Plastic wastes present formidable problems as they are at present not biodegradable, are bulky and can resist incineration. Incineration in fact may not be possible due to production of noxious or toxic fumes. Inadequate levels of recycling aggravate the waste problem. In addition, plastic waste is a major loss of an important commodity.
Expanded polystyrene foam (EPF) was first discovered in 1839, becoming popular during World War II in material used to build military aircraft; production grew at a phenomenal rate during this time. In 1946, Dow Chemical Company began working to make it more flexible. This resulted in the modern polystyrene product — one brand name is Styrofoam — whose production increases by several percent each year. Polystyrene doesn’t decompose. It does degrade somewhat, but not enough to keep marine life from eating it, filling their stomachs with plastic so they essentially starve to death for lack of nourishment. The chemicals in polystyrene harm wildlife on land, too, as they leach out and eventually make their way into the food chain.
Since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as all the preceding years combined, a third of which is leaked into nature.
In 2013, the world produced 299 million metric tons of plastic. By 2020, annual production was more like 400 million metric tons of plastic, with roughly 40 percent of it being disposable – used once and then chucked. Only 12% gets recycled in the USA, according to the EPA. Only roughly 5% of that is recycled worldwide. Every year, 9 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans and waterways where it poisons, maims, strangles and chokes a wide variety of marine life.
In 2017, the world consumed more than 1 million plastic water bottles per minute or roughly 20,000 per second. In India, companies such as Coca Cola and Pepsi have captured major market shares, but have not taken any interest in ensuring the plastic bottles (made of PET) are recycled (the old glass bottles were reused.) PET scrap is not worth enough to ensure recovery because the two PET recyclers are importing subsidized scrap from Europe and the USA. As a result, plastic bottles and thin-film bags are littered everywhere in India, blighting heritage areas, blocking drains and killing cows. Laws requiring use of virgin materials and thicker bags have not solved the problem.
In Somalia, nylon bags discarded by purchasers of Qat (the narcotic-like green leaf which most Somali males buy and chew) cause severe problems for native vegetation. The bags become wrapped in their branches and around their roots. The plants cannot get adequate air and water to sustain themselves and many die.