Plastic is everywhere you look. It’s in food packaging, electronics, cars, toys, credit cards and clothes. Plastic is also everywhere you can’t look. It’s littering uninhabited beaches 3,000 miles from the nearest human being, killing off the plankton that produce our oxygen kilometers beneath the surface of the ocean, and clogging the gullets of albatross chicks in the Pacific. Plastic is also moving through your body, your bloodstream, your organs and those of the people you love.
It’s hard to believe that a material barely a century old is now one of the most ubiquitous polluters on our planet. And the place where it is doing the most damage is the place where most plastic ends up: the oceans. Plastic is destroying one of our most important natural resources, which could in turn have an equally destructive impact on the rest of the planet. And while a world without plastic might seem inconceivable, a world where we continue to use plastic as we do is a death sentence. If we want to protect our oceans and ourselves, it’s time to examine how we got into this mess and to look for ways to turn back the ever-rising tide of plastic pollution before it drowns us all.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PLASTIC
Natural forms of plastic have existed for centuries, but the emergence of what we understand as modern, man-made plastic can be traced back to the manufacture of Bakelite in 1907. In the 1920s and '30s, plastic as a material really took off with industrial production of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and polystyrene. As industry and the general public saw how light, cheap, strong, and infinitely versatile plastic could be, it became the go-to material for pretty much anything you could think of. Before we knew it, we were ordering drinks that came in plastic cups with plastic straws, all stuffed into a plastic bag. Then, after twenty minutes when we’d drunk our fill, we’d throw all that plastic away. Today over 330 million tons of brand-new virgin plastic are manufactured annually worldwide. There’s now more than a ton of plastic littering our planet for every person on earth, which means plastic isn’t just a billion-dollar industry, it’s a billion-ton polluter.
THROWN AWAY, BLOWN AWAY, WASHED AWAY. WHERE DOES IT ALL GO?
The huge problem with plastic is that it doesn’t disappear like organic matter. Instead of breaking down, plastic breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. This means almost all the plastic ever created is still with us in some form.
So what happens to all this plastic once we don’t have a use for it anymore? Well, although we’d like to think that we recycle as much as possible, in reality less than 10% of global plastic waste is recycled. The rest goes into trash cans and joins the general waste going to an incinerator or landfill, or it blows around our streets. That plastic can end up in waterways, which eventually find their way to the sea.
In low- or middle-income countries around the world, most plastic waste is disposed in ways that are even more likely to destroy our environment. There’s little or no thought given to plastic pollution due to lack of facilities to process waste, lack of education, or just the fact that there are more immediate concerns to worry about. After all, if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, the issue of plastic waste isn’t going to feature high on your agenda. In these places, plastic’s route into the water is even more direct. And once in the water, plastic does horrific damage.
THE OCEANS ARE DROWNING IN PLASTIC
Every minute of every single day, a truck’s-worth of plastic enters the oceans. If we keep polluting at as predicted, scientists have calculated that by 2048 the water will contain more plastic than fish.
Much of this plastic is broken down and transported by ocean currents and winds into the center of the oceans, away from continental coastlines. There, the plastic collects together in areas of condensed plastic soup called “gyres.” The biggest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which contains billions of pieces of plastic floating in a growing area more three times the size of France. Occasionally, a gyre might "spit out" plastic, littering shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, and plastic bags across the shores of uninhabited islands thousands of miles from the nearest human. Most plastic doesn’t remain on the surface but pollutes deep below the waves. Plastic particles have been found 5,000 meters underwater in deep sea sediments. A plastic bag has even been discovered in the deepest place on earth: the Marianas Trench, ten kilometers below the surface.
And wherever plastic is found in the oceans, it causes huge amounts of damage to the creatures who live there. Animals get tangled up in large pieces of plastic, discarded fishing nets, and ropes—caught by their heads, mouths, or fins. A recent survey showed that one in three species of marine mammals have found themselves trapped in these plastic nooses. Research has found over 230 species of sea creatures with plastic in their stomachs. In these cases, the plastic is often undigested and ends up filling the animals’ bellies, leading to slow starvation.
In the water, UV light and erosion speed up the breakdown of plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. These microplastics range from the size of a grain of rice to fractions of a micrometer. Swallowed by sea life large and small, they can find their way through the gut into the animal’s bloodstream, which can reduce fertility, cause organ damage or even be fatal. And what’s poisoning sea life now could soon be poisoning us. A third of fish in the English Channel have been found to have microplastics in their bloodstream. And Europeans who eat mussels have been calculated to ingest 6,400 microplastic pieces every year. While we don’t know the health consequences of eating all this plastic, we do know whose fault it is: our own. The good news is we also hold the key to changing things for the better.
THE FIGHT AGAINST PLASTIC
The world is finally waking up to the seriousness of plastic pollution. Recent years have seen a growing number of companies, organizations and governments tackling the issue and looking for solutions to our life-threatening plastic problem.
One way of dealing with the issue is banning plastic outright. The City of San Francisco took a stand in 2014, prohibiting the sale of plastic bags and plastic water bottles on city property. Other communities and countries have followed suit. In Kenya, courts can slap a $38,000 fine on anyone found selling plastic bags. And in Vanuatu, in the middle of the Pacific ocean, the government has passed legislation which will phase out single-use plastics altogether.
Other ideas involve finding ways to reinvent the material itself. For example, one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers is putting more than $150 million into developing biodegradable plastic made from plants. It released a first range of products created from sugarcane plastic last year.
There have also been attempts to create devices which can remove plastic from the oceans on a large scale. But such approaches are untested, and critics point out that even if they do eventually work, trying to clean up the plastic is like trying to vacuum in a sandstorm if we keep dumping plastic into the water at the current rate. No matter how much you take out, it’ll never stop the problem on its own.
But some alternatives can make a real difference. Activism in grassroots campaigns, such as the school climate strikes inspired by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, prove the public’s willingness to stand up for environmental issues. Young people want a say in their future and that of the planet. And they have shown a willingness to mobilize and act in order to help accelerate the change they desire.
While individually these initiatives might be just a drop in the plastic ocean, there’s no question that each one can have an impact, raise awareness about the issues we face, and encourage more people to take a stand against plastic pollution. And the more that do so, the better.
ADIDAS VERSUS PLASTIC
adidas is a firm believer in the power of brands to use their influence and act in response to environmental issues. Using creativity and imagination, we have found ways to reduce our environmental footprint and create products that turn plastic trash into something more useful. Together with environmental organization Parley for the Oceans, we took up the challenge of using marine plastic waste as a raw material, unveiling a first concept shoe at the United Nations in New York in 2015. The upper was made of yarns and filaments reclaimed and recycled from marine plastic waste and illegal deep-sea fishing gillnets. Since then, we have developed a range of clothing and shoes made with plastic trash intercepted from remote islands, beaches, and coastal communities around the world. The plastic is collected by Parley and its global clean-up network before being cleaned and processed into a thread that can be used to make shoes, high-performance sportswear, and other clothing. Since the first generation of adidas x Parley products hit the market in 2016, we’ve produced over five million pairs of shoes made with marine plastic trash, and we plan to make 11 million more in 2019. That’s more than 2810 tons of plastic trash that has been kept from destroying our oceans. As a company, we’re working towards a plastic-free future. We’re exploring new materials to replace plastic and have made a commitment to phase out all virgin polyester in our products (where alternatives exist) by 2024. We have also removed plastic bags from our stores and microbeads from all our shower gels, and we've banned single-use plastic from our offices globally.
We also believe education is key to fighting plastic pollution. Since 2017, our annual Run For the Oceans (RFTO) initiative has used sports to help raise awareness about the plastic problem and inspire action around the globe. Every kilometer run by participants raises a dollar for the Parley Ocean Schools Education program. The program arms future generations in the fight for healthier oceans and a cleaner planet, educating young people about the importance of protecting the oceans, the issue of plastic trash, and the actions they can take to live in harmony with the environment around them.
THE FUTURE IS IN OUR HANDS
To escape this doomsday scenario, we have to stop making and using plastic for good. While we still consume single-use plastics and buy things made with virgin plastic, we are paying to have our environment destroyed and our lives potentially shortened.
Although it might seem an overwhelming challenge, there are a number of simple actions we can take to help drive the change we need. We can choose recycled plastics over single-use plastic or—best of all—avoid plastic altogether in our daily lives. We can clean up plastic litter from our beaches, rivers, parks and streets. We can support politicians, governments and companies that are working towards a plastic-free future, and shun those that don’t. We can harness the power of imagination and collaboration and work together to create a better world.
While these choices may seem small or inconsequential, when millions of people make them together we can have a real impact. So, encourage those around you to join the fight and together we can be the start of the end of plastic pollution. For the sake of our oceans, our planet, and ourselves.