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The Global Plastic Crisis -
Is Recycling The Answer? 


1. What is plastic? 

From the clothes we wear to the food we eat; plastic is a household staple for all of us.  It has transformed our lives in terms of food security, medical care and quality of life. The word plastic comes from the Greek word Plastikos, meaning “moldable” or “formable.” 

How is plastic made and why it is impossible to imagine life without it?  How can something so transformative be both a blessing and a curse at the same time? 


2. How is plastic made? 

Let's break it down in simple terms! 

Plastic production starts with getting raw materials from sources like oil. These materials are broken down and turned into polymers. Additives are mixed in to give the plastic specific properties like flexibility, durability, color, resistance to heat, and more. For instance, the plastic used in a flexible water bottle needs to be soft and bendable, so it doesn't break when you squeeze it. That's a specific property. Then, the plastic is melted and shaped into products. After shaping, it cools down and gets checked for quality. Finally, plastic products are packaged (in more plastic) and sent to be used in various industries. 

3. What is plastic used for? 

Plastics are everywhere. They are cost effective, versatile and highly adaptable. They can be made with very specific properties from hard to soft, colorful to plain, or flexible to rigid. 

Here are five major industries that are dependent on plastics: the packaging industry, medical equipment manufacturers, the global fishing industry, electronics and of course textiles. 

4. Plastic Packaging 

Think about your favorite snacks, drinks, or even the latest gadgets you order online - chances are, they all come in plastic packaging. About 30-40% of all packaging material is made from plastic. Why is plastic so popular?  

Plastic helps preserve food and other perishable goods for long periods by keeping bacteria and moisture out.  

Plastic weighs very little. It’s easy and cheap to transport and carry. 

Plastics can be molded into any shape and size to package anything from beverages to solid goods like snacks or toys. 

5. Medical Equipment 

Medical plastics, including syringes and IV bags, have made healthcare safer and more accessible.  

Plastics in medical devices are often designed to be biocompatible, meaning they don't evoke an immune response from the patient. Plastic makes implants like pacemakers and artificial joints safe.  

It’s cheap and easy to mold even intricate items such as syringes, IV bags, and catheters. 

Plastic medical equipment doesn't break as easily as glass or metal alternatives. It’s a safer choice.  

As a result, the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for over 300 million Tonnes of plastic waste each year, half of this single use! 

6. Textiles
Believe it or not, plastic even finds its way into our clothing! About 60% of our clothes are made of plastic. Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon, derived from plastic, make comfortable and durable fabrics because they can mimic the properties of natural fibers like cotton or silk while offering added durability. Plastic-based textiles are cheap, and they are resistant to stretching, shrinking, and wrinkles, making them ideal for clothing and accessories that require longevity. 
But we have a real problem, because most clothing items are thrown away and end up in landfills around the globe. Plastic does not biodegrade, and it takes decades or centuries to break up.  

7. Fishing Gear

Plastic is cheap and versatile. The fishing industry knows that and uses lots of plastic fishing gear including nets, lines, traps and packing straps. Plastic can endure the wear and tear of fishing activities, including exposure to saltwater, abrasion, and the physical stress of catching and hauling in fish. With plastic, there is no corrosion or rust, and fishing gear stays strong and effective. Once it breaks or gets lost at sea, it is cheap to replace with new fishing gear.  

But here is the problem: according to The Ocean Clean Up, over 75% of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch originates from fishing activities! 

8. Electronics 

Cell phones, cameras, drones, fitness trackers and computers - without plastic, none of those would exist. Plastic has played a crucial role in advancing our society. Its versatility allows for the creation of intricate designs like smartphones, laptops, and gaming consoles. Plastics are excellent insulators and help to protect electronic components from moisture. Plastics also prevent electrical interference in cables, wires, and connectors within electronic devices like computers, televisions, and audio equipment. Plastic weighs very little, keeping smartphones, computers, and fitness trackers light and easy to use. 

9. Why is plastic a problem?

Plastic is everywhere, but it comes at a steep cost to our environment. In the upcoming posts, we'll dive deeper into four major reasons that make plastic a pressing issue: waste management, carbon footprint, toxins, and microplastics. 

Stay tuned to learn about the environmental impact of the global plastic crisis, its ties to climate change, and the devastating consequences for marine life. 

10. Waste management 

Plastic is non-biodegradable. Unlike organic materials like food and paper, plastic does not easily decompose. Once plastic is produced, it remains in the environment for hundreds of years and plastic waste accumulates in landfills and the ocean. Many regions around the globe lack the necessary infrastructure for effective collection and disposal of plastic and other waste, which leaves especially impoverished communities at risk. A lot of rubbish drifts down rivers into the ocean. The need for seal disentanglement is a perfect example of a failing waste management system.  

11. Carbon Footprint
Besides mountains of rubbish, our plastic consumption is also a major contributor to the ongoing climate change crisis through carbon emissions!  According to the OECD, plastic production accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing carbon emissions associated with plastic production is critical to mitigating climate change and protecting the environment. We need to shift to eco-friendly materials to save our planet. 

3. Fur Seal or Sea Lion?   

Cape Fur Seals look more similar to Sea Lions than True Seals. They share many features, but Cape Fur seals have much thicker fur than Sea lions. Their dense and waterproof underfur made for more desirable pelts, leading to Cape Fur Seals nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900’s!  

Sea Lions have a shorter and wider nose, and shorter ears and flippers than the Fur Seals. The largest Sea Lion (Stellar Sea Lion) can reach up to 1000kg, whereas the largest Fur Seal (Cape Fur Seal) can attain a maximum of 350kg.  
At OCN, we are happy we get to rescue Cape Fur Seals, and not Sea Lions. We would need a much bigger net!  


13. Microplastics  

Big plastic items quickly break down into smaller pieces. When plastic particles are smaller than 5mm, we refer to them as microplastics and eventually nano-plastics. The biodergation rate of microplastics is very low, and they remain in the environment and especially the ocean for a long time. Through fish and even drinking water, microplastics enter the food chain with currently unforeseeable consequences for animals and human beings. 

12. Toxins 

Plastics contain many additives, which is a fancy name for harmful chemicals. As plastic items degrade over time, especially when exposed to sunlight and heat, these chemicals leach into our soil and water, contaminating the food chain. Common toxins from plastics include dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium and many others hazardous ingredients. Some of them are known to cause cancer and other devastating impacts on our health and the planet.  

14. Recycling

Plastic waste is a global challenge. Millions of tons of plastic waste end up in landfills and oceans each year. Although we have been told that plastic is recyclable, we don’t see it happening as much as needed. In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only 9% of all plastic that has been produced since the 1950’s, has been recycled. The remaining 91% either end up in landfills or most likely, the ocean. Why only 9%? What makes plastic hard to recycle? What can be done to improve the management of plastic waste? 

Over the next few days, we’re going to shed more light on the Plastic Recycling Industry. We’ll cover points such as what it is and why it’s failing, amongst other important questions. 

Recycling gives a second life to the plastic we use every day. Each recycled item reduces the amount of plastic waste in our environment. We’ll break down each step involved in the recycling process: 

COLLECTION: Recycling starts with the collection of plastic waste from various sources. You can often find special bins or trucks that pick up these materials from your home or workplace in developed countries. Countries like Namibia have few or no recycling provisions.  

SORTING: Once collected, the plastics are sorted into different categories based on their type. Plastics come in many varieties, and they must be separated to ensure proper recycling. Some plastics cannot be recycled at all.  

CLEANING: The sorted plastics need to be thoroughly cleaned. Any plastic material with food or other residues CANNOT be recycled. The cleaning process is unfortunately very water and energy intense.  

SHREDDING: The cleaned plastics are shredded into smaller pieces.  

PLASTIC PELLETS: The shredded plastics are then melted and molded into small pellets or beads, often referred to as nurdles. These plastic pellets are the raw material used to create new plastic products. 

MOULDING: Different techniques, such as injection molding or extruding are employed to shape the materials into items like containers, packaging, or even new materials for construction. 

15. Recycling Myths 

Is recycling the answer to the global plastic crisis? Unfortunately, not. Less than 10% of global plastic gets recycled. Recycling plays an important role in a circular economy, but we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic crisis into a waste free world. Why is that?  
Recycling has a huge environmental footprint, especially when considering factors such as energy consumption and resource usage. Recycling is not straightforward; it is more than casually tossing items into a rubbish bin.


Many single-use items are not recyclable at all. The little recycling icon ♻️ on plastic products is believed to have increased single use plastic usage as people thought that their plastic was recyclable. But this code or icon on a plastic product does not mean that material is recyclable or has been recycled, it just indicates the type of plastic! 

16. Issue: Plastic Complexity 

Despite its best intentions, there is still a complex web of challenges that the recycling industry grapples with, including plastic complexity.  

Plastics come in diverse forms with varying chemical compositions, making the sorting and processing procedures complex. This diversity includes common plastics like PET (used in bottles), PVC (found in pipes and packaging), and many others. Each type requires different processing methods. 

About 75% of global plastics produced are thermoplastics that can be melted and molded over and over to produce new plastics, which – in theory – makes all thermoplastics recyclable. However, the 

way consumers use and dispose of these plastics hinders their recyclability. The remaining 25% of plastics are thermoset plastics that do not soften when exposed to heat, making them near impossible to recycle. 

As a result, many recycling facilities struggle to efficiently separate and process different types of plastics, leading to increased costs and decreased overall recycling efficiency. 

18. Regulatory Challenges 

The recycling industry often faces a much stricter framework than the plastic production industry. Besides economical and practical challenges, the recycling industry has become a regulatory nightmare. There’s a lack of clear guidelines or enforcement mechanisms, leading to compliance issues by businesses and individuals. Strengthening and enforcing recycling policies, along with promoting extended producer responsibility, are crucial steps in overcoming this challenge. Recycling is meant to reduce environmental impacts of plastic, but it only does so if the recycling process does not turn into an environmental disaster regarding microplastics, water pollution, energy consumption and hazardous emissions.  

17. Issue: Economic Challenges
Limited global demand for recycled products, and strict plastic recycling regulations are additional challenges faced by the recycling industry. It is usually much cheaper to produce new plastics compared to recycling old plastics into new ones, especially if oil prices are low.  

The recycling process itself is expensive and resource intense. Especially smaller communities or regions with limited resources cannot afford the initial investment for establishing and maintaining recycling infrastructure.  

19. Can policy changes help? 

Crucial policy changes can help transform our relationship with plastic and ensure a cleaner and safer future for us all. Plastic is so popular because it is cheap, versatile and durable. But without better regulations, our wasteful use of this precious resource leads to pollution and resource depletion. Lots of plastic packaging is completely unnecessary and could be minimised or replaced with eco-friendly alternatives. Through global policies, companies need to be forced to minimize plastic packaging and develop designs that prioritize recyclability. Wherever possible, we must reduce our plastic footprint. 

20. What about a "Plastic Tax"? 

A single use plastic bag would become a lot more expensive if the cost to the environment had to be included in the price! New plastic should never be cheaper than biodegradable materials or recycled plastics. A plastic tax in the form of levies for plastic production would be one way to reflect the true cost of plastic. Money is a major driving force in the global plastic crisis, and recycling would finally be profitable. Companies don’t want to involve themselves with something that will affect their profits. Making plastic expensive will therefore encourage them to go for cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives. Additionally, the revenue generated from this plastic tax can fund clean-up programs. 

21. Circular Economy 

In the traditional, linear economy, products are made, used, and discarded, creating vast amounts of waste. This approach contributes to pollution, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. 

A circular economy aims to keep resources and products in use for as long as possible. It's a closed-loop system that focuses on three key principles: reduce, reuse, and recycle. In a circular economy, manufacturers take greater responsibility for their products, ensuring they can be easily disassembled, repaired, or recycled. 

We must remember the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Reducing our reliance on single-use packaging, regardless of material, is paramount. Choosing reusable alternatives, like cloth bags and metal straws, is another critical step. Finally, ensuring proper recycling infrastructure is in place is vital for closing the loop on the plastic cycle. 

22. Can plastic be used to generate energy? 

Plastics contain mainly carbon and hydrogen, with similar energy content to conventional fuels such as diesel. This makes plastics among the most valuable waste materials – although, with the way people discard them, you probably wouldn’t know it. It’s possible to convert all plastics directly into useful energy and chemicals for industry, using a process called “cold plasma pyrolysis”. 

The traditional methods of landfill or incineration cost a lot of resources and do not properly solve the environmental problem. Pyrolysis technology offers a practical solution to recycling waste plastics by converting them to liquid fuel oil as the main product. This creates environmental benefits by reducing the amount of plastic waste in nature. 

23. Bio-Plastics

Single-use packaging, often unnecessary and excessive, chokes landfills and pollutes oceans. Bioplastics presents a viable solution to reduce our reliance on conventional plastics. Seaweed and algae plastics are biodegradable and can be produced with lower environmental impact compared to petrochemical-based plastics. 

However, it's crucial to note that while bioplastics show potential in addressing certain plastic-related issues, they are not a magical solution. Their production is still in its infant stages, and scaling up to meet global demand poses challenges. 

24. Where do we stand?

Plastic is a real dilemma. It has brought us so many good things while causing major harm to our environment and wildlife. Plastic is not the problem – our overconsumption and disposal of this precious resource is!  

Plastic recycling is an important part of the picture, but it is only part of the solution to the global plastic pollution crisis. Recycling is not even available in many countries!  

Everybody has a role to play and can make a difference, which is great! To make a real impact, we need systemic change, policies that favor sustainability, and a collective shift towards eco-friendly alternatives. 

25. How can YOU help? 

From the products we purchase to the energy we consume; our personal choices contribute to a better or worse planet. We must embrace a sustainable lifestyle by supporting eco-friendly initiatives, opting for products from companies committed to reducing their environmental impact, and endorsing renewable energy sources, even if it is more expensive than cheap plastics. Every purchase of environmentally friendly products helps and sends a message to the producers to continue their eco-friendly practices. Your daily decisions wield immense power in shaping a greener future. By consciously choosing sustainable alternatives, you contribute to a collective movement that advocates for a healthier planet. 

26. The Three R's 

Reduce: Cut down on waste by being mindful of your consumption. Always choose products with minimal plastic packaging and say no to single-use plastics. Small changes add up, and your choices can influence others to do the same. 

Reuse: Give it a second life! Before tossing something, think about how it can be repurposed. Whether it's a glass jar for storage or shopping with a reusable bag, reusing minimizes the demand for new resources. 

Recycle: Even though recycling cannot solve the plastic crisis on its own, it still plays a big part. Take care of how you dispose of your trash to ensure it qualifies for recycling.  

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Contact Us:

Namibia: Ocean Conservation Namibia Trust, PO Box 5304, Walvis Bay, Namibia

USA: Ocean Conservation International, 8 The Green, STE A, Dover , DE 19901

©2023 by Ocean Conservation Namibia

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