Plastic Perspective: A Series

Concerns over plastic use and waste are more mainstream now than ever before.  The message is clear: plastic is not good for the environment. But did you know that the invention of plastic was once seen as a win for conservation? Read the first blog "Plastic Perspectives," our new 10-part series on plastic pollution.

This blog is part of a 10-part series on plastic’s effect on humans and the environment. In anticipation of Baltimore City’s plastic bag ban, Environment Maryland is releasing a new blog every other week, exploring the effects of plastic from various angles. Follow Environment Maryland on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date with the Plastics Blog Series, our Wildlife Over Waste Campaign, and everything else Environment Maryland is working on. 

Plastic By the Numbers

Plastic’s Rise in Popularity, and the Issues that Ensued 

By: Sacha Cameron, Environment Maryland State Fellow

Concerns over plastic use and waste are more mainstream now than ever before. In recent years, cities and retailers have moved to ban plastic straws, for example, in order to cut down on harmful plastic waste that was impacting wildlife. Maryland recently passed a ban on styrofoam, and Baltimore City is implementing a plastic bag ban starting in 2021. And, for many, the words “reduce, reuse, recycle” are a familiar reminder to be a bit more conscious about disposing of materials like plastic. The message is clear: plastic is not good for the environment. But did you know that the invention of plastic was once seen as a win for conservation? 

The History of Plastics

When the first plastics were invented at the end of the 19th century, they were seen as a great way to move away from animal-based materials such as bone and shell. At the time, ivory was a popular material from which to manufacture everything from piano keys to billiard balls, and in the mid-1800s it was a resource that was beginning to run low. Plastic, this new synthetic material, would free people from the constraints associated with the scarcity of natural resources. It was during World War II that plastics production ramped up greatly as many plastic products were used to help support the war effort. Following the end of the war, plastics found their way into consumer markets and the public suddenly had access to a number of new, innovative products. 

The development of plastics and their current ubiquity has made many modern technologies accessible for low prices. It has changed the way we produce everything from cars to combs. However, their widespread production and use have also placed a devastating toll on the environment that many did not begin to recognize until the 1960s. What started as a revolutionary material that was thought to help with conservation efforts turned rapidly into a serious global pollution problem. 

We can see the negative impact of plastic in our day to day lives largely in the form of waste. Plastics don’t break down like and decompose like organic matter and so, in part because of this, plastic waste mars natural landscapes, accumulating in landfills, oceans, and other waterways. Rampant plastic production, consumption, and waste has led to huge swathes of plastic trash to collect atop our ocean waters - the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Western Garbage patch. 

We have to reduce our use

How did we get here? Looking at the truly astounding statistics on how much plastic we use on average helps to bring to light the true enormity of our plastic production, consumption, and pollution problem. 

  • The average person from North America or Western Europe consumes 220 pounds of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging. 

  • Each year, the US throws away 100 billion plastic bags, 22 billion plastic bottles, and 63 billion plastic straws. 

  • Only 23% of those plastic bottles are recycled; the majority of the rest end up in landfills. 

  • Half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year. 

  • Mass production of plastics over the past six decades has produced 8.3 billion metric tons, mostly consisting of disposable products. 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste.

  • 79% of plastic waste is accumulating in landfills or is out in nature as litter. 

  • Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade. 

These statistics paint a picture of rampant consumerism and growing landfills. But plastic production affects our world in more ways than simple accumulation of waste. This cycle has widespread implications for human health, as well as plants and wildlife, water, air, and our lands as well.

Follow Environment Maryland’s Plastics Blog Series to explore these issues and hear from experts researching everything from microplastics and their impact on aquatic life to the plastic production process’ impact on low-income communities.