“I wanna say one word to you … just one word: PLASTICS” – The Graduate (1963)
This line from a movie made over half a century ago perfectly captured the contemporary sentiment (naivety) regarding a fascinating new material with seemingly limitless potential. Plastics are strong, but they’re also plastic, which means they can be molded into solid objects of any shape and durability imaginable.
Plastics are so versatile that, since the 1950s, they have been adapted into every aspect of human life regardless of economic or social status. Like a genie granting wishes, plastics seem like a magic solution to many problems. But, there is a severe caveat that comes with all this luxury, and no one thought of who would be paying the ultimate price for unlimited convenience.
What Is Plastic Pollution?
Every innovation known to humanity has an irreversible effect on the global population. The past century has brought with it unprecedented innovations that have improved human health and extended life considerably. Plastics have played an important role in solving the food shortage crisis, as fresh foods can now be made available to all parts of the planet in convenient lightweight packaging.
However, the growing global population is also increasing its demands for more plastics and rapidly the vast quantities of garbage they produce. Lifestyles are also becoming more rigorous, and whenever a new convenience is needed to shave five minutes off a tight schedule, a plastic product is there in some way shape or form and is certain to be discarded within the next couple of days, months, or perhaps years––but its plastic story is not over yet.
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Contrary to what many have been led to believe, plastics are not disposable or even biodegradable. This means that a single discarded plastic soda bottle may be around for the next 400 years and some plastic bags can last for a full millennia.1
Plastics are being discarded in great quantities, and this has a serious impact on the environment wherever they go. Plastic items and particles now sweep across the landscape creating ecological disasters. In the end, the lightweight durability humans so value in plastics makes these materials a pervasive planetary menace, as their effects can travel fast and unchallenged for many centuries.
The Serious Effects of Plastic Pollution
It takes no stretch of the imagination to figure what will happen when the vast quantities of plastic garbage produced by humans meet the delicate balance that holds natural ecosystems and their life forms in balance. Plastics and broken-down plastic particles can have serious effects on plants, animals, humans, and the rest of the natural world.
Forms Dangerous Mobile Pollution
Plastics don’t decompose naturally. Instead, they break down as they react with water and sunlight in their environment. This shreds the plastics into smaller particles called microplastics that can be swept far and wide via wind and water motions. Plastics have a negative effect wherever they go and simply look trashy hanging on tree branches and embedded in the orifices of sea creatures.2
Impacts the Food Chain
Plastics can adversely affect the food chain from the smallest plankton to the largest predators and consumers––even human consumers. Plastics that only partially breakdown enter the digestive systems of smaller fish and soon collect in the bodies of larger seafood that make up parts of human diets. Yes, these plastic particles can then be found in the seafood in your favorite restaurant.3
Creates Groundwater Pollution
Plastic pollution also leaches toxins into the ground that can be spread by rainfall into rivers and groundwater supplies and vital aquifers. Water conservation is an important issue in many of today’s most populous regions, and these are also the ones with a high amount of plastic pollution. If solutions to protecting water supplies from these toxins aren’t applied soon, water shortages can worsen.
Despite countless images across modern media of helpless animals pitifully caught in plastic garbage, these same items are being used daily everywhere and produced prolifically by the largest corporations. Whether it’s macro-plastics like plastic six-ring can holders or smaller micro-plastics flooding the oceans, plastics harm animals wherever they go.4
Plastics are not made of natural ingredients, and many of the plastics that are sitting around in landfills and ocean gyres contain highly toxic chemicals. Microplastics also act like small sponges, collecting toxins and poisons as they make their way from place to place. These toxins can have a wide range of negative effects on the animals, plants, and humans they contact. Consider this next time you hope to take a vacation on a plastic-filled beach.
Costs a Lot to Clean Up
The crux comes when the final result of plastics is even more expensive than looking for an alternative to plastic use. While plastics themselves are a cost and energy effective way of serving many purposes, plastic waste is a serious problem that won’t go away easily. It will cost a fortune to reverse the conditions of plastic pollution.
The Australian Government alone spends over $400 million just to clean plastic bags. As the problem gets worse, tourism could be affected in some developing countries.5
In spite of an overwhelming amount of opposition from the public and scientific communities, it seems as though plastic production is all set to increase over the next decade. According to a report posted in CBS News, oil and gas companies are looking forward to bolstering the productions of petrochemicals over the next ten years, with plastic production reaching its all-time peak in 2028.
According to some experts supporting the actions of oil and gas companies, the problem is not with plastic pollution, but waste management concerns that should be addressed with improved recycling methods. However, environmental activists are adamant that all plastic production must come to a stop.
At the moment, only about 20% of all plastics globally are being recycled, and this is mostly by a handful of committed friends of the environment. While many big industries are looking into the creation of sustainable plastics––LEGO is looking to make bricks from sugar-cane derived plastics––many others are still pumping out vast quantities of plastics each year.6
Photo credits: DmitryGalaganov/shutterstock.com, NPDstock/shutterstock.com, VikentiyElizarov/shutterstock.com