Is plastic choking the earth to its Final Destination?
Plastic has only been around for 60-70 years but it’s already begun to negatively impact the natural environment and create problems for plants, wildlife, and even human population. 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.
Plastic pollution in the sea is set to treble in the next 10 years, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. This is a massive problem because the accumulation of plastic in the environment adversely affects wildlife, humans and the environment itself, especially in waterways and oceans.
Plastic reduction efforts have occurred in some areas in attempts to reduce plastic consumption and pollution and promote plastic recycling, but it’s estimated that only 24% of all plastic actually makes it into recycling systems. That leaves a remaining 3.8 million tonnes of waste, destined for landfills. Between 10 and 20 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. More plastic is being thrown or washed into the ocean at a rate much quicker than what it is breaking down. Plastic as a material is photodegradable, which means that it breaks down into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight, and because the temperature they are exposed to in the sea is a lot lower than that on land, the breakdown process takes a lot longer in the marine environment. It’s estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles are currently floating around in the world’s ocean.
Plastics wastes have resulted in the destruction and decline in quality of the earth’s land surfaces in term of use, landscape, and ability to support life forms. Mainly, it’s because plastics leach hazardous chemicals on landforms breeding grounds for diseases, and litters available space thereby reducing the productive land areas. The bulk of plastics also end up in the landfills and since they take years to breakdown they heap up causing significant health implications to plants, people, and animals within the surrounding. The fracking is bad for the planet, it pollutes water, soil, and air with toxins, it creates underground cavities that collapse into sinkholes, and it raises the pressure in underground rock formations, destabilizing them and leading to earthquakes, even in places where earthquakes are uncommon. Adding insult to injury, one of the main products of fracking is plastics.
Many lakes and oceans have reported alarming cases of plastic debris floating on water surfaces, affecting a great number of aquatic creatures. It leads to dreadful consequences to marine creatures that swallow the toxic chemicals. Besides, the hazardous plastic chemicals contaminate water and reduce its quality. Estimations reveal the existence of billions of tons of plastics in swirling convergences constituting about 40% of the globe’s oceanic surfaces. There are numerous water surfaces across the globe which have thousands of tons of floating plastic debris and are experiencing wide economic impacts.
Often, plastics are burned in the open air. This leads to air pollution because poisonous chemicals are released into the atmosphere during combustion. Plus, when animals or humans inhale the polluted air it can affect their general well-being and cause respiratory disorders.
Whenever plastics are dumped in landfills, the hazardous chemicals present in them seep underground when it rains. The leaching chemicals and toxic elements infiltrate into the aquifers and water table, indirectly affecting groundwater quality. Eventually, it thwarts the efforts of water conservation around the world since it endangers the sustainability of the waters.
Interference With the Food Chain
Planktons, molluscs, worms, fishes, insects, and amphibians are all affected by plastic pollution. These organisms at one point or another take-up or swallow the toxic chemicals from the plastics. When the smaller animals are intoxicated by ingesting plastic, they are passed on to the larger animals disrupting the interrelated connections within the food chain. Furthermore, the process climbs even higher in the food chain, and humans eat the fish or seafood that has been contaminated by plastic toxic chemicals. Studies determine that the chemicals affect the biological and reproduction process resulting in reduced numbers of offspring thus disrupting the food chains.
Implications For Human Health
Plastics are made up of a variety of toxic chemicals. As such, its uses and exposure are associated with a number of human health concerns. Chemicals leached from the plastics contain compounds like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates. These chemicals have been established to upset the endocrine system and thyroid hormones and can be very destructive to women of reproductive age and young children.
Implications For Animals
Plastic wastes have been mistaken for food by numerous animals, mainly marine wildlife. Large quantities of plastics have been found in the stomachs of many dead animals. When the plastics are ingested, they upset or fill up the digestive systems of the animals thus contributing to their death due to blockage or starvation. Marine animals can also be trapped in plastic waste where they are exposed to predators or starve to death. The plastics may also contain toxic chemicals which can harm the animal’s vital organs or biological functions. Cumulatively, plastic wastes have profoundly affected animals in aquatic, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems.
Most plastics last forever
In 1992, a shipping container filled with 28,000 “rubber” duckies was lost after it fell into the sea somewhere between Hong Kong and the United States. Even today, those plastic bath toys still wash ashore from time to time, even in totally different oceans as far away as the eastern seaboard of the United States, as well as the coasts of Britain and Ireland. This surprisingly teaches us about ocean currents and about the astonishing indestructibility of plastics in marine environments. These plastics survive even the harshest conditions, such as floating around in a marine environment under blistering, unrelenting sunshine or frozen in Arctic ice for years before finally floating away and landing on some faraway shore. For this reason, plastics will probably outlast humanity itself. Final word is that the plastics are apparently immortal. There are many such freaking incidents and one such which pricks our marrow is the unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 which included plastic marine debris fed to the chick by its parents. Watch this video of a sea turtle which would surely upset you and as an individual try to curb the usage of plastics as much as possible, click here to watch the sea turtle video.
Not all plastic is recyclable and not all recyclable plastic is recycled
People are often confused by the terms, “break down” versus “biodegradable” (or “compostable”). When plastics are broken down, this simply means one large piece of plastic is reduced into a bunch of smaller pieces of plastic. These smaller pieces of plastic can be consumed by smaller animals, but are still indigestible. A minority of plastics are “compostable” or “biodegradable”, which means they can be reduced to their chemical components by, say, your home compost. Other plastics can only be successfully composted by industrial or municipal facilities after first being separated from other, non-biodegradable, plastics.
Plastics could be used to benefit the environment
It is tempting to demonize plastics, but realistically, plastics themselves are not inherently evil. Plastics make life better, and easier, for us. For example, one of the first things you use every morning and one of the last things you use every night — your toothbrush — is made of plastics. Every time you visit your supermarket, you meet many sorts of plastics that serve as packaging to prolong the freshness of foods, and in a hospital, a variety of plastics help prolong your life.
In fact, it is the immortality of plastics has inspired some enterprising researchers to begin thinking “outside of the box” to develop innovations to re-purpose already existing plastics, perhaps to even reduce the effects of climate change. How?
The key lies in the chemical structure of plastics. It is made of long-chain polymers of carbon molecules, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Methane gas is a molecule in cow farts that is eighty times more powerful than CO2 for causing climate change. The CO2 gas is produced by burning natural things, like gas, oil, wood or plastics, and for this reason, we produce far more CO2 than methane, so the cumulative effects of all that CO2 are much greater than those of methane gas. Basically, if we could permanently remove a portion of CO2 or CH4 gases from the atmosphere by sequestering them into plastics, we would effectively be preventing these gases from causing further damage to the climate.
Mother Nature herself has a number of clever innovations that we are only beginning to discover and understand. For example, there is evidence that at least some animals, such as caterpillars, manage to provide homes to their own special collection of gut microbes that can biodegrade at least some sorts traditionally non-biodegradable plastics, a discovery that could lead to innovations in truly recycling plastics. A group of Japanese scientists developed a “mutant enzyme” that can degrade the traditionally non-biodegradable plastic, PET, which comprises plastic water bottles. This “mutant enzyme” is 20% more efficient than its original form, produced by the microbe, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6.