Author: Nicole Liu
Editor: Simona Hausleitner
It is no secret that in this day and age, we are experiencing a major environmental crisis. The price of industrial advancement and innovation is the destruction of our environment. Many factors contribute to the pollution of our environment, including fossil fuels, oil leakage, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and vehicle emissions. But one factor that has had a particularly prevalent effect on the environment is our substantial use of plastic.
Plastic pollution has negatively affected the ocean’s ecosystems and the marine animals who reside there. Many marine animals, like turtles, seabirds, fish, and mammals, have been reported ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris, leading to impaired movement, reduced reproduction, lacerations, ulcers, and death. This is an especially common problem in certain species, since plastic often looks like food to these animals. For instance, 95% of fulmar seabirds that wash ashore dead in the North Sea have plastic in their guts. One particular area of concern is microplastics, which are tiny fragments of plastic. They can be especially dangerous for animals, since they are able to absorb toxins and look very much like food, causing many marine animals to eat them. Unfortunately, microplastics are extremely hard to remove and can be present in everyday items like toothpaste.
This is an issue that puts both animals and humans in danger. The plastics that sea animals ingest often contain harmful contaminants. As these marine animals ingest plastic and move up the food chain, these concentrations of chemicals magnify from consumer to consumer until eventually a human may end up unknowingly ingesting a large concentration of chemicals. This consumption can have very negative effects on humans, like reproductive abnormalities and organ damage.
Even the manufacturing process used to make plastic can harm the environment. This is because fossil fuels are used when producing plastic, and burning these fossil fuels releases carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This contributes to global warming and ozone depletion. And we manufacture a lot of plastic; by 2015, the world had produced 7.8 billion tons of plastic, which is more than one ton of plastic for every person alive today. Additionally, the use of chemicals in manufacturing plastics can also have adverse effects on human health.
Even though the use of plastics in general is dangerous for the environment, it is the ineffective disposal of plastics that cause the most problems. Littering is a large issue when it comes to plastics, and it is how most plastic winds up in the oceans. However, even when plastic is correctly disposed of, our way of getting rid of them is ineffective. Plastic is non-biodegradable, which means that it cannot be broken down. All of the plastic that has ever been made on earth still exists on this planet. So when we transport plastics to landfills, we are not really getting rid of them permanently but rather just storing them in large quantities. This is not a feasible way to remove plastic, since we are running out of landfill space. In addition, chemicals accumulated within the plastic can be released to the environment when the plastics break down into smaller particles due to ultraviolet radiation, mechanical forces, and weathering. Although recycling would be a good way to reduce plastic manufacturing and plastic disposal, many people do not recycle. For example, of the 5,800 million tons of primary plastic no longer in use, only 9% has been recycled since 1950.
These are just some of the detrimental effects that plastic can have on the environment. If we do not do something to prevent plastic pollution, these effects may not be reversible. We have to try harder to reuse, reduce, and recycle plastic. And we have to make a greater effort to protect the animals living in our environments.