If you were living before the 1950s, you'd be a lot less dependent on plastics. You'd have seen the arrival of this "magic material" that can make almost anything, for very little cost (to the consumer).
Whether for sanitary pads and nappies, electronics, pre-packed or ready-made food packaging, plastic made its way into our lives at an unprecedented pace. Just how quickly did we make plastic our number one manufacturing material?
Since the 1950s, more than 9.1 billion tons of plastic has been produced... by 2014, plastic production had grown no less than 20 times. That made for roughly 448 million tons of plastic in 2015 alone (we are not taking into account how much plastic is already present, only how much virgin plastic is being manufactured).
The plastic economy has benefitted consumers, who have found a reliance on this convenient, virtually costless material than enabled single-use products to proliferate. Why clean, dry, organise your life when you can buy and throw and cut out all the intermediary steps? Why indeed... We know why, yet we fail to admit how lazy we are at reverting to more sustainable habits and systems.
But it's also, obviously, benefitted businesses in cutting down costs, which is a main reason for why plastic manufacturers and plastic-using businesses are the first to look for an alternative that isn't really one. Such companies advocate the global recycling system (for plastics and other materials), which employs approximately 1.6M people worldwide for an annual turnover of over $200 billion, similar to the GDP of our neighbour Malaysia. Yes, ideally all future plastics should be made from existing ones, but in reality, an alarming 90.5 percent of plastic waste ever generated has never been recycled according to a U.M. report released last year; a statistic so concerning that it won itself the title of international statistic of the year by the Britain’s Royal Statistical Society last December. Coca Cola for instance has pledged to invested in an 11 year plan to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can drink it sells by 2030 and to make them out of at least 50% recycled material. But beyond the message of sustainability they communicate to their customers, it's a way to take more control of their supply chain and mitigate risks of a potentially volatile raw materials market. Even though recycled plastics are (not yet) always cheaper than virgin plastic, their prices are at least more consistent.
While recycling is important, it's a lie to say that recycling is a solution to single-use. We spend billions each year to dispose of plastic waste, and experience has shown us that recovering materials for recycling is a challenge that is not of a national scale but of a regional one. Assuming we could recover wasted plastics, we would still face the impact of the wasted resources a single-use item consumes during its life, of which over 99% is spent not in use (and how would we handle so much waste to recover and recycle?). In terms of economy, the World Economic Forum estimates that the value of plastic packaging material depreciates by 95 percent, the equivalent to up to 120 billion USD every year.
So how many dollars do you think you're throwing down the trash every year?