes problematic above all when it ends up somewhere where it does not belong.
Have you seen "wild dumps" in the area where you live? But plastic does not only get into our environment through those "wild dumps".
What then happens to the plastic in the environment is only just being researched. Therefore, there are no clear results yet, especially regarding the health effects. However, based on the current state of research, scientists advise avoiding plastic.
Health: Many pure plastics are not chemically dangerous at first. The problem only arises with the additives, e.g. plasticizers or flame retardants, which are harmful to our health. For example, some ingredients can interfere with the hormonal balance of humans. Plasticizers can dissolve in the water cycle or transfer to food packaged in plastic. They could also enter the body through skin contact. Plasticizers are therefore banned for children's toys.
Oceans & marine wildlife: Large pieces of plastic are a particular threat to marine wildlife. Animals can get caught in them or injured by them. Smaller pieces are swallowed, especially by fish, seabirds or whales. Since the plastic is not digested, it remains in the stomach without providing any nutrients - many animals starve to death. species are already affected by the negative impacts of plastic waste in waters.
Furthermore, nanoplastics (microscopic debris from plastic) can enter the cells of animals and cause inflammation. In addition, toxic substances (DDT, PAHs) from the environment accumulate on the surfaces of the finely ground microplastic particles. Fish, mussels and other sea creatures ingest these tiny fragments with their food. This is how plastics and its pollutants enter the food chain - and may ultimately end up on our plates.
Littering the landscape: Natural beauty is lost through littered beaches and landscapes. In tourist regions, beaches have to be cleaned at great expense so that visitors do not stay away.
The disposal - environmental & health impact
Recycling saves part of the raw materials and manufacturing energy. However, not all products are returned to the recycling loop by a long shot. Across Europe for example, only of plastic bags are recycled!
In many communities, products such as straws, plastic toothbrushes or broken lunch boxes are incinerated with the residual waste. During incineration, most of the plastic dissolves into the greenhouse gas . But other gases are also produced, some of them hazardous to health, which have to be filtered out at great expense. In many parts of the world, however, plastic waste is simply burned in the backyard - without any filtering at all.
Small amounts of toxic substances (formaldehyde, alkaline, benzene) also remain in the slag resulting from incineration. They are deposited in landfills. To ensure that none of these toxic substances get into the soil, water or air, the landfill must be maintained at great expense. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
The dilemma of disposable products
In around million tons of plastic were produced worldwide. Half of this inexpensive and versatile material is processed into items that are used only once, such as bags, straws or disposable bottles. In relation to all the energy, labor and raw materials used to produce it, the benefits are often very short-lived.
Plastic products such as lunch boxes, blinds or furniture, on the other hand, are not really critical. These things are used for a long time, the carbon from the petroleum remains stored and does not get into the atmosphere as . Sometimes plastic even offers an environmental advantage over other materials, for example in the reusable system which exists in some countries, for example in Germany: because PET bottles are lighter than glass bottles, less energy is needed to transport them.
The mismatch between costs and benefits arises primarily with disposable products and packaging. Some of these are indeed necessary, such as sterile disposable syringes in the medical sector. Nevertheless, a large part of the consumption of single-use plastics could easily be replaced - there is still immense development potential for more environmental protection here.
Sources (most in German):
Quantities of plastic production: Worldwide and European production volume of plastic in the years from 1950 to 2017, German Federal Statistical Office .
Share of petroleum production for plastic manufacturing: Our Plastic Age, Royal Society Publishing
Life cycle assessment of bio-based plastics: Bioplastics are good for the conscience - and for the environment?, German Federal Environmental Agency
Energy input for plastic production: Polyethylene - General Information, Information Network in Ecological Construction ; Environmental analysis of plastic production processes: Comparing petroleum-based polypropylene and polyethylene with biologically-based poly-ß-hydroxybutyric acid using life cycle analysis, Journal of Biotechnology ; A complete life cycle assessment of high densitypolyethylene plastic bottle, IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering
Plastic bag recycling rate: Background paper on disposable bags, DUH
Combustion products: Assessment of plastic fires, Bavarian State Office for the Environment
Input of plastics into the environment: Microplastics in our water, Bavarian Environmental Agency
Risks of plastic in the environment: How dangerous is microplastic?, Technical University of Munich
Impacts of plastic on animals: sources of microplastics with relevance for marine protection in Germany, German Federal Environment Agency
Environmental Impacts: Underestimated danger: microplastics on dry land, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries ; Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife, Royal Society Publishing ; Human body burdens of chemicals used in plastic manufacture, Royal Society Publishing ; Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment, Environmental Science and Technology ; Toxicity and pollutant accumulation, Fraunhofer Institut.
Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge von Chris Jordan, Wikimedia Commons