Plastics make up a large percentage of the immediate world, and just about anything humans need or conceptualize can be created from this versatile substance. Plastics allow cars to carry people farther than feet, food to be preserved, and technology to solve a range of problems. However, despite their virtues, plastics are not a natural part of the world.
Plastics are synthetic materials, and they are not degraded and assimilated into the natural world without serious side effects. In fact, plastic pollution today is encroaching across the landscape, besmirching pristine countrysides, choking rivers, and eventually making its way to the sea where the worst effects of contamination are taking a serious toll.
Today, the problem with plastic pollution has reached critical levels and directly threatens the biological processes and ecosystems of the oceans. Because the environment that humans enjoy and much of the food humans eat comes from the ocean, plastic pollution does not bode well for the human race either.
This article offers an exploration of plastic pollution, as well as an examination of some programs seeking to reverse the growing issue. Additionally, it takes about smaller-scale changes that all individuals can make to decrease the severity of the issue.
Plastic Plastics Everywhere!
Why are humans so enamored with plastics? Well, quite simply because of their “plastic” capacity. The word plastic means flexible, and plastics can be stretched, formed, and set into any shape or dimension with incomparable strength and resistance to the elements. They owe their special qualities to their long-chain molecular structure that repeats itself over and over.
Plastics are an especially cost-effective solution for producing packaging materials for all types of products. Over 17 million barrels of oils were used to create all the bottled water used in the United States in 2006. While this may seem like a large figure, ceramic, glass, or paper-based solutions would require almost 10 times the energy to produce.1
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But the truth is that plastics are simply too good to be true—this is a notion that is taking some time for people to catch onto. Today, plastic is applied abundantly for single-use packaging materials and described as “disposable.” However, people are discovering on an alarming scale that there is nothing inherently “disposable” about plastic products.
The biggest problem with plastic is its disposal. Very few plastic products can be successfully repurposed, and each type of plastic must be recycled in a specific way. This leads to larger and larger quantities of plastics making their ways to landfills with no thought about the environmental impact this could have.
Ask any expert how long it will take for all that plastic pollution to be gone and safely sequestered where it will do no harm to life or humans, and the answers you get will vary. Some say that it won’t happen for half a millennia, but a more accurate prognostic could be that this plastic menace could scar the world beyond the foreseeable future and bring some unpleasant side effects as well.2
Plastic can’t be effectively assimilated into the environment because it is a synthetic product. Natural materials have natural processes that work to break down larger materials into smaller materials that can serve to feed and nourish the land. Plastic does not respond to any bacterial or enzymatic processes that decompose natural materials.
Instead, plastics undergo another process called photodegradation which uses the light of the sun to break the bonds of their long molecular chains. This means that plastic left in the sunlight will eventually break down into smaller and smaller pieces. While this may sound like a good thing, the story of plastics is far from over.
The Problem With Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution in the ocean is increased by a full garbage truckload every minute, and the figure is rising. Commercial shipping, coastal development, and illicit dumping all contribute to vast patches of floating garbage that stretch for miles. This floating garbage collects in the great gyres of ocean currents and has a direct and serious impact on sea animals.3
Larger, more visible pieces of trash are being eaten by sea turtles, ensnaring whales, and constricting the natural cycles of marine life. However, there has been increasing concern over the detrimental effects of microplastics, in particular. These plastics are no larger than five millimeters in diameter—much too small to be seen without a magnifying glass.
Some microplastics are manufactured for specific benefits as cleaning agents, cosmetics, household chemicals, and paints. These are called primary microplastics and are most often introduced into the ocean through sewage and wastewater. Even when treated, the small dimensions of these microplastics allow them to traverse filtration systems and enter waterways, contaminating the environment.
Then there are the secondary microplastics which are produced by the photodegradation of larger pieces of plastic. One of the worst culprits here are synthetic clothing materials that quickly break apart in the sunlight and become harmful microparticles. The vast patches of plastic garbage festering in the warm sunlight from dawn to dusk have ample time to produce a great slurry of microplastics.
As these particles breakdown, they become highly toxic and begin to carry their effects into the food chain. Studies have shown that algae begin to grow on these floating particles, making them smell like potential food to over 700 different marine species. As microplastics make their way into the diet of smaller organisms, they carry toxins far and wide even into the deeper regions of the ocean.4
Larger fish that eat smaller organisms than accumulate microparticles and their associated toxins within their flesh. Tuna, halibut, and many of the larger fish are being caught with higher amounts of microplastics. These are being passed to the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Humans can also come in contact with these toxic particles during a day at the beach or even in bottles of purified water marketed as safe to drink.5
Effects of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean
The effects of large quantities of plastics in a natural environment are bad news wherever that may be. In the ocean, the effects of plastics have unhealthy implications for humans and marine life alike, some of which are described below.
Big and small pieces of plastic are being gobbled up by birds, turtles, fish, and marine life of all types. This results in digestive blockages, poor immune defense, and death.
Death and Toxicity Accumulation
Some animals will die quickly when eating plastic junk, while others are not so lucky. Plastics in the diet can lead to starvation and the accumulation of toxicity within the gut that can be passed to larger predators.
From giant whales to smaller organisms, plastic garbage is trapping animals, and many have a hard time living afterward.
Plastics photodegrading in the sunlight release toxins that can be carried for miles even into the deepest ocean floor. This can destroy the immune system of corals and bivalve mollusks. Even humans swimming at toxic beaches can be affected.
Humans have not been untouched by the presence of plastics in the ocean. Studies have shown that eating a seafood diet carries the potential of accumulating over 11,000 bits of plastic in the body over the course of only one year. This can be detrimental as it soon begins to interfere with systemic health.6
Removing Garbage From the Ocean
Now that you have a good idea of just how bad the problem with plastic in the ocean is and how much greater it can be, it’s time for a change of perspective. Despite the rising tide of toxins and pollutants threatening planetary health, there are individuals and organizations who have set out to rectify the misdoings of human global industrial naivety.
The task is colossal, and at times, it may seem like moving a mountain with a tablespoon, but remedial action must begin somewhere. Below are some organizations and projects dedicated to cleaning up the oceans and relieving the threat of plastic pollution.
The Ocean Cleanup Project
The Ocean Cleanup could be considered the largest-scale cleanup endeavor in human history and is the idea of an enterprising Norwegian 18-year-old, Boyan Slat. Slat’s idea was to target the ocean gyres and use the “sweeping” action of wind and ocean currents to gather the trash and then devise a clever collection strategy.
Using a fleet of boats and fulltime collection would be costly and ineffective. So, Slat designed the first ever Ocean Cleanup Passive Collection System. This is an ingenious device that can be located in the circular path of the oceans gyre and works to concentrate and trap the floating garbage. Slat estimates that with a fully operative system of these devices, the ocean gyres can be diminished by as much as 50 percent each year.7,8
The Seabin is another floating mechanism that can be applied for keeping human garbage from encroaching on marine life. The Seabin functions as an empty bucket floating around harbors and coastal developments in strategic locations to capture as much trash as possible.
As it comes into contact with floating debris, the water falling into the center of the bin pulls in all sizes of plastics and particles. Oils and other contaminants can also be collected by the Seabin. A submerged water pump powered by rechargeable batteries then ejects the water, keeping the bucket empty and the plastics pouring in.9
Even with the herculean efforts of ocean cleanup projects, the question of what to do with all these plastics still stands. Trawlers could soon begin hauling in loads of plastic debris from the ocean, but it can’t be buried in the land. One solution that has been applied to old vehicle tires may have the potential for plastic pollution of all types.
Pyrolysis uses controlled oxygen-free conditions to transform materials into other substances. Through pyrolysis, which means “fire separation” in Latin, plastics can be potentially transformed into alternative fuel sources. If plastics are repurposed then more value can be taken from their cost to the environment.10
This nonprofit organization has its headquarters in Washington D.C. and works to formulate policies that protect the oceans at a federal level. Part of the plan laid out by Ocean Conservancy involves highlighting the locations that are producing the most plastic waste and seeking out solutions for collecting, transporting, and otherwise disposing of plastic materials in a safe and responsible manner.
Because around 80 percent of the world’s plastic is entering the oceans from only five countries, the situation will be greatly reduced by addressing situations at a local level. Ocean Conservancy is confident that 45 percent of the plastic flow to the ocean could be redirected by 2025 if such an action is taken soon.11
Surfrider is a community of ocean-loving individuals who have banded together to raise awareness of the urgent need to protect bodies of water, no matter where they are. Surfrider operates at a local, regional, and national levels to organize coastal cleaning projects, monitor commercial activities that could be contributing to pollution, and push lawmakers into acting on behalf of the environment.12
Oceana is another non-profit organization that takes a scientific approach to protect marine life, from zooplankton to blue whales. Marine biodiversity is crucial for keeping the oceans alive and healthy as every organism plays a crucial role in supporting the others. Oceana has a history of successful campaigns aiming to promote responsible fishing habits that will improve seafood availability for years to come.13
Take 3 provides a practical approach that anyone can appreciate and even get excited about. Educational programs and organized activities are part of the plan to reduce the level of coastal plastic debris. Furthermore, they encourage the “Take 3 plan” which simply means that visitors to the beach collect three additional pieces of garbage when picking up all their items and going home. With millions of people visiting beaches each year, this could cut down on plastic waste considerably.14
Seven Essential Steps for Relieving the Strain of Plastic Pollution
It’s clear that the rising levels of plastic pollution being produced internationally are presenting a very real danger to the planet. In addition to the consequences to oceans and health mentioned above, the vast swathes of plastic wastelands are also contributing to climate change. If there was ever a time for environmentally-aware individuals to unite, it is now.
Here are some of the most effective steps that must be implemented quickly in under to remedy or eradicate the problems posed by plastics in the ocean.
Reduce the Dependency on Plastic
The first step to a complete solution to plastic pollution begins with a reduction in the amounts of plastic that people depend on. The most notable example is single-use plastic that is found in fast-food restaurants, supermarket bags, and disposable plates and cups still being used legally in most of the world.
Many countries have placed bans on plastic bags at supermarkets and plastic straws. However, until single-use plastic has been completely abolished, the pollution problem is rising.
Since the “plastic revolution” about half a century ago, the production of plastic products has exploded. From toys and disposable hospital equipment to components for space stations and high-tech weaponry, plastic fits every need.
This has led humanity in an extravagant direction and much of human comfort and lifestyle needs are founded on plastics. Because there are no laws against it, producers capitalize on this great need and no one party is any more to blame than the other.
However, if producers were required to take responsibility for the recollection of the plastic they produce, the scene will change dramatically.
Tax Fossil Plastics
It takes a lot of time and logistics to recollect plastic for recycling. It is far easier just to grab some more barrels of fossil fuels and create more plastic. This could be reversed if the taxes levied on plastic from fossil fuels were increased to a prohibitive level. This way, recycling plastic will become the only way to create this needed material and big industries can go fish their source materials out of the ocean.
Improved Waste Management Where It Is Most Needed
While plastic is present in every country and each is dealing with the issue as best they can, most of the plastic waste entering the oceans is coming from five countries in particular.
Due to a rapid rise in commercialization and population expansions, these countries are experiencing an economic boom, and it is ultimately translating into heaping piles of garbage and plastic waste. If the majority of efforts are focused on addressing the sanitation needs of these countries, efficacy in the pollution solution will be increased.
Plans and support for next-generation recycling solutions for these countries lie at the heart of solving plastic problems on a global scale. If these countries were made exemplary plastic-processing civilizations, the future of oceans would have much better prospects.
Increased Understanding and Study of the Ocean
Perhaps the worst element about plastic pollution is that it affects a world that humans know relatively little about and one that is far more extensive than individuals could ever imagine. The oceans cover more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, and much of the ocean’s more remote regions are as alien to humans as outer space.
Research has shown that a great quantity of toxins produced by plastic degradation is reaching the ocean floor, but people have no idea what it could be causing down there or how it can be collected. One of the most significant projects at the moment is an expedition vessel named REV which will help humans understand the ocean better and has many applications in resolving the plastic problem.
Reduce Plastic Flow to the Ocean
No matter who you are or what you do, you can begin to take small, incremental steps towards reducing the amounts of plastics that make it to the ocean. This could include picking up litter while spending time at the beach and waterways. Alternatively, it could mean volunteering for cleanup organizations or supporting those who are keeping the oceans clean. At the very least, you can begin by making smarter consumer choices that leave less plastic in the environment.
Increase Funding for Operations
The projects at hand are large, and the operations at play are badly under-sourced to meet the needed advancements to contain the plastic menace. One of the most effective ways to contribute to a solution is to fund those who are well-equipped to handle the situations where they are needed the most. The final goal will be to set up an international funding operation that will organize and direct larger resources directed at collecting pollution and preserving marine life and oceanic ecosystems.
One of the greatest indirect threats to the health of the oceans is thinking that things have gone too far or that there is nothing an average individual could really do to reverse this condition. However, now that you are fully aware of the terrifying effects that plastic and microplastic products can have on the oceans, marine life, and consequently humans, you have become part of the solution. Slow, incremental progress is the surest path to success and can guide you to a lifestyle suitable for healthy oceans.
Photo credits: AndreiDubadzel/shutterstock.com, RichCarey/shutterstock.com, OlgaGorevan/shutterstock.com, RichCarey/shutterstock.com, katatonia82/shutterstock.com, BubbersBB/shutterstock.com