Plastic is a versatile material that has gained great popularity among consumers. It is a polymeric material which is a material whose molecules are very large and resemble long chains made up of an endless series of interconnected links. Natural polymers such as rubber and silk exist in abundance, but nature’s “plastics” have not been implicated in environmental pollution, because they do not persist in the environment (Moore, 2019). It comes in many forms and contains a wide range of additives, pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, water repellents, flame retardants, stiffeners, and softeners.
Meaning, plastic is everywhere. However, plastic pollution is one of the most horrific issues our planet is battling. Guern (2018) estimates 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans and is expected to double in five years. Plastic is a toxic compound that has managed to pollute every part of the world. Ever since the mass production of plastics that began in the 1940s, the issues that come with plastic waste have been accumulating.
The oceans and lands are so polluted with plastic that marine wildlife has been ingesting and are exposed to its toxicity, humans are consuming nano plastics and suffering from cancers due to inhalation of fumes, land wildlife is depleting, water and other food sources are contaminated, and it has been speeding up climate change at an alarming rate. Large manufactures are the ones mainly responsible. They continue to supply this compound to consumers that are either not likely aware of the consequences, or just don’t care at all.
Climate change and plastic pollution are both symptoms of the world valuing money, over-consumption and production, and convenience at the expense of everything else. Some of the solutions that are proposed are recycling, burning, and banning. None of them have proved to be effective as plastic takes thousands of years to decompose and is being consumed at an alarming pace. This research paper touches on the impact plastic pollution has on the ocean, land, humans, wildlife, climate change, and proposed solutions.
Ever since the mass production of plastics that began in the 1940s, micro plastic pollution and contamination of the marine environment have been a growing issue. Micro plastics are tiny plastic pieces derived from the breakdown of macro plastics (Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband, C., & Galloway, T. S., 2011). Micro plastics are not visible to the naked eye. Therefore, net sampling does not capture them and no procedure is presently available for their enumeration in water or sand. (Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband, C., & Galloway, T. S., 2011).
Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, & Borerro JC (2014) estimates that there are more than 5 trillion plastic particles in the world’s surface water. Andrady, A. L. (2011) discovered that 44% of marine bird species are known to ingest plastics. ‘Ocean Plastics Pollution’ (2019) discovered that fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic annually. The North Pacific is an ocean with the largest amount of plastic mass with 96, 400 tons of plastic waste. (See figure 1.1). This causes intestinal injury and death. It also transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish, marine mammals, and humans (‘Ocean Plastics Pollution’, 2019).
Figure 1.1: Surface plastic mass by ocean basin, (Ritchie & Roser, 2018)
Micro plastics and plastics injure and kill fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Laist, D. W. (1997) estimates that it has impacted 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. The impacts include deaths due to ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement (‘The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution’, 2017).
With the abundance of plastic being produced, there is no sustainable method to get rid of that waste. Very little amounts of plastic waste are recycled, the rest gets dumped in landfills where it takes 1,000s of years to decompose, allowing it to leach toxic substances into the land and water. Mocan (2018) estimates that one-third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. As seen in figure 2.1, the percentage of discarded plastic has decreased slightly with recycling and incineration, but the vast majority of plastic waste is discarded in landfills or oceans.
Figure 2.1: Global plastic waste by disposal, (Ritchie & Roser, 2018)
The majority of this plastic disintegrates into micro plastics, which then break down further into nanoparticles. When the particles are so small, they can easily enter the food chain. Chlorinated plastic releases toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil, which then seeps into groundwater and other surrounding water sources, and thus, the ecosystem. Plastic waste is left in landfills to decompose. That is an issue because when plastic particles break down, they gain new physical and chemical properties that increase the risks of having toxic effects on organisms (Mocan, 2018). The chemical effects are especially an issue at the decomposition stage because additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A leach out of plastic particles. These additives are known for their hormonal effects and can disrupt the hormone system of vertebrates and invertebrates alike. Furthermore, nano-sized particles cause inflammation, traverse cellular barriers, and cross highly selective membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta. Within the cell, they can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions (Mocan, 2018). Land plastic waste also enters the ocean. Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., & Law, K. L. (2015) calculates that 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated in 192 coastal countries, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean as seen in figure 2.2. The figure shows the percentage of plastic waste input to the ocean by regions. Asia is the one most responsible as they input 66%, and Australia-Pacific the least amount of 0.02%.
Figure 2.2: Global rover plastic input to the ocean by region, (Ritchie & Roser, 2018)
Plastic is present is food and the air. Therefore, they are easily consumed by humans. Whether that consumption is through inhalation or via diet, the effects on human health are extremely negative. If inhaled or ingested, micro plastics accumulate and exert localized particle toxicity by inducing or enhancing an immune response. Chemical toxicity could occur due to the localized leaching of component monomers, endogenous additives, and adsorbed environmental pollutants as seen in fig. 3.1. (Wright, S. L., & Kelly, F. J., 2017)
Figure 3.1: Micro plastics chemical toxicity through ingestion and inhalation, (Wright, S. L., & Kelly, F. J., 2017)
Many have been burning plastic waste as a way to reduce the space they take in landfills. While that is a proposed solution, the Dioxins plastics release when burned is lethal. They are a threat to vegetation, humans, animals, and the environment as a whole. The hazardous brominated compounds act as carcinogens and mutagens. The Dioxins settle on the crops and in waterways where they enter into the food and therefore the body system. The Dioxins are made up of lethal persistent organic pollutants and 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or Agent Orange (Verma, R., Vinoda, K. S., Papireddy, M., & Gowda, A. N. S., 2016). Agent Orange is a toxic compound that causes cancer, neurological damage, and the disruption of the reproductive thyroid and respiratory systems. Another way is through ingestion. As previously mentioned, micro plastics in the ocean are an issue to the marine ecosystem and the marine food chain. When humans consume seafood, they are also consuming the micro plastics the fish consumed. While micro plastics remain in the guts of fish and not in the muscle, which is what people consume, the micro plastics can degrade into nano plastics, which measure less than 100 billionths of a meter and are invisible. The nano plastics are so small they can penetrate cells and move into tissue and organs. (Royte, E., 2018)
As mentioned in the previous section, plastics cam penetrate their way into water and food. Increasing the possibility of direct human ingestion. This is an issue as micro plastics are hydrophobic, and have a high surface area-to-volume ratio. This allows them to sorb environmental contaminants. If there was a significant accumulation of environmental contaminants, there is the possibility that these concentrations could ‘biomagnify’ up the food chain to a higher level (Ritchie & Roser, 2018). Even when not littered, plastic can still pollute through the release of compounds used to manufacture it. “BPA is present in packaging, bottles, compact discs, medical devices, and the linings of food cans. All these compounds have been detected in humans and are known to disrupt the endocrine system. Phthalates act against male hormones and are therefore known as anti-androgens; BPA mimics the natural female hormone estrogen, and PBDE has been shown to disrupt thyroidhormones in addition to being an anti-androgen. The people most vulnerable to such hormone-disrupting chemicals are children and women of reproductive age.” (Moore, 2019)
There are three key pathways by which plastic debris can affect wildlife. Through entanglement, ingestion, and interaction.
Micro plastic ingestion can affect the consumption of prey, leading to energy depletion, inhibited growth and fertility impacts. When organisms ingest micro plastics, it can take up space in the gut and digestive system, leading to reductions in feeding signals (Ritchie & Roser, 2018). Moreover, research has found a link between cancer in mammals and humans. “Plastic materials potentially cause or at least contribute to cancers in many species, including humans, is exemplified by experiments with bisphenol A (BPA). Suggestions that the estrogenic activities of this component of plastics may contribute to cancer came from Krishnan and colleagues in the early 1990s. Since then, research into BPA has been pursued at an accelerated pace. Importantly, perinatal exposure to the environmentally borne estrogen mimic BPA has been linked with mammary and prostate cancer in humans.” (Erren, T., Zeuß, D., Steffany, F., & Meyer-Rochow, B., 2009).
Plastics heavily contribute to the ongoing problem of climate change. Staley, S. (n.d.) says plastics use and release 100 million tons to 500 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Plastic is made up of the fossil fuels oil and gas. Those fossil fuels then use other fossil fuels to be extracted from the ground. Then there’s the transportation, manufacturing, and the disposal process of plastic (Réale, D., McAdam, A. G., Boutin, S., & Berteaux, D., 2003). Climate change and plastic pollution are both symptoms of the world valuing money, over-consumption and production, and convenience at the expense of everything else.
Canadian environmental and civil society groups are pushing to implement the Towards a Zero Plastic Waste Future Declaration. The Declaration sets a plan or how Canada can achieve a plastic waste-free future by 2025. The legislation includes policies that include; Banning materials that are harmful or tough to recycle, a national recycling target of at least 85 percent by 2025, a national recycled content standard for new products of at least 75 percent, and make producers of plastic goods responsible for collecting and recycling them. This seems like an effective solution.
Recycling alone is not effective as less than 11 percent of Canada’s plastics get recycled. The rest end up in landfills, lakes, parks, and oceans, destroying ecosystems and leaching toxic chemicals. (“Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem.” 2019). Plastic is inefficient to reuse as recycled scrap in the manufacturing process because it has processing difficulties such as a low melting point. That prevents contaminants from being driven off during heating and reprocessing. Recycling rates vary from country to country. Northern European countries are the only places obtaining rates greater than 50 percent. No matter the case, recycling does not address plastic pollution since recycled plastic is properly disposed of, whereas plastic pollution comes from the improper disposal. (Moore, 2019)
Since landfills can only hold so much waste, burning has been a method often used to eliminate plastic waste. This was a proposed solution that is only making matters worse. The burning of plastic waste releases extremely toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, affecting humans, plants, animals, the environment, and even contributes to climate change. The solution has only made the issue worse. Burning of plastic wastes increases the risk of heart disease, aggravates respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema and cause rashes, nausea or headaches, and damages the nervous system. (Wright, S. L., & Kelly, F. J., 2017).
Plastic pollution is an issue that has long lasting negative consequences. Ever since the mass production of plastics that began in the 1940s, the issues that come with plastic waste have been accumulating. The majority of this plastic disintegrates into micro plastics, which then break down further into nanoparticles. Micro plastic pollution and contamination of the marine environment have been a growing issue. The vast majority of marine organisms inject there plastics which causes intestinal injury and death. It also transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish, marine mammals, and humans. Since plastic waste gets dumped into landfills, the particles break down into nanoplastics which makes them easier to enter the food chain. Chlorinated plastic releases toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil, which then seeps into groundwater and other surrounding water sources, and thus, the ecosystem. In humans, when plastic is inhaled or ingested, micro plastics accumulate and exert localized particle toxicity by inducing or enhancing an immune response. Micro plastic ingestion can affect the consumption of prey, leading to energy depletion, inhibited growth and fertility impacts.
Plastics use and release 100 million tons to 500 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. This aids in the issue of climate change and global warming. The issue with plastic is purely economic. It is a cheap material that is long lasting and supposedly disposable. Plastic pollution shows how the world values money, over-consumption and production, and convenience at the expense of everything else. As a proposed solution, Canada is pushing to implement a declaration that sets a plan to achieve a waste free future in around six years. This is an effective solution as is it stops the issue from its roots rather than blaming the consumer. It also helps as recycling is not an effective method of reducing plastic pollution that is because less than 11 percent of plastics get recycled and the rest end up in landfills, lakes, parks, and oceans, destroying ecosystems and leaching toxic chemicals.
Plastic is also inefficient to reuse as it has processing difficulties such as a low melting point. Burning has been a method often used to eliminate plastic waste. This was a proposed solution that is only making matters worse because the burning of plastic waste releases extremely toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, affecting humans, plants, animals, the environment, and even contributes to climate change. While more awareness has been raised around this topic, there is still so much that has to be done in order to save all the organisms that are being impacted as well as the irreversible effects that continue to happen.
A question of mine that hasn’t been answered while doing this research is why aren’t big organizations, businesses, and governments working together to reduce the environmental crisis that is accusing and destroying us all? Is it political, economic, or are they just careless? It is confusing because enough research has been done to show the negative impact so why isn’t anything being done to halt it? In order to find an answer to my question, I’d have to contact those corporations and question them. I’d also need to research the contribution each one makes to this issue in order to address it to them. While some environmental activists and groups are pushing towards a cleaner planet that is free of plastic pollution, those that are responsible are not. Therefore, future generations will have to suffer and fix the problems older generation brought upon them and did not bother fixing it.