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Letter from the editor | 281

Too much plastic

Versatility is one of the many useful characteristics of plastic, which can be used in a range of applications in place of glass, wood, paper, metal, and natural fabrics, making it ubiquitous in modern society. Global plastic production was 2 million tons in 1950, and reached around 400 million tons in 2016. It is the perfect material for fast, cheap, and disposable consumerism.

The exponential rise in the use of plastic has resulted in one major problem: the environmental impact, as shown in numerous famous images, such as a tortoise with a straw stuck in its nostril, sea creatures with plastic debris in their stomachs, and huge islands of plastic floating in the oceans. In recent months, there have been more and more reports of cities or countries banning straws and other single-use plastics. Companies are starting to use more biological materials and scientists are studying how different polymers degrade in nature.

The problems caused by excessive production and consumption of plastics, as well as some possible solutions, are the subject of this issue’s three cover articles (page 18). Finding substitutes that are less harmful to nature, such as bioplastics, is a technological and commercial challenge: such materials still represent a tiny portion (0.5%) of the total plastic produced annually. How to dispose of it is another issue: one of the reasons plastic became so popular in the first place is that it is so resistant to natural degradation.

About 40% of current plastic production is for single-use products, highlighting the need for more conscious consumer habits on a planet whose natural resources are under severe stress: disposable syringes may be essential, but many other single-use products are not. The onus should not be placed entirely on the end consumer, but the problem is not likely to be solved or mitigated without a real change in behavior. The responsibility for final disposal and recycling is also a topic of debate: what obligations do manufacturers have? Different countries have different answers to that question.

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In 2003, Brazil passed stricter legislation on firearms, but it still has the highest number of annual gun deaths in the world. Of the 65,600 murders in 2017, 74.4% involved guns. Since the Disarmament Statute was signed in 2003, the annual murder rate has grown at a slower pace: in the 23 years before the law, it increased by an average of 8.1% per year, while between 2004 and 2014, annual growth was 2.2%, according to a survey by IPEA (page 78).

With access to weapons restricted by the law, the number of homicides was expected to fall—there are several explanations for this apparent contradiction. Despite a substantial drop in sales, an average of 53,000 firearms are still sold per year, according to data from Instituto Sou da Paz. The same institute also researched the path taken by legally traded weapons in the state of Goiás, finding that 73% of the nearly 9,000 guns seized by police over an 18-month period (June 2016 to December 2017) were bought before the new legislation was passed. The arming of the population in the 1980s and 1990s is still having an impact on violence in Brazil today.

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