Plastic pollution has re-emerged into public consciousness over the last two decades, with the scientific community documenting the widespread presence of microplastics (smaller then 5 mm) and litter (larger than 5 mm) in every corner of the world. Plastic pollution differs from chemical pollution in fundamental ways: it is (often) visible, understandable, and tangible – we all buy it, use it, and dispose of it.
But the exponential growth in plastic production has overshot society’s ability to manage the waste element – recycling systems cannot keep up; leakage during production escape into the environment; wastewater treatments plants were not designed to address this pollutant; and our global marketplace has made it difficult to conduct adequate life cycle analyses and apply best practices.
What is ostensibly a simple, ‘safe’, and multi-faceted material used in a myriad of consumer and industrial products has become a nightmare of global proportions for conservationists and policymakers concerned about a material with virtually no half life. Plastic is persistent and harmful, and presents a global challenge that is exposing profound weaknesses in our research, risk assessment, and policy tools.