20 Facts About Our Plastic-Packed Planet and 9 Ways to Help
Plastic is moldable, durable, and its versatility means it's everywhere and in everything from computers to medical devices. Its benefits are impossible to deny, but our relationship to this marvelous material is ultimately an unhealthy one. We undervalue and overuse plastic and in turn overdispose of it.
Our plastic addiction has created a dilemma that has made plastic an indispensable part of the modern world while simultaneously contaminating the oceans, choking landfills and even harming our health.
Each year humans send an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic out to sea. Our massive waste management problem means that pound for pound, humans are on pace to fill oceans with more plastic than there are fish by 2050.
Around the globe a million plastic bottles are bought and sold every 60 seconds, on average. This figure will spike another 20 percent by 2021. Last year, 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were consumed around the world. To put this into perspective, if placed end to end, the water bottles produced in 2016 would reach more than halfway to the sun.
Plastic is so pervasive that it has even made its way into the food chain and our drinking water. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium calculated that the average European shellfish consumer eats up to 6,400 microplastics per year. Similarly, 83 percent of tap water samples in a recent investigation were found to contain microplastics.
Can #Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal? https://t.co/Jj6dja2Uaa @TurnTidePlastic @UNEP @storyofstuff #plasticpollution… https://t.co/8YJJ3NF3pL— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1510594004.0
So, let's break down some the staggering figures surrounding this ubiquitous material and what its presence means for the planet:
- Since 2000, humans have produced as much plastic as in all previous years.
- Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and only seven percent of those collected were turned into new bottles.
- 10 river systems carry more than 90 percent of the plastic that ends up in the world's oceans.
- In 2016, Coca Cola increased its production of single-use bottles by more than a billion, according to an analysis by Greenpeace.
- Humans consume nearly 20,000 plastic bottles every second.
- Coca Cola alone produces 3,400 bottles a second.
- Half of all plastic becomes trash within a year.
- A recent study found that plastic was found in nearly a third of UK-caught fish.
- Even uninhabited islands in the pacific are polluted by plastic. In 2017, marine scientists found that Henderson Island, a tiny island in the South Pacific, was covered by roughly 18 tons of plastic.
- More than 200 animal species have been documented consuming plastic, including turtles, whales, seal, birds and fish.
- 90 percent of seabirds eat plastic and nearly every seabird will consume it by 2050, according to a 2016 study.
- The U.S. has the world's highest rate of microplastic water contamination—94.4 percent of tap water samples contained plastic fibers, which are known to contain and absorb toxic chemicals.
- Europe, which was found to have the lowest rate of microplastic water contamination, had a contamination rate of 72.2 percent.
- In 2017, the European chemicals agency decided that BPA was an "endocrine disruptor."
- More than 90 percent of the world's population have traces of BPA in their urine sample.
- Although we know about the pervasiveness of plastic, very little is understood about the effects of its consumption, a phenomenon that nearly all humans are a part of.
- In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments—grocery bags, straws and soda bottles—are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.
- Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in about 40 percent of the world's ocean surfaces.
- The production of plastic uses around eight percent of the world's oil production, according to estimates.
- The heart of the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean is thought to be around 386,000 square miles, with the periphery spanning a further 1,351,000 square miles. According to the UN Environmental Programme, the patch is becoming visible from space.
What can be done to scale back this problem?
- Pressure politicians. While day-to-day actions are important, ultimately macro policies are needed to make meaningful change. Governments should be funding research into microplastics and regulating and incentivizing changes in plastic production and consumption.
- Complain to retailers. Pressure retailers to do away with over-packaging.
- Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
- Use natural clothing fiber rather than synthetic clothing, as synthetic cloth releases plastic fiber in every wash cycle.
- Choose to reuse. Neither plastic shopping bags nor plastic water bottles can be easily recycled.
- Deposit return schemes are highly effective ways to reduce plastic bottle waste. In Germany, where a bottle-return program is in place, nearly 98 percent of plastic bottles are returned.
- Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics.
- Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
- Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on.
A "trash tsunami" has washed ashore on the beaches of Honduras, endangering both wildlife and the local economy.
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By Harry Kretchmer
By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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By Jessica Corbett
In another win for climate campaigners, leaders of 12 major cities around the world — collectively home to about 36 million people — committed Tuesday to divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in a green, just recovery from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
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