Plastic is everywhere these days, and it has become an integrated part of our lives because most of the inanimate objects we interact with are man-made and contain plastic. This degree of integration goes as far as there being plastic (nylon) in the American flag planted on the moon.
With current trends continuing, it is suspected that about twelve billion metric tons of plastic waste will be clogging up landfills and drifting around in the oceans by 2050. About 70 years have passed since the initial introduction of large-scale plastic product manufacturing for commercial use.
A study in 2017 indicated that there was 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic in circulation on a global level, which in numbers looks like this; 830.000.000.000, but that weight also translates into 822.000 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or 25.000 times the weight of the Empire State Building. About 70 percent of that large number is waste that is found in landfills and the oceans, as it is cast aside and no-longer needed.
The plastic that does not get incinerated or recycled has to end up somewhere, so when it ends up in the oceans there is a pretty good chance that it travels for a long time, along with the current. The oceanic currents carry the plastic to gyres, which are large circular currents that keep the plastic particles in place. These gyres collect all these plastics which form cloud-like areas of plastic that float around at a high concentration in these specific areas. The biggest one of these areas full of plastic is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which resides between California and Hawaii. This garbage patch is the size of France, Spain and Germany combined, and is estimated to contain 1.8 billion pieces of plastic. While macro plastics like bottles, fishing nets and plastic bags are present at these floating islands, it is mostly accumulated microplastics that these patches contain. Microplastics in general can be defined as bits of plastics smaller than 5mm in size, but there are two sub-types in the form of primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are those that enter the ecosystem while already being 5mm in size or smaller. Secondary microplastics enter the environment as larger plastic products that are then broken down into smaller pieces through natural weathering processes. Primary microplastics are often overlooked because we all see the big water jug floating around, but primary microplastics often originate from the eroding of textiles and clothing as they are being washed for instance. About 35 percent of all microplastics originate from polyester, acrylic or nylon-based clothing, and end up in the water where they can remain for hundreds of years because plastics are meant to resist decay. When certain types of these plastics decay they emit greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. The plastics that drift around in these gyres are only the tip of the iceberg, because certain types of plastic are more prone to sinking than others, which is why plastics were located at depths beyond 11.000 meters below the surface.
There are solutions to this problem in the form of plastic-eating wax worms, turning plastic into biofuel and cleaning up the plastic with ships. Normally, these worms eat beeswax, but there are similar chemical bonds in the most commonly used type of plastic called polyethylene that these worms can break down. It is said by scientists that the rate at which these worms can breakdown polyethylene can be considered fast.
Another method of ridding the ocean from plastic is planned to set sail in 2024. The plastic cleaning factory ship Manta, owned by The SeaCleaners, comes equipped with plastic collection systems, a processing plant, laboratories, and waste storage areas. The ship will be powered by two wind turbines, 500 square metres of solar panels, hydro-generators, electric engines, sails and a waste-to-energy system. The goal is to have the ship collect between 5.000 and 10.000 metric tons of waste per year.
The last solution is to process used plastics in a way so that the result is plastic-based fuel that can be used in cars and as jet fuel. By hydrocracking the plastic and adding a catalyst into the mix it is possible to make fuel.
The largest problem with plastic is that it is cheaper to make new plastic products than it is to make things out of recycled plastic, and therefor still the preferred choice. Ending this problem for good requires having to stop with unearthing oil that ends up being formed into plastic.