31 Jan 2019
The working life of a plastic bag is around twelve to fifteen minutes. Five trillion of them will be used around the world this year – equivalent to 160,000 a second. Most are used just once, cast aside, then the process of breaking down gets underway. If collected and incinerated, this stage could last nanoseconds, or stretch 1000 years3 if left to wind its own course.
This example illustrates the fundamental problem of using plastics, some of the most popular man-made materials ever invented. Since they first came to market in the 1950s, cheap, malleable, long-lasting products derived from fossil feedstocks (including crude oil, natural gas and coal) have been used all over the world. From construction and food packaging to toys, medical devices and cosmetics – plastics are everywhere. Evidence can be found on the floors of the world’s deepest ocean trench, in the stomachs of camels, guts of seabirds6 and in human food and tap water as well.