Unless you've been living under a rock, it's hard to avoid hearing about plastic pollution. So what is the real problem? Where is all this plastic coming from and what can you do about it?Plastic is everywhere, from the shoes you wear, the items in your kitchen, your hair clips, the fibers in your clothes, and the phone you just can't put down. We use this material to help make our lives cleaner, easier, safer, and more enjoyable. Everywhere you look, you can find plastic, literally.
The term ‘’plastic’’ is derived from the Greek word ''plastikos'', which means fit for molding. This refers to the material’s malleability, or plasticity during manufacture, which allows it to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes, like films, fibers, plates, bottles, and much more.
Many physical properties of plastic can be modified with the addition of reinforcing fillers, colors, foaming agents, flame retardants, etc., to meet the demands of the specific applications. The relatively low density of most plastics gives them the advantage of being lightweight. Their corrosion resistance makes them durable and suitable for use in harsh environments.
These intrinsic properties that make them so durable and resistant, make it so that after we're done using them, they don't decompose as a banana peel would. This is where the problem lies. Many of the products we use, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, are in our hands for mere minutes or hours, yet may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
Check out these shocking statistics:
Plastic waste in the environment can be categorized by origin, into primary plastics, such as cigarette butts and bottle caps, or secondary plastics, that result from the degradation of primary ones. They can also be defined by size, from microplastics -small particles (less than 5 mm)- to macroplastics. Secondary microplastics arise from the degradation (breakdown) of larger plastic products through natural weathering processes after entering the environment.
- Currently, the world produces 275 million metric tons of plastic waste a year. That's nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. This number is set to double by 2034.
- There are now 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic in our oceans, with up to 8 million metric tons entering it every year.
- The United States is one of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution — producing 42 million metric tons, or 286 pounds per person.
- 500 billion plastic bottles are used every year – meaning that there are 66 times as many bottles as there are humans on the planet.
- A plastic bottle can last around 450 years in the marine environment.
Plastic Pollution In The Ocean
Once in the ocean, it is almost impossible to retrieve plastic waste. Some modern mechanical systems are effective at picking up large pieces of plastic, such as foam cups and food containers, from inland waters. But once plastics break down into microplastics and drift throughout the water column in the open ocean, they are virtually impossible to recover. Ocean currents also contribute to moving plastic around the world, even reaching areas untouched by man, like the deepest location on Earth, the Mariana trench.
Plastic pollution is also very detrimental to wildlife. Over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed by ocean plastic every year, due to tanglement or accidental ingestion. Animals consuming plastic can starve to death as the plastic fills their stomach preventing them from eating proper food, rupturing their organs, or blocking food from traveling to their intestines.At the rate our seafood is ingesting plastic, it’s highly likely that we, at some stage, have consumed microplastics in the fish we eat. Although the full extent of the impact is not yet known, what we do know is that these microplastics are full of toxic chemicals, which are bad for our health. Common chemicals found in plastics, such as BPA and phthalates, have been found in humans and can cause hormone disruption, and fertility and reproductive problems, among other issues.
Solutions For Plastic Pollution
There are different levels at which we can act!
- Waste management improvement can prevent plastic from entering rivers and seas in the first place. As a member of your community, support local decision-makers that promote environmental policies.
- As an individual, if you have to use plastic, be mindful of waste separation and correct disposal, so that the material can be properly recycled and reused.
- As a product consumer, every day is a chance for you to make better decisions: you can start by avoiding single-use plastics, buying durable materials for long-term use, and choosing products made with recycled materials that actually help solve the problem at hand.