Plastic pollution has become a ubiquitous issue all around the world in the last decade. We find plastic everywhere: on the land, in rivers and oceans. If this trend continues, there might be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050!
Plastic is a human-made material. We make it by combining polymers derived from natural oil and gas (or petroleum products).
Then we add a range of chemicals to it to enhance its performance. We call these materials plasticizers. They include additives like stabilizers, antioxidants, flame retardants and other chemicals.
Thus, these different chemicals give plastic materials their specific characteristics.
To date, 20 different types of plastics exist, each with different varieties and grades. The most common plastics today are
The Belgian chemist, Leo Baekeland, developed the first type of plastic in 1907. But it was in the 1940s and 1950s that mass production of plastic items started. We used it to make cups, saucers and components for cars and aeroplanes. Its global production was less than a million tons per year then.
Today, we produce more than 300 million tons of plastic every year. We use it in a number of products like
Basically, plastic has some particular properties that makes it ideal for so many uses. It is
In general, plastic contains numerous polymers thus making it very versatile. Because of this, we can manufacture an array of plastic products from technological equipment to energy-saving devices.
So basically, we use so much plastic because it has some important positive effects. For example,
Unfortunately, the same properties that make plastic great for a number of uses also cause a lot of harm. As it is cheap, we mainly use plastic for single-use packaging. After this immediate use, we dispose of it. So, the more we consume, the more plastic trash we produce.
Eventually, water and wind easily carry it from one place to another in a matter of time. What’s more, its durability permits it to persist in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years depending on its components.
Also, tires of vehicles contain plastic components. With so many vehicles on our roads, tiny components break off during driving and spread in the surroundings.
Likewise, people can flush plastic materials like hygienic and beauty products in toilets. Or plastic fibers in clothes can come from washing and drying machines’ waste water. As it is, sewage sludge typically contains 80-90% plastic particles.
Generally, we call plastic that we often see like crisp bags, chocolate wrappers and plastic bottles macro-plastic. They are typically plastic materials greater than 5 mm in size. Eventually, they break down because of the sun and wave action.
Smaller plastic materials then form, called micro-plastic that are typically less than 5 mm in size. And microplastics also break down to form nano-plastics, particles less than 100 nm in size.
Today we can find both macro and micro-plastic debris in various environments. For example, in storm water runoff, freshwater lakes and streams, agricultural fields, coral reefs, deep sediments and even in submarine canyons!
So, as we use plastic on a large scale, we also produce a lot of plastic waste. However, waste management is still inadequate to non-existent in many regions. As a matter of fact, plastic debris exists in habitats from the equator to the poles.
Today, plastics account for 10% of the waste that we generate. And out of that, we recycle only a small 9%. Unfortunately, the more we recycle plastics, the worse the quality becomes. So, eventually, it becomes so bad that we cannot recycle it anymore.
Right now, plastic is accumulating in our environment at a rate of 31.9 million metric tons per year.
Additionally, as plastics move easily with the wind and ocean waves, they often end up on land and beaches. As a result, it heavily decreases the aesthetic value of the land and sea.
This is even more so for touristic areas as it makes these sites unsightly. Instead of finding corals and swarm of colourful fishes in the sea, tourists discover chocolate wrappers.
Bali, Indonesia, one of the world’s most famous touristic destinations, is such an example. Plastic trash ends up on beaches every day. Consequently, personnel, loaders and trucks must also clean up every day.
Weather conditions like monsoon swells and runoff make matters worse in such places. In many instances, tourism activities must halt to clean up beaches.
Though we find plastic debris in almost all natural environments, it affects the marine environment the most. Every year, at least 8 million tons of plastic make their way into our oceans. Large quantities of plastic accumulate in diverse marine regions from shorelines to deep-sea canyons.
The movement of oceanic currents form gyres (whirlpool) in our oceans. Five gyres naturally occur:
Such currents can thus transport plastic debris and amass them in particular gyres.
Today, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most famous and largest accumulation of marine debris, mostly plastic, in our oceans. It occurs in an area in between California and Hawaii and is roughly twice the size of Texas.
Materials from North America and Japan typically accumulate there. But we have also noticed plastic accumulation in the gyres of the South Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic.
With so much plastic in our oceans, marine creatures such as turtles and fish get entangled in them. As they fight to free themselves they can get hurt or die. Or it can reduce their mobility making them more vulnerable to predators. They can also eat the debris that they mistake for food which can then choke and kill them.
As it is, over one million marine creatures like sharks, birds and seals die every year because of plastic pollution in our oceans. We discover seabirds especially with stomachs full of plastic.
Just like marine creatures, hungry terrestrial animals also smell food in plastic bags that we dump. Out of curiosity and hunger, they can get their wings, legs and heads trapped in plastic debris. In the same manner, they can hurt themselves or die while trying to be loose. Or they can get poisoned with micro-plastic over time.
As it is, many creatures including humans depend on the soil to survive. For example, we grow crops in the soil while a plethora of organisms actually live in it.
So, when plastic breaks down naturally, it forms micro-plastics that leach into the soil. Or microplastics can also come from domestic sewage that contains plastic fibres, fertilizers and tire abrasion. Even the wind can transport micro-plastics onto the land and into soils.
As a result, soil organisms can eat them leading to unwanted toxic materials in their bodies.
What’s more, as organisms like earthworm burrow into the soil, they can push the plastic debris further down. As a result, micro-plastics can contaminate groundwater.
Additionally, plastic debris may contain viruses and bacteria that can spread diseases to soil organisms.
Just like with wildlife, micro-plastic can lead to health issues in humans as well. It accumulates in our body as we feed on animals that have ingested it. It includes seafood, quail, ducks and chicken. As an example, a study shows that microplastics in fact accumulate in chicken from earthworms in the soil. And as we feed on chicken, micro-plastics can accumulate in our bodies as well.
What’s more, plastics typically contain plasticizers that have additives like BPA (bisphenol A), phthalates and PBDE. These chemicals can enter the bodies of toddlers as they mouth plastic toys. They can also get into the bodies of adults when they ingest things wrapped in plastic that contain these chemicals.
Since plastic is a universally used product, we cannot stop using it altogether until we find alternatives. But there are certain ways in which we can considerably decrease plastic pollution.
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