The plastic age

The world is caught between want and waste. People in some parts of the world face prolonged scarcity while others are surfeit with abundance. With unstoppable population growth and inequality, this ultra-modern world struggles with growing piles of rubbish.

The world has evolved through three major ages - the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Each era of the ‘three age system’ is named after a material which ruled that particular historic period of time.

Over the years, we have embraced modernity in a bid to create a ‘civilized world’. And now, the world steps into a new age - the plastic age. Plastic rules the universe. The polymeric material has taken over our lives from the kitchen to the bedroom, from the office to school. Our ‘innovative obsession’ with plastic seems to be growing every single day.

Illustration: Scientific America
Illustration: Scientific America

Plastic has undoubtedly made our lives easier and more comfortable, but the pile of trash we have produced and its invasion which has already taken place, has had an enormous and profound impact on our lifestyle and the environment. Plastic has reached the ‘ultra-deep marine trenches in the Pacific Ocean’, threatening every species in the water, in the air and on land. Scientists have even found plastic substances at the bottom of the world's deepest 11-km-deep Mariana Trench. It has hit our ecosystem hard.

A research article published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal, reads that ‘an estimated 4 to 12 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic debris produced on land entered the marine environment in 2010 alone.’ ‘Global production of resins and fibers increased from 2 Mt to 380 Mt between 1950 and 2015.’ In the 65 years, a total of 7800 Mt resins and fibers were manufactured across the globe.’

American alternative medicine proponent Joseph Michael Mercola wrote in an article last year that out of the plastic trash produced as of 2015, we have managed to recycle only around 9 per cent and destroy 12 per cent and the remaining 79 per cent was simply dumped into the natural environment.

AFP illustration
AFP illustration

Our rivers carry the polymeric material to the oceans, the universe of the aquatic beasts. According to the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the 10 rivers -- Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges in Asia and the Niger and Nile in Africa - carry an estimated ‘2.75 million metric tons (93 per cent) of plastic debris into the seas every year. The Yangtze River alone dumps up to an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.’

The plastic has already entered the stomachs of birds, fish and whales, waging a war against the aquatic animals.

There is more. The plastic has entered the human food chain as well. A recent scientific study conducted for the first time on human faeces finds ‘an average of 20 micro-particles of plastic per 10 grams of human stool.’ The study shows stool samples of all eight participants from Europe, Japan and Russia contain microplastic particles (The Guardian).

Based on the study, scholars estimated that ‘more than 50% of the world population might have microplastics in their stools.’

If the assault of plastic pollution continues, it will soon outnumber the fish in the oceans, the birds in the skies and the humans on the planet earth.

Illustration: Statista
Illustration: Statista

The World Economic Forum presumed that ‘if we continue to pollute at this rate, there will be more plastic than fishes in the ocean by 2050.”

Plastic pollution has created an emergency and the existence of earth is at stake. Our oceans, rivers, lakes and every others water body are choking on plastic. If we do not change our habits, the microplastics will soon invade our stomachs and our blood vessels as well.

The math is very simple. If we do not stop here, the plastic will choke our aquatic animals, then our ecosystem and environment and then all of us.

There still is a way out and it is high time to take up the issue. A total ban on plastic is the only solution because we have no alternative. Former secretary-general of United Nations Ban Ki-moon rightly said, “We are using resources as if we had two planets, not one. There can be no 'Plan B' because there is no 'Planet B.'”

*Toriqul Islam is a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]