Plastic – Thus Began the Problem of Marine Debris

The organic synthetic polymer that we usually call “plastic” was invented in the 20th century, specifically, in 1907. The plastic industry began to really take off in the 1930s, when various kinds of plastic were created during World War II.

Plastics possess a number of excellent features that traditional materials such as glass and wood lack, namely they are durable, rigid and strong yet with the flexibility to change their shape. Some plastics are heat resistant or chemical resistant or act as insulators; they truly have a number of very useful features.

Plastics are also cheap and can be used for a long time. They became essential to our daily lives and were considered a quite ordinary material in the 1950s. Paper bags have long been replaced by plastic bags, while glass jars have been replaced by plastic bottles and paper cups by plastic cups. Nylon ropes are now among the most commonly used packaging materials.

Plastics, such as food containers, fabrics, electrics, medical devices, construction materials and so on, are used everywhere in our lives. Indeed, our life, society and whole economies are supported by these plastics in various aspects: We could no longer continue our daily lives without plastics.

With the rapid increase in oil and gas consumption over the last half century, the production volume of plastics, which are made from oil, has also increased tremendously. Almost 90% of plastics are made from oil, and 6% of the annual global oil consumption goes into plastic production(Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016). To put this number in context, that is the same amount of the oil that is used to fuel all global air travel.

The volume of plastic production is calculated by the volume of the production of plastic pellets, which are the intermediate raw material for plastic products. This volume was only 1,500,000 tons in 1950, but it reached over 31,000,000 tons in 2014, or more than 730 times the weight of the Yokohama Landmark Tower(Plastic Europe 2015, Velis 2014).

World plastic production is increasing more rapidly than the population is increasing, which means that the plastic consumption by each individual must be increasing. Plastic production is increasing by 5% each year, and about 33 billion tons of plastics will have been produced in total by 2050(Rochman et al. 2013).

The more plastic is produced, the more plastic will be discharged. Today, plastic waste accounts for 18-54% of all of the waste we discard by weight(Hoellein et al. 2014). It is estimated that between 4,800,000 and 12,700,000 (average 8,000,000) tons of plastic waste enter the sea each year from countries near the sea(Jambeck et al. 2015).

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