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. Still, 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 significant harm to the environment in the form of air, water, and land pollution.

Simply put, plastic pollution occurs when plastic has gathered in an area and has begun to negatively impact the natural environment and create problems for plants, wildlife, and even the 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 since it is meant for durability, it is not biodegradable.

Plastic bottles lying on a beach
Source: Conserve Energy Future – Please take prior permission from us before using this image

Next time when you go 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 packaging. This way, you can help in contributing to the environment in the form of reducing plastic pollution whose ill effects are irreversible. Here in this article, let’s have a look at various causes, effects and solutions to plastic pollution that you’ll wish you’d known.

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

Various 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:

1. 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.

2. It is Overused

As plastic is less expensive, it is one of the most widely available and overused items in the world today. Rapid urbanization and population growth increase the demand of cheap plastics. Since it is an affordable and durable material, it is utilized in every other way possible, from packaging materials to plastic bottles and containers, straws to plastic carry bags.

And also because they’re so cheap, we have a disposable mentality. We don’t value them to hang on to individual items. When disposed of, it does not decompose easily and pollutes the land or air nearby when burned in the open air.

3. Plastic takes 400 years and even more to Decompose

The chemical bonds that make-up plastics are strong and made to last. The decomposition rate of plastic typically ranges from 500 to 600 years, depending on the type.

According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), in the US, every bit of plastic that ever made and sent to landfills or dumped in the environment still exists.

4. 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.

Plastic waste is also washed to shores from ships and nets used for fishing. This not only kills and harms local wildlife but also pollute the water, marine animals get trapped in nets and/or swallow the toxic particles.

5. Disposing of Plastic and Garbage

The disposal of plastic is often mismanaged; it ends up in landfills. 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 illnesses. 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.

As new plastic items are manufactured every day, the cycle keeps repeating. Until businesses start using more environmentally-friendly, alternative materials (such as paper), this cycle of producing and disposing of plastic will continue.

6. It’s many a time Nature Caused

Many a time waste is transported by the winds. Plastic, which is very light, even gets blown away in gentle winds and carried away by the rains into sewers, streams, rivers, and finally, in the oceans. Besides, natural disasters such as floods should also be considered as other causes of plastic pollution.

Serious 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:

1. Negative Effects on Human Health

We eat plastic-contaminated seafood. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 marine species, and around one-third of these end up on our plates. We consume plastic via packaging. BPAs present in many plastic objects that come in direct contact with food is metabolized in the liver to form Bisphenol A, and it remains in our body through our urine

We drink microplastics via bottled water. The WHO published shocking research in 2018 that exposed the presence of microplastics in 90% of bottled water, the test of which revealed only 17 were free of plastics out of 259. We absorb plastic through our clothes, 70% of which are synthetic and worst fabric for the skin. We even breathe plastic when due to poor waste management, we burn the trash in the open air.

2. 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 is present in the fish that many people eat every day.

3. 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 present 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.

4. Land Pollution

When plastic is dumped in landfills, it interacts with water and forms hazardous chemicals. When these chemicals seep underground, they degrade the water quality. The 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, towers, etc. and animals that may come in the vicinity and might suffocate them to death.

5. 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, affects their health and can cause respiratory problems.

6. 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.

7. It is Poisonous

Man artificially makes plastic by using a number of toxic chemicals. Therefore, the use of and exposure to plastics have 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.

8. Cleaning Plastic 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 leads to decreased tourism in affected areas, thereby significantly impacting those economies.

plastic-bags-blow

Effective 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:

1. Shop Friendly

Plastic bags were once a modern convenience but can be efficiently replaced by reusable bags, many of which fold up compactly 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 visit the grocery shop. That’s a lot of plastic! Carry a bag and always reuse plastic bags as much as possible if you have them.

2. 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. As these plastic bottles are typically made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), it takes over 400 years to decompose naturally.

Many companies now sell reusable water bottles as a substitute, reducing plastic waste and exposure to leaking bottles. The best thing you can do is carry a reusable metal bottle in your bag.

3. Forget to-go Containers

You would be surprised to know how much plastic is involved in the making and packaging of food containers. Think of 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.

4. Recycle Everything

Try and select items that come in non-plastic recycled and recyclable packaging, to do your best to handle items that can’t be reused properly. 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.

5. Try Without Disposable Plastics

We use around 90% of the plastic items only once in our daily lives and then chucked, such as grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, and coffee-cup lids.

It only takes a few times of bringing your own reusable bags to the store, silverware to the office or carry a travel mug and a metal reusable drinking bottle to make it a habit.

Making your own meals is not only healthier, but it also doesn’t involve takeout containers or doggy bags. When you order in or eat out, tell them that you don’t need any plastic cutlery or bring your own food-storage containers to restaurants for leftovers.

6. Make Better Choices at Home 

You can make a lot of difference by making green choices at home, and you must move away from the throwaway culture. Choose products with less plastic packaging. 

Avoid cosmetics and personal hygiene products having microbeads, the little dots in your toothpaste, and facial scrubs, which are actually a type of microplastic. 

New research shows increasing damage from microbeads to marine life and human health. Avoid clothes that have synthetic microfibers. When these items are washed, they often release microfibers into the water, finally making their way to oceans, and then ingested by fish and other marine creatures.

7. 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.

8. 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 the development of items, and propose alternatives when applicable.

References:

Marin plastics by IUCN

Plastic in the Ocean by WWF

How Plastic impact the Environment by Forbes

Plastic bottles lying on a beach
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