The True Impact of Plastic
Plastics have many great uses in the modern age.
As a malleable material that’s produced from crude oil, it can be moulded into any solid object at a fairly low cost. As it is so easy to manufacture and impervious to water, it is used for literally every application you can think of – from the most mundane paper clips to items used in spacecraft that go further than man has gone before!
What’s the issue with plastic?
While the applications for plastic are practically endless, one thing that has become highly problematic is how to dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way. This is because plastic’s chemical structure is resistant to most natural processes of degradation, as a result of it being extremely durable and degrading very slowly.
Due to the relative newness of plastic, with mass production beginning in the 1940s, nobody knows exactly how long plastic takes to degrade although scientists have made a number of predictions, for example:
• A foam plastic cup will likely degrade over 50 years
• A plastic bottle, will take closer to 400 years
• A nylon fishing line could take more than 600 years
Quick disposal of plastic is fast becoming a global problem, with drastic effects on global warming. Currently, most methods of disposing of plastic have negative impacts, for example: incineration increases carbon emissions, whereas placing it in a landfill causes a carbon sink.
How much plastic waste is being produced?
This is a difficult one to pin down, as there are differing estimates of how much plastic waste has been produced in the last century.
Estimates suggest that global production totals 8.3 billion tons of plastic – a whopping 6.3 billon of that being classified as waste and less than 10% being recycled. In developed economies, about a third of plastic produced is used in packaging and roughly the same in buildings in applications such as piping, plumbing or vinyl siding.
Figures show that roughly eight million tons of plastic go into the oceans every year. If this continues, then by 2050 we can expect to see more tons of plastic in the ocean than tons of fish with 99% of all seabirds contaminated with plastic. A recent study of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the sea, found that plastic was evident in 100% of the amphipod creatures they sampled.
If those statistics weren’t alarming enough, a 2018 a survey from the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES) Foundation found that the ecosystem in seas and oceans could completely collapse within the next 25 years. Considering that between 50-80% of all life on earth is found in the ocean, if this happened then life as we know it would cease to exist.
So what’s being done?
It isn’t all doom and gloom.
More and more people are taking notice and are looking for potential ways to prevent this ecological disaster escalating further.
The United Nations previously declared a war on ocean plastic and now more than 55 countries have joined the UN’s CleanSeas campaign, including the UK, Canada, France, Brazil, Norway and Italy. Other countries have also made a stand without joining this campaign, including Japan whose government has made it mandatory to reduce disposable plastic waste by 25% by 2030.
In addition to this, we’ve seen countries, like the UK, banning microplastics in "rinse-off" cosmetics, like facial scrubs, but not from "leave-on" products like make-up and suntan cream. The UK has also said that all plastic which is not absolutely essential must be phased out by 2042, as the government plan to launch a new bill to cut waste and pollution.
The EU aren’t far behind and have introduced mandates to reduce single-use plastics and achieve recycling quotas.
We’ve also seen many corporations joining the fight against single use plastics in countries where it isn’t policy, like Trader Joe’s in the USA.
The Impact on Oil Demand
There’s more to just environmental impacts by reducing our production and consumption of plastics, but it would also have a significant impact on the world’s appetite for crude oil. It’s likely that the demand for oil will slow from previous predictions of around 0.7% a year down to figures closer to 0.3%, before plateauing in the 2030s.
If a worldwide ban on single-use plastics was implemented, the impact on the oil industry could be as much as 6 million barrels a year. This combined with an increased number of electric cars expected by 2030 and an increase in renewable energy capacity is likely to reduce global dependence on oil as a fuel source.
Based on this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the cost of oil dropping significantly over the next decade and into 2040s. With oil and UK energy typically tracking similarly, we can then, in turn, suggest that this would bring with its lower global electricity prices.
All as a result of reducing production of plastic.