Its production, since its diffusion, has grown exponentially. Between 2019 and 2020 it is estimated that 370 million tons of plastic were produced in the world, in addition to the 8 billion tons already present. Despite having multiple uses, 40% of the plastic materials produced are intended for packaging, and therefore are disposable. At this point, a question arises. How is it possible that a material designed to be strong and durable, which takes more than 400 years to degrade, is used in the manufacture of disposable items?
All the plastic produced since the dawn of the first syntheses is still present, in one form or another on our planet, and not just on land. As many as 8 tons of plastic waste are dispersed every year in the oceans, waste that following the currents are grouped into giants and boundless floating masses. The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Ocean, whose surface is twice that of Texas. There are 4 other large masses, including another south of the Pacific Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Indian Ocean. They are obviously not islands on which you can walk, but rather dense swirling clouds of marine debris. Not only large-sized waste contributes to this plastic soup, but also the so-called microplastics, fragments smaller than 5mm in most cases resulting from the degradation of larger elements. Microplastics are extremely dangerous for the marine ecosystem and its fauna. Fishes and molluscs, as well as birds, not recognizing them as dangerous, eat them, not only directly compromising the digestive system. Very often plastic is infact treated with chemical elements which, once ingested, are released into the body with devastating consequences.
We also are at the expense of this environmental disaster, drinking water and eating food contaminated by microplastics and harmful chemicals. According to a study by the University of Newcastle, Australia, every week each of us ingests 5 grams of microplastics, the equivalent of a credit card. Research into the effects of microplastics and the even smaller nanoplastics are still in its infancy, but more and more scientists are starting to worry about their effects on human health. Another risk factor is that plastic contains hazardous hormone disruptors and also absorbs toxins that are in the environment, causing diseases such as diabetes, obesity, thyroid disorders and infertility.
The solution to such an extensive and complex problem is certainly not simple and immediate. The process of abandoning plastic, which today is an integral part of our life and the comforts we are used to, must turn to the search for more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives. As research progresses, however, our single role is key, starting with the famous "3 Rs": reduce, reuse, recycle. Each of us bears the responsibility of protecting, every day, the environment around us.