George Jacob is the President & CEO of Bay Ecotarium and leads the $260 million transformation of the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco, to the world’s first Climate Resilience & Ocean Conservation Living Museum. The views expressed are his own.
Our earth can be wrapped and shrouded over 400 times in plastic produced by humans, putting the Egyptian mummies to shame by a wide swathe!
With billions invested in plastic producing manufacturing plants, we produce the tonnage equal to the weight of all humans every year, if not more. With an average decomposition time of 450 years, barely 9% of plastics are recycled- the remaining 81% embeds itself into land-fills and bio-diversity that ingests it in a complex interconnected world of food-web cycle.
Powerful and emotionally charged images of sea-turtles with plastic straws stuck in its bleeding nostrils, to sea-gulls ingesting colored pieces of plastics to whales with bellies filled with plastics, have galvanized world leaders, celebrities, and policy makers to come together to enact stricter laws, regulations and protocols for consumption, re-cycling, and usage. Recent calls by 550 environmental activist groups for Joe Biden to embrace the notion of “Plastic-free President”, is gaining momentum as it grows in the populist clarion call. The urgency is palpable as articulated in its manifesto and goes beyond the current pathogen prevention priorities and urges a combination of punitive measures, permit prohibitions, policy changes, treaties and incentives.
From its pre-cursor ‘celluloid’ invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855 to its synthetic mass-produced plastic avatar ‘Bakelite’ created by Belgian American chemist Lee Baekland in 1907, plastics have evolved over a century, permeating virtually every sphere of life from packaging, engineering, transportation, mobility, construction, energy, sports, art to electronics to medical care. Its unmatched properties of malleability, light-weight and anti-corrosiveness, has spawned continued research in the realms of thermoplastics, polyurathene, PVC, bio-degradable plastics and resins to name a few. It is a miracle product and it is inextricably linked to our daily lives. It is hard to imagine a world without them.
Outpacing every single manufactured material, 380 million tons of plastics are produced each year with half of them deemed single-use. Over 8 million tons are dumped in the oceans and over 100,000 tons currently float on ocean surface. An estimated 12 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste entered the marine world in 2010 from land vectors including rivers and streams, and the quantum of pollution continues unabated a decade later. Cumulatively, the world has produced 7.9 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. Add to this equation the production of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) demand spurred by Covid 19.
With an increasing demand for PPE, hazmat suits, gloves, surgical and non-surgical masks, elastics and fluid disposable and testing equipment, plastic production saw spikes in manufacturing and allied sectors of sourcing and supply chain. While N95 masks are made of plastics such as polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), surgical gloves are made of nonwoven materials like melt-blown spunbond with blended polymers such as polyethylene (PE), PP and PET. With an average monthly demand of 130 billion facemasks and 65 billion gloves, manufacturers are scrambling to increase plant production capacity and adding new manufacturing facilities. The single-use disposable PPE gloves alone would yield a whopping carbon foot-print emission equivalency of 14 Mt CO2!
With different protocols for not mixing potentially contaminated PPE with general recycling, the regulatory systems are struggling with educating the public and enforcing environmentally sensitive practices. Incorrect disposal of medical and PPE plastic waste is an emergent issue in the post-Covid months, that will require serious thought and public engagement at many levels. Regulations and treaties alone will not precipitate a shift in consumer behavior that transcends geo-political boundaries as plastics, micro-plastics, and emissions spread across borders.
The question is, as co-creators of both the solutions and problems, could we break the cycle of dependency and change consumption patterns or could we re-invent a solution that allows us to emerge from the shroud of plastic that will one day fossilize us.