Utku Perktaş

Dr. Utku Perktaş is a professor of biogeography in the Biology Department at Hacettepe University.

plastic waste
Plastic, with a very low recycling rate, are the most important waste material in our environment.

With the increasing population, human beings started to make their presence felt significantly in the world since the 1950s. The population increased by about 5 billion in the last 50 years. This was an increase that the world had never experienced in its long history. One of the effects of the increasing population has been the introduction of different products into our lives. We long thought these products made our lives easier. But they have become a great source of trouble today, with their negative impact on the environment. You may wonder what these are and we can come up with quite a few of them. In this article, I wanted to draw attention to one of the most important ones in our lives. Starting with its history, I made a short summary to account for the situation we are in today.

Let’s think about it. What do toothbrushes, tires, cigarettes, and shoes all have in common? Simple: these objects are all made of plastic, the “miracle material” that has come into our lives in the 1950s. This material, which truly was a miracle back then, is more of a problem for the planet we live in today than you can imagine. Why?

The recycling of plastic is very difficult, even impossible. Apart from the garbage filling the rivers and seas, in many places, there is no option for plastic to be recycled, incinerated, or taken to landfills. For this reason, although it may seem useful most of the time, definitely this material lasts for centuries and remains intact from the world. Half of the plastic produced to date consists of only those produced in the last 15 years. If we go a little further, we can easily imagine that our environment is facing significant pressure from plastic waste.

Plastic: from miracle to waste

The dark side of plastic first made itself known when allies won WWII. Nylon parachutes and light aircraft parts made things very easy. Going to space became easier. The “miracle material” enabled vehicles to be lighter, saving fuel and reducing pollution. Thanks to the very light cling film, the lifespan of food got extended. Plastic saved lives thanks to the pet bottles used to transport clean drinking water. Life magazine celebrated the liberation of American housewives from extra work in 1955 owing to plastic. Washing the dishes was not an issue anymore, the age of disposable had begun and as a result, the first step was taken to reach the point where we are now when the first plastic garbage was thrown. Forty percent of the plastic material produced today consists of single-use plastic products. Millions of tons of plastic have already accumulated in the environment.

What nightmares are made of

We throw plastics into rivers and transport them to seas and oceans. These plastics get broken into tiny pieces called micro-plastics. Sea creatures big and small eat these particles. Tiny particles also get mixed with sea salt, which we humans consume in various ways, and in some cases, we even think it is very healthy, without ever knowing about its side effects. A study revealed that microplastics that spread to the Mediterranean were found in the intestinal tract of 28 fish species such as bluefin, gilt-head bream, and red mullet. Plastics are in fact an important problem affecting biodiversity.

If I go a little further, we even breathe smaller pieces of plastic called nano plastics from the air. Scientists recently came across nano plastic particles on remote mountain peaks, where they were carried by the winds and mixed with rain and snow. We encountered nano plastics even in the Arctic region, where the human population is very low. For the last 50 years, plastics have been taking firm steps towards becoming a nightmare for the planet we live on, and unfortunately, we are at the ones that make those steps.

A bln dollar industry threatens biodiversity

One million. It refers to the number of pet bottles purchased in 1 minute in the world. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine plastic waste left behind when we consider the recycling rate to be very low.

We can see plastic kitchenware everywhere. Millions of forks, knives, and spoons are also thrown away after one use every year. And like most plastics, these take a long time to break down naturally. Pollution poses a significant threat to fish, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals when sharp and sharp-edged objects reach the sea and stay there for extended periods of time.

Today we have to deal with over 8 billion tons of plastic waste.

Toothbrushes, shoes, and our environment

Plastic is so deeply ingrained in the production of toothbrushes into toothbrush production that it is almost impossible for us to clean our teeth without touching the plastic. Every toothbrush produced since the 1930s still exists somewhere in the world as a waste. The handles are made of polyproline and the brush is made of nylon. We can follow the historical development of the toothbrush by collecting waste for the last 90 years.

More than 24 billion pairs of shoes were produced in the world in 2018. 2.4 billion of these were sold in the USA alone. Plastic began to be used in shoes in the 1950s. Most sneakers today are made entirely or partially out of plastic, and the raw material we should be thankful for when considering heels is again plastic.

Reducing necessary for our future

The miracle material plastic is now a nightmare for the planet and for our environment. Today we have to deal with over 8 billion tons of plastic waste. Of this number, more than 6 billion tons of waste and almost 5.5 billion tons of this waste have never been recycled. This 5.5 billion-tons value is what reveals the gravity of the situation. At this point, we have to remember and never forget: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Plastic pollution is not as complex as climate change, but it is undoubtedly a global problem, but it is not unsolved. We just need so much public awareness on the scale of the seriousness of the problem. Let’s reduce plastic in our lives, for the future, for our environment, and most importantly for biodiversity…