Plastic pollution, accumulation in the environment of man-made plastic products to the point where they create problems for wildlife and their habitats as well as for human populations. In 1907 the invention of Bakelite brought about a revolution in materials by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into world commerce. By the end of the 20th century, however, plastics were found to be persistent polluters of many environmental niches, from Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea. Whether being mistaken for food by animals, flooding low-lying areas by clogging drainage systems, or simply causing significant aestheticblight, plastics have attracted increasing attention as a large-scale pollutant.
The problem of plastics
Plastic is a polymeric material—that is, a material whose molecules are very large, often resembling long chains made up of a seemingly endless series of interconnected links. Natural polymers such as rubber and silk exist in abundance, but nature’s “plastics” have not been implicated in environmental pollution, because they do not persist in the environment. Today, however, the average consumer comes into daily contact with all kinds of man-made plastic materials that have been developed specifically to defeat natural decay processes—materials derived mainly from petroleum that can be molded, cast, spun, or applied as a coating. Since synthetic plastics are largely nonbiodegradable, they tend to persist in natural environments. Moreover, many lightweight, single-use plastic products and packaging materials, which account for approximately 50 percent of all plastics produced, are not deposited in containers for subsequent removal to landfills, recycling centres, or incinerators. Instead, they are improperly disposed of at or near the location where they end their usefulness to the consumer. Dropped on the ground, thrown out of a car window, heaped onto an already full rubbish bin, or inadvertently carried off by a gust of wind, they immediately begin to pollute the environment. Indeed, landscapes littered by plastic packaging have become common in many parts of the world. (Illegal dumping of plastic and overflowing of containment structures also play a role.) Studies from around the world have not shown any particular country or demographic group to be most responsible, though population centres generate the most litter. The causes and effects of plastic pollution are truly worldwide.
According to the trade association PlasticsEurope, world plastic production grew from some 1.5 million tons in 1950 to an estimated 275 million tons in 2010; some 4 million to 12 million tons is discarded into the oceans annually by countries with ocean coastlines. Compared with materials in common use in the first half of the 20th century, such as glass, paper, iron, and aluminum, plastics have a low recovery rate. That is, they are relatively inefficient to reuse as recycled scrap in the manufacturing process, due to significant processing difficulties such as a low melting point, which prevents contaminants from being driven off during heating and reprocessing. Most recycled plastics are subsidized below the cost of raw materials by various deposit schemes, or their recycling is simply mandated by government regulations. Recycling rates vary dramatically from country to country, with only northern European countries obtaining rates greater than 50 percent. In any case, recycling does not really address plastic pollution, since recycled plastic is “properly” disposed of, whereas plastic pollution comes from improper disposal.
Plastic pollution in oceans and on land
Since the ocean is downstream from nearly every terrestrial location, it is the receiving body for much of the plastic waste generated on land. Between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes (between 5.3 million and 14 million tons) of debris end up in the world’s oceans every year, and much of it is improperly discarded plastic litter. The first oceanographic study to examine the amount of near-surface plastic debris in the world’s oceans was published in 2014. It estimated that at least 5.25 trillion individual plastic particles weighing roughly 244,000 tonnes (269,000 tons) were floating on or near the surface. Plastic pollution was first noticed in the ocean by scientists carrying out plankton studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and oceans and beaches still receive most of the attention of those studying and working to abate plastic pollution. Floating plastic waste has been shown to accumulate in five subtropical gyres that cover 40 percent of the world’s oceans. Located at Earth’s midlatitudes, these gyres include the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, whose eastern “garbage patches” (zones with high concentrations of plastic waste circulating near the ocean surface) have garnered the attention of scientists and the media. The other gyres are the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre.
In the ocean, plastic pollution can kill marine mammals directly through entanglement in objects such as fishing gear, but it can also kill through ingestion, by being mistaken for food. Studies have found that all kinds of species, including small zooplankton, large cetaceans, most seabirds, and all marine turtles, readily ingest plastic bits and trash items such as cigarette lighters, plastic bags, and bottle caps. Sunlight and seawater embrittle plastic, and the eventual breakdown of larger objects makes it available to zooplankton and other small marine animals. In addition to being nonnutritive and indigestible, plastics have been shown to concentrate pollutants up to a million times their level in the surrounding seawater and then deliver them to the species that ingest them. In one study, levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a lubricant and insulating material that is now widely banned, were shown to have increased significantly in the preen gland oil of streaked shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) after these seabirds had been fed plastic pellets culled from Tokyo Bay for only one week.
There are also terrestrial aspects to plastic pollution. Drainage systems become clogged with plastic bags, films, and other items, causing flooding. Land birds, such as the reintroduced Californiacondor, have been found with plastic in their stomachs, and animals that normally feed in waste dumps—for instance, the sacred cows of India—have had intestinal blockages from plastic packaging. The mass of plastic is not greater than that of other major components of waste, but it takes up a disproportionately large volume. As waste dumps expand in residential areas, the scavenging poor are often found living near or even on piles of residual plastics.
Pollution by plastics additives
Plastic also pollutes without being littered—specifically, through the release of compounds used in its manufacture. Indeed, pollution of the environment by chemicals leached from plastics into air and water is an emerging area of concern. As a result, some compounds used in plastics, such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), have come under close scrutiny and regulation. Phthalates are plasticizers—softeners used to make plastic products less brittle. They are found in medical devices, food packaging, automobile upholstery, flooring materials, and computers as well as in pharmaceuticals, perfumes, and cosmetics. BPA, used in the manufacture of clear, hard polycarbonate plastics and strong epoxy coatings and adhesives, is present in packaging, bottles, compact discs, medical devices, and the linings of food cans. PBDE is added to plastics as a flame retardant. All these compounds have been detected in humans and are known to disrupt the endocrine system. Phthalates act against male hormones and are therefore known as anti-androgens; BPA mimics the natural female hormoneestrogen; and PBDE has been shown to disrupt thyroid hormones in addition to being an anti-androgen. The people most vulnerable to such hormone-disrupting chemicals are children and women of reproductive age.
These compounds have also been implicated in hormone disruption of animals in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine habitats. Effects are seen in laboratory animals at blood levels lower than those found in the average resident of a developed country. Amphibians, mollusks, worms, insects, crustaceans, and fish show effects on their reproduction and development, including alterations in the number of offspring produced, disruption of larval development, and (in insects) delayed emergence—though studies investigating resulting declines in those populations have not been reported. Studies are needed to fill this knowledge gap, as are studies of the effects of exposure to mixtures of those compounds on animals and humans.
Solving the problem
Given the global scale of plastic pollution, the cost of removing plastics from the environment would be prohibitive. Most solutions to the problem of plastic pollution, therefore, focus on preventing improper disposal or even on limiting the use of certain plastic items in the first place. Fines for littering have proved difficult to enforce, but various fees or outright bans on foamed food containers and plastic shopping bags are now common, as are deposits redeemed by taking beverage bottles to recycling centres. So-called extended producer responsibility, or EPR, schemes make the manufacturers of some items responsible for creating an infrastructure to take back and recycle the products that they produce. Awareness of the serious consequences of plastic pollution is increasing, and new solutions, including the increasing use of biodegradable plastics and a “zero waste” philosophy, are being embraced by governments and the public.Charles Moore
What is Plastic Pollution?
As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the amount of garbage that people produce. On-the-go lifestyles require easily disposable products, such as soda cans or bottles of water, but the accumulation of these products has led to increasing amounts of plastic pollution around the world. As plastic is composed of major toxic pollutants, it has the potential to cause great harm to the environment in the form of air, water and land pollution.
Put simply, plastic pollution is when plastic has gathered in an area and has begun to negatively impact the natural environment and create problems for plants, wildlife and even human population. Often this includes killing plant life and posing dangers to local animals. Plastic is an incredibly useful material, but it is also made from toxic compounds known to cause illness, and because it is meant for durability, it is not biodegradable.
Next time you go for a shopping, don’t forget to carry a paper or cloth bag. Also, try to avoid bringing plastic bags at home and purchasing items with too much of packaging. This way you can help in contributing towards the environment in the form of reducing plastic pollution whose ill effects are irreversible.
I am concerned about the air we breathe and the water we drink. If overfishing continues, if pollution continues, many of these species will disappear off the face of the earth.
– Bernard Marcus
Causes of Plastic Pollution
While solving the problem of plastic pollution may seem as easy as just implementing recycling or cleaning up empty bottles, the truth is that the plastic causing the pollution can range in size from big to microscopic. The major contributors to this problem today include:
- Plain Old Trash
Plastic is everywhere, even on those items you may not expect it to be. Milk cartons are lined with plastic, water bottles are handed out everywhere, and some products may even contain tiny plastic beads. Every time one of these items gets thrown away or washed down a sink, the toxic pollutants have more of a chance to enter the environment and do harm.
Trash dumps and landfills are unfortunate major problems, as they allow pollutants to enter the ground and affect wildlife and groundwater for years to come.
- It is Overused
As plastic is less expensive, it is one of the most widely available and overused item in the world today. When disposed, it does not decompose easily and pollutes the land or air nearby when burned in the open air.
- Fishing Nets
Commercial fishing is an economic necessity for many parts of the world, and tons of people eat fish for their daily survival. However, this industry has helped contribute to the problem of plastics pollution in the oceans in several ways. The nets used for certain large-scale trolling operations are usually made of plastic. First, these spend long times submerged in water, leaking toxins at will, but they also often get broken up or lost, left to remain wherever they fall. This not only kills and harms local wildlife, but also ensures that pollutants enter the water and fish of the area.
- Disposing of Plastic and Garbage
This may sound a bit confusing, but because plastic is meant to last, it is nearly impossible to break down. Burning plastic is incredibly toxic, and can lead to harmful atmospheric conditions and deadly illness. Therefore, if it is in a landfill, it will never stop releasing toxins in that area.
Even recycling doesn’t cut down on plastic, as it essentially uses the existing plastic, albeit in a new form. The process of recycling plastic can also lead to plastic irritants being released in a number of ways.
Effects of Plastic Pollution
It seems rather obvious that this amount of a material that isn’t meant to break down can wreak havoc on natural environments, leading to long-term issues for plants, animals, and people. Some of the major long-term effects of plastic pollution are:
- It Upsets the Food Chain
Because it comes in sizes large and small, polluting plastics even affect the world’s tiniest organisms such as plankton. When these organisms become poisoned due to plastic ingestion, this causes problems for the larger animals that depend on them for food. This can cause a whole slew of problems, each step further along the food chain. Plus, it means that plastic are present in the fish that many people eat everyday.
- Groundwater Pollution
Water conservation is already a concern in places ranging from California to parts of India, but the world’s water is in great danger because of leaking plastics and waste. If you’ve ever seen a garbage dump, imagine what happens every time it rains – then imagine that being in your drinking water. Groundwater and reservoirs are susceptible to leaking environmental toxins.
Most of the litter and pollution affecting the world’s oceans also derives from plastics. This has had terrible consequences on many marine species, which can lead to consequences for those that eat fish and marine life for nutrients – including people.
- Land Pollution
When plastic is dumped in landfills, it interacts with water and form hazardous chemicals. When these chemicals seep underground, they degrade the water quality. Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another, increasing the land litter. It can also get stuck on poles, traffic lights, trees, fences, tower etc. and animals that may come in the vicinity and might suffocate them to death.
- Air Pollution
Burning of plastic in the open air, leads to environmental pollution due to the release of poisonous chemicals. The polluted air when inhaled by humans and animals affect their health and can cause respiratory problems.
- It Kills Animals
Despite countless TV ads over the years showing ducks or dolphins trapped in six-ring plastic can holders, these items are still used and discarded en masse each day. Whether because the mass of plastic has displaced animals or the related toxins have poisoned them, plastic pollution does a lot of damage to the world’s ecosystems.
- It is Poisonous
Man artificially makes plastic by using a number of toxic chemicals. Therefore, use of and exposure to plastics has been linked to a number of health concerns affecting people around the world. The processes of making, storing, disposing of, and just being around plastics can be extremely harmful to living things.
- It is Expensive
It costs millions of dollars each year to clean affected areas after exposure, not to mention the loss of life to plants, animals, and people. As land becomes more valuable, just finding a place to put garbage is becoming a problem in many parts of the world.
Plus, excess pollution has lead to decreased tourism in affected areas, significantly impacting those economies.
Solutions to Plastic Pollution
The reality is that the only way this problem can be addressed is by individuals and companies around the world agreeing to implement practices that reduce waste on every level. The top tips for reducing plastic waste are:
- Shop Friendly
Plastic bags were once a modern convenience but can be efficiently replaced by reusable bags, many of which fold up compactly in order to be portable. Just think about how many bags you typically carry out of a grocery store, and multiply that by the number of times you grocery shop. That’s a lot of plastic! Carry a bag and always reuse plastic bags as much as possible if you have them.
- Get Rid of Bottled Water
People are meant to drink lots of water each day, and plastic water bottles have become a great way to stay hydrated throughout the day. However, most of these are only recommended for single use, and that means that every time someone finishes a bottle it goes into the trash. Many companies now sell reusable water bottles as a substitute, reducing plastic waste and exposure to leaking bottles.
- Forget to-go Containers
You would be surprised at how much plastic is involved in the making and packaging of food containers. Think the coffee shop’s drink cup is paper? It’s likely lined with plastic for insulation (pour a cup of coffee on some cardboard and see what happens).
Plastic food containers, lids, and utensils are all easily replaced by reusable containers, which will cut down significantly on even a single meal’s waste.
- Educate Businesses
Speak to local restaurants and businesses about options that they can switch to for packaging, storing, and bagging items. Many companies are starting to come up with excellent low-cost replacements, such as bamboo utensils in place of plastic ones.
- Get Involved
Speak to lawmakers and get involved with government on any level, and you’ll see how many special interest groups have made it so that we are dependent on plastic without needing to be. Encourage development of items, and propose alternatives when applicable.
- Recycle Everything
Try and select items that come in non-plastic recycled and recyclable packaging, to do your best to properly handle items that can’t be reused. Check everything before you put it in the trash, as more and more items are able to be recycled these days.
Remember that because plastic doesn’t break down easily (if ever), recycling plastic means that it is still plastic, just being used for a different purpose. Therefore, you’re not actually reducing plastic amounts or exposure, even in the recycling process.
Image credit: Geraint Rowland , Paul Williams
Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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