A Plastic World

Plastic is not the enemy.

But our careless use of such an impactful, pervasive product has created enormous problems for the environment and communities across the world. The ocean specifically has become a sink for our plastic waste, drastically changing marine life for the worst.

asdf.png
“It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it” - Justin Hofman, the photographer who captured this devastating image.

To understand why we are currently drowning in plastic, we have to understand why it was invented, and how we became so reliant on it. In 1869, the most simple form of plastic was created as a substitute for elephant ivory in billiard games; ironically, the first advertisements for plastic emphasized how plastic could save animals and protect natural resources like wood and metal from being overused. But after World War II, when Americans were ready to spend in excess, the plastic industry boomed, celebrating the ease and "throw away living" that plastic supported.


Life Magazine’s celebration of “Throw Away Living” from 1955

Life Magazine’s celebration of “Throw Away Living” from 1955

That easy lifestyle has finally reared its ugly head. Because plastic is made of such strong and durable molecular chains, it can take up to 400 years for the plastic to return back to the Earth. So it sits around in our oceans, rivers, streets, and communities.



In Bangladesh, a family sorts through plastic to sell to scrap dealers.

In Bangladesh, a family sorts through plastic to sell to scrap dealers.


Family in Manila sorts through plastic to sell to junkshops.

Family in Manila sorts through plastic to sell to junkshops.

Surfer in Java

Surfer in Java


Asia and Africa in particular have enormous plastic problems, for many developing countries do not have the infrastructure to keep up with the amount of plastic used in their countries. But many developed countries are only making the problem worse; the U.S., for example,  recycles about 9% of all plastic waste. The rest either goes to landfills, or gets shipped off to other countries. In the first 6 months of 2018, almost half of the plastic waste in the U.S. was shipped off to Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

As a planet and global community, we need to implement new policies and infrastructure for effectively dealing with the plastic we love so much. Taiwan is a great example of this. Once dubbed “Garbage Island” in the 1990s, Taiwan’s government now has strict, subsidized infrastructure for handling waste and recycling, ensuring companies either handle their own waste correctly or pay a fee to support the government’s waste system. Taiwan now has one of the highest recycling rates in the world, which have been said to exceed 50%.

There is hope for a sustainable future; major companies like Coca-Cola and Kellog pledged to cut plastic waste from their operations, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment has companies and organizations pledging to eliminate single-use plastic, and countries like Kenya and France are stepping up to ban a variety of single-use plastics.  

Plastic absolutely makes our lives easier, and there is no need to completely eradicate such a useful product. However, in order to reap the benefits of that lifestyle, we must ensure that our infrastructures can sustainably incorporate plastic into our daily lives.

If you are interested in learning more about plastic, from policies to ocean impact to ways you can cut down on plastic in your own life, please follow along in our new series, A Plastics World !

- Lily Lee