Every year, the global annual production of plastic is estimated at 100 million tons, consuming about 8% of the world’s oil supply. Things made from plastic are everywhere; it is inescapable.
Plastics are strong, lightweight, and above all, cheap. Practically any time you turn around, there is something plastic lurking there. Kitchen countertops, cell phones, toys, cars, computers, food wrap, plastic bags…
It is estimated that between 500 billion and one trillion plastic shopping bags are consumed every year, and somewhere between 1-3% of those wind up outside of landfills. That’s anywhere between 5 and 30 billion bags on the loose. Many of those wind up in the ocean, choking sea turtles or other marine creatures, or just drifting along in the Great Pacific Garbage patch.
The vast majority of plastic is produced from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. At the same time, most plastics are non-biodegradable. Plastic materials in a landfill (http://www.howstuffworks.com/landfill.htm )can likely last for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. By weight, plastic is about 10% of all garbage produced, or about 15 million tons a year in the United States alone.
Most plastics can be recycled, or at least reused. Many of those plastic grocery bags find a second life as kitchen garbage bags, gym bags, lunch bags, or scoop bags for dog poop. Other plastics can be recycled into new products, or ground down for use as fill material. Recycling isn’t always possible, but it is usually possible to mix plastics with wood fibers to make composite materials.
Aside from the unsightliness, plastic waste has other problems. In the ocean, it can bind and strangle animals, or it can get eaten and cause a blockage in an animal’s digestive tract. Plastic can photodegrade, which means that the action of sunlight breaks it down. Unfortunately, it just breaks it down into very small bits of plastic. These small bits of plastic are often confused as food by many forms of marine life, and thus get incorporated into the food chain. Even worse are the small plastic beads found in exfoliating body scrubs, which are made specifically to be washed down the bathroom drain. They pass completely unaffected through any water treatment process, to find their way, once again, to the sea.
Though plastics themselves are pretty much inert and generally harmless, several very toxic chemicals are used in their manufacture, which can get taken up during the manufacturing process, and released as the plastic starts to break down. Other chemicals can be released as plastic degrades as well, including PCBs, dioxins, and xenoestrogen chemicals that can mimic female hormones in fish and people.
Plastic is so common that it would be difficult to imagine a world without it. As petroleum and natural gas production decline, it may become even more necessary to stop burning them as fuel, and to conserve them for a more useful purpose.