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Plastic lasts more than a lifetime, and that’s the problem

Around the world, waves of plastic are washing ashore and clogging landfills. Even though plastic pollution is now one of the largest environmental threats facing humans and animals, our appetite for the virtually indestructible material keeps growing. Amna Nawaz and producer Lorna Baldwin begin our series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Plastic pollution is now considered one of the largest environmental threats facing humans and animals. The material is made to last much longer than a human lifetime, but that also means its impact on the planet lasts a lifetime too.

    Forty percent of all plastic, water bottles, bags, straws, and utensils, are used only one time before being discarded.

    Amna Nawaz and producer Lorna Baldwin kick off a series this week about our global plastics problem.

    And a warning, viewers may find some of the images involving injured animals disturbing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Along coasts across the globe, waves of plastic are washing ashore.

    This beach in the Dominican Republic is inundated every day. This stretch of sand on Australia's Christmas Island is swamped by debris. Plastic is clogging landfills from Thailand to Kenya.

    Why? Plastic is virtually indestructible, and it doesn't break down easily. But there are also so many different types of plastic, it can be hard or in some cases impossible to recycle. And yet, around the world, our appetite for plastic keeps on growing.

    More than nine billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since 1950, the weight equivalent of 27,000 Empire State Buildings or more than a billion elephants.

    Roland Geyer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is an industrial ecologist who quantified the problem. He says, of all that plastic, an estimated 60 percent still exists on Earth today.

  • Roland Geyer:

    Of the nine billion metric tons that humankind ever produced, maybe 20 to 30 percent is still in use. And the rest — so, that's about six, six-and-a-half billion metric tons — has become waste. And…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And it's ended up in landfills.

  • Roland Geyer:

    Ended up either landfills, in the environments. A tiny fraction was recycled. And then an equally small fraction was incinerated.

  • Narrator:

    What can be made with plastics? Cosmetic containers and carpet housing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Plastic was a new material that transformed the consumer landscape. When large-scale production began after World War II, the potential for growth seemed unlimited.

  • Narrator:

    This paratrooper floating down to welcome Mother Earth is depending on plastics to get him there safely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The durable material did and does make some aspects of life more safe.

  • Woman:

    They take better care of little custom scratches.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Not to mention more convenient.

    And, ultimately, over decades of use, a disposable way of living evolved.

  • Narrator:

    It's tough and life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Its future was so limitless that, by 1967, Dustin Hoffman was given this career advice in "The Graduate."

  • Actor:

    I just want to say one word to you, just one word.

  • Dustin Hoffman:

    Yes, sir?

  • Actor:

    Are you listening?

  • Dustin Hoffman:

    Yes, I am.

  • Actor:

    Plastics.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The plastic problem is so pervasive that our own reporting teams keep running into it around the world.

    It doesn't matter how isolated the location. Plastic has found its way there, as Jeffrey Brown found on Easter Island in the South Pacific.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Not a place you would expect plastic pollution, but this is what was found by a cleanup crew on this rocky beach just in the last few minutes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Scientists say nearly every seabird eats plastic trash, mistaking it for fish. And plastic particles are in many of the fish we eat.

  • Man:

    The problem, the fish eat that, and we eat the fish.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. The fish eat the plastic, and then we eat the fish.

  • Man:

    Yes. Yes. And in our blood maybe exist plastic in the blood.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John Yang found out how plastic specifically impacts turtles when he visited the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica with wildlife biologist Helen Pheasey.

  • Helen Pheasey:

    Single-use plastic is an absolute nightmare for turtles.

  • John Yang:

    And this is the stuff you have just picked up on the beach here?

  • Helen Pheasey:

    I literally just found this here, yes. This is a really clean beach, and yet wherever you go, you find plastic. Plastic gets into the marine environment. It breaks down into tiny little pieces called microplastics. And anything that eats in the ocean will inadvertently eat plastic.

    And that's killing turtles. Up in Florida, they have got a hospital now where, instead of — when a turtle comes in, they no longer say, like, does the — does the turtle have plastic in its belly? They now say how much plastic is in the turtle.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 2016, a Marine biologist's video went viral, documenting the painful process as she removed a plastic straw stuck up a sea turtle's nose.

  • Man:

    Oh, man.

  • Helen Pheasey:

    This is becoming more and more common. It's not a one-off anymore. And these are the things that we don't need. We don't need single-use plastic.

    Nobody needs the straw. And if you do need a straw, for whatever reason, like, your child or something, then you don't need it to be made out of plastic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now banning plastic items like straws and bags seems to be all the rage. Cities, municipalities and companies like Starbucks and Marriott have announced bans are on the way.

    They follow in the footsteps of countries like Rwanda. In 2007, it was one of the first to ban plastic bags countrywide, and it's now considered one of the cleanest places in the world.

  • Max Bello:

    They can try to keep cleaning forever.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But conservationist Max Bello told Jeffrey Brown, that's still not enough.

  • Max Bello:

    Even if we stopped today to use plastic, if we stop now, this plastic that is out there, we're still going to have to deal with it for the next hundreds of thousands of years maybe, because it's not going to go away.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Join us all this week as we take a closer look at how the plastic we use every day is creating problems for our entire planet for generations to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" in Santa Barbara, California, I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, tomorrow, Amna will take a look at some potential solutions to the plastics problem.

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