A new report reveals the scale of the world’s plastic problem and the alarming amount of plastic that is burned. Despite the grave and well-documented consequences for human health, about 12 percent of all plastic in the U.S. is burned. In middle- and low-income countries without the infrastructure to recycle, plastic is burned at a much higher rate.
According to the report, published by Tearfund, Fauna & Flora International, WasteAid and The Institute of Development Studies, a double-decker bus full of plastic is burned or dumped every single second. When calculated annually, that is equivalent to 70 million metric tons.
Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals into the air that have been linked to heart disease, headache, nausea, rashes and damage to the kidney, liver and nervous system. In low- and middle-income countries without garbage facilities, the majority of trash is burned near homes — such as in the backyard — and poses direct threat to the inhabitants. In many cases, repeated exposure to the chemicals can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma and emphysema.
In wealthier countries, new incinerator technology claims to burn trash with fewer direct health concerns. The negative health impacts of plastic are not new; in fact, this month the United Nations voted to list plastic as a hazardous waste material.
Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced, and nearly half of that is only used once. This number is enormous but hard for many people to truly understand. According to National Geographic, this will be equivalent to the weight of 35,000 Empire State Buildings by 2050. But do these abstract numbers really help us put our problem into perspective?
The first step is understanding the world’s addiction to plastic, but then specific actions must be taken. The American Chemistry Council, which contested the report’s results, argues that governments and companies need to enforce stricter requirements for packaging.
Last year, major plastic producers formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, inclusive of Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Formosa Plastics Corp. and Procter & Gamble. The Alliance promised to invest $1.5 billion into the effort to reduce plastic’s impact on the environment.
Image via Stacie DePonte