Plastics have become a common part of everyday life and have a wide range of benefits to offer today’s super-modern civilization. Since their incremental introduction to human industry less than a century ago, plastics have provided innumerable solutions to reducing energy expenses, improving the longevity of food products, and supporting life in thousands of other ways.
However, there is a dark side to the obvious advantages of this cost-effective and highly durable material. Plastic pollution has become a serious threat to the environment, and if remedial action is not taken soon, the implications can be scathing for the future of humans, as well as for the future of the environment. MONQ likes to show love for the environment through the Feel Nature essential oil blends. Try out the Ocean blend, minus the pollution.
The Problem With Plastics
Since plastics arrived on the scene, they have slowly taken on more and more responsibility. With more responsibility came greater quantities of plastic being thrown away with little consideration about what will happen later. Most supermarket shopping bags will be used for a matter of seconds or days and then discarded in a waste bin and never thought of again.
This is most unfortunate because plastic takes a long time to fully decompose to the point where it is no longer a threat to the environment. While some experts say this can happen in a matter of years, others claim that half a century from now, humans will still be facing the problems from the plastics created today.
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No matter which way you look at it, plastics take time to fully break down and can cause plenty of damage before they do. Nowhere is this more evident than in the oceans where the equivalent of a full garbage truck of plastic waste finds its way into the ocean every minute.1
How Does Plastic Make Its Way into the Ocean?
The ocean is the ultimate repository for all things on the land and acts as a planetary filter which keeps the air, water cycles, and land clean and pure. However, plastics are not a part of any natural cycle or process. Plastics are synthetic and have a tenancy to accumulate rather than decompose. This accumulation causes terrible planetary health issues wherever it goes.
Well over 20 percent of all the plastic that makes its way to the ocean comes from commercial ships, fishing industries, recreational boating, offshore platforms, and other seaside industry. Plastic is also collected by the tides from popular beach hangouts and swept out to sea. This doesn’t include the vast quantities of trash that are intentionally thrown into the ocean under the “out of sight, out of mind” school of thought.
Such irresponsible and destructive waste led to a major ecological catastrophe called the Pacific Trash Vortex, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which was discovered in 1985. Ocean and wind currents serve to “sweep” the garbage from human activity into swathes of floating trash that stretch for miles of open ocean. Since the discovery of the first garbage gyre, more trash patches have been located in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
Another major problem with plastic is that it doesn’t actually “degrade.” Rather, it contains chemicals that cause sunlight to reduce its structural integrity to the point that it naturally shreds itself into a sort of plastic confetti. These tiny pieces of plastic are blown into the air and washed by rain and river to the ocean where they begin to impact the food chain.
The presence of microplastics in the oceans could be a serious problem for anyone with a taste for seafood, as well as many marine ecosystems.2
What Are Microplastics?
Plastic pollution has been categorized by its size and associated effects on planetary life. The largest category is the macroplastics which make up a large percentage of plastic pollution and most of the obvious trash in the ocean gyres. Most of this is single-use plastic.
Microplastics are the smaller bits of plastic that are no larger than five millimeters tip to tip, and many are much smaller than this. The presence of these especially insidious and pervasive particles had gone unknown for many years as human-produced and dumped plastics. Today, the consequences of this unscrupulous behavior could be coming back to haunt people.
The situation certainly took on a renewed gravity when these microplastics began showing up in bottled drinking water.3
Where Do Microplastics Come From?
Microplastics can be primary or secondary by nature. The primary microplastics are created this way for specific products and the secondaries are formed through the degradation of plastics forming the “confetti” scattered far and wide. Investigations have studied the sediments and plankton to determine the source of microplastics.
Primary microplastics enter the ocean through sewage treatment plants where their minuscule dimensions allow them to pass through filtration. Household cleaning agents, paints, cosmetics, detergents, and other human products discarded into the sewage systems is the primary source of these primary microplastics.
Secondary microplastics come from broken-down macroplastics and irresponsible waste management, shipping ventures, coastal tourism, and simple littering. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has one of the largest collections of secondary microplastics in the world.
Why Are Microplastics Dangerous?
As mentioned previously, synthetic plastics do not interface well with any biological system, and once they have been created, they can’t be degraded easily. While larger plastic debris clutters up the beaches and surface of the water, microplastics are free to take their destructive properties high into the atmosphere and to the deeper parts of the ocean.
Microplastics, either primary or secondary, act as sponges with a special affinity to toxic compounds like DDT, PCBs, and PAHs. As they travel from place to place, they attract poisons which will all eventually make their way to the oceans and beaches.
On the beach, microplastics alter the composition of sand, changing the way the sunlight is absorbed in addition to other elements of the beach. Because these systems exist in a delicate balance, the smallest differences can have long-lasting side effects.4
How Microplastics Enter the Food Cycle
Microplastics begin to find their way into natural cycles in every way they can. One of the first things that happen to microplastic out in the ocean is their attraction to algae, which changes the way that these particles smell. This makes them very appetizing to a wide variety of marine life that makes dietary choices based on what is available and how it smells.
When consumed, these plastics can have destructive effects on overall health. Larger pieces can block the digestive system and cause other health issues that can result in death. The smaller pieces that may pass through the body leave high levels of toxicity that accumulates in the tissues of smaller fish and invertebrates.
Larger fish like tuna, mackerel, and halibut eat large quantities of other smaller fish, which explains why larger concentrations of toxins are found in these larger fish. Mussels and oysters, which feed through elaborate filtration systems are also being affected by accumulated quantities of microplastics.5,6
It has been estimated that a seafood lover could consume as much as 11,000 microplastic particles of varying shapes and sizes within one year. As the primary predator of the food chain, humans stand the most to lose by ignoring the plight of marine life suffering from negligible industry and commerce. With this in mind, take some time to educate yourself on consumer choices available to you that can help minimize this global threat.
In addition to taking an active approach to protecting the oceans and reducing the use of plastics in your day-to-day life, making cautious food choices can protect you from these pollutants in food.7
Photo credits: LarinaMarina/shutterstock.com, RichCarey/shutterstock.com, LorettaSze/shutterstock.com