The known unknowns of plastic pollution
So far, it seems less bad than other kinds of pollution (about which less fuss is made)
MR MCGUIRE had just one word for young Benjamin, in “The Graduate”: plastics. It was 1967, and chemical engineers had spent the previous decade devising cheap ways to splice different hydrocarbon molecules from petroleum into strands that could be moulded into anything from drinks bottles to Barbie dolls. Since then global plastic production has risen from around 2m tonnes a year to 380m tonnes, nearly three times faster than world GDP.
Unfortunately, of the 6.3bn tonnes of plastic waste produced since the 1950s only 9% has been recycled and another 12% incinerated. The rest has been dumped in landfills or the natural environment. Often, as with disposable coffee cups, drinks bottles, sweet wrappers and other packets that account for much of the plastic produced in Europe and America, this happens after a brief, one-off indulgence. If the stuff ends up in the sea, it can wash up on a distant beach or choke a seal. Exposed to salt water and ultraviolet light, it can fragment into “microplastics” small enoughto find their way into fish bellies. From there, it seems only a short journey to dinner plates.