The statement, "there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050", has taken centre stage in world media recently … and with good reason. Plastic pollution has reached epidemic proportion.
The rampant growth of plastic production – particularly in single-use plastics – is finally being recognised as one of the greatest risks facing the environment and mankind's wellbeing. Not only is plastic burying the earth's surface under a layer of non-biodegradable waste, it is also saturating our oceans and soils with tiny plastic particles.
While plastic debris is finding its way into the stomachs of innumerable species with lethal consequences, plastic particles are working their way into the food chain and placing many of mankind's primary food sources and their respective ecosystems at risk of contamination and collapse.
It is an extremely serious situation that we, ordinary people, are 100% responsible for.
Since the invention of plastic in 1907, its use around the world has grown exponentially. Over the last 50 years alone, global plastic production has increased 20 times as shown in the graph below:
As concerning as this explosive growth is, the projected growth curve for plastic production is even scarier, as the following graph shows:
A critical attribute of plastic is that it cannot biodegrade. The reason for this is simple: plastic never existed before 1907, thus it is unrecognisable to organisms that decompose all other organic matter.
While plastic's permanence has numerous advantages, it also has one major disadvantage. When plastic enters the environment as mismanaged waste, rather than biodegrading into its elemental constituents, it’s broken down into smaller and smaller particles known as microplastics and nanoplastics.
Microplastics are plastic particles measuring between 0.05mm and 5mm; and nanoplastics are particles 1 000 times smaller than an algal cell. It is these plastic particles that are being swept up by multiple levels of the food chain. They then work their way higher up the food chain towards the world’s apex consumer … humans.
Plastic impact on humans
Although knowledge is limited with respect to the impacts of plastic on human health, the research conducted thus far is highly concerning.
Phthalates, used in the production of plastics, have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.
Bisphenol A (BPA), commonly found in food and drink containers, is another chemical that can accumulate in the human body. According to Earthday’s plastic pollution awareness brochure, a survey conducted by The Centre for Disease Control showed that 93% of urine samples taken from people aged over six tested positive for BPA.
Like Phthalates, BPA is also linked to infertility and a range of other health problems.
The more plastic we use and 'unintentionally' consume, the more potential exposure we have to these chemicals, and the higher our risk of suffering their negative health effects.
And this is where the fundamental problem lies … our reliance on plastic has entrenched itself so deeply across human society that it’s near impossible to avoid. One just needs to walk through a supermarket to see that the vast majority of goods on sale are packaged in some form of plastic.
Not to mention that many of us send our children to school each day with plastic water bottles and food wrapped in plastic bags placed inside a plastic lunch box.
The sad truth is, human society has made little effort to stem the tsunami of plastic flowing into our daily lives. It’s insanity, especially when you consider what the potential health implications are, and the fact that we do not yet fully understand or appreciate the full extent of these implications.
Plastic impact on oceans
Nowhere is the plastic scourge more evident than along our coastlines and in our oceans.
Beaches around the world are awash with plastic debris of every conceivable shape, size and origin. Some of this plastic is picked up by seabirds who eat it and/or feed it to their chicks – evidence shows that up to 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs.
This has contributed to the estimated two-thirds decline in seabird numbers around the world, in the last 60 years alone.
Micro and nanoplastics are also mistakenly ingested by all kinds of shoreline marine life including otters, shellfish, corals and fish.
Our five oceans now boast their very own 'trash vortices', the most infamous of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Estimated to be 1.6 million square km in size, it’s equivalent to the areas of South Africa and Zimbabwe combined. And this is only the plastic debris that floats…
Unfortunately, some of this ocean borne plastic is being eaten by the ocean’s whale and fish populations. In February this year, yet another whale was found washed up dead on a beach in Spain, as a result of it having 30kg of plastic debris trapped in its stomach.
Earthday's brochure also states that: '… one third of the fish caught in the UK had plastic inside. The effect of eating these plastic contaminated fish is for the most part unknown, but the risk was substantial enough to warrant a warning of increased risk to human health and safety by the European Food Safety.'
Then there's the estimated 1 000 turtles that die annually from becoming entangled in plastic debris. The mass casualties that plastic is inflicting across ocean species can only be described as catastrophic.
Plastic impact on land
The plastic waste situation is just as dire on land. Urban, rural and wilderness areas are fighting a continuous battle to overcome the scourge of plastic litter. Much of it accumulates in rivers and lakes, affecting their local ecosystems.
Plastic landfill sites also release harmful chemicals into surrounding soil. This contaminates groundwater and nearby water sources, impacting all those species that are reliant on them.
Needless to say that numerous land animals, birds and fresh water fish – many of which are considered a staple in human diet – also eat plastic which they mistake for food. This leads to increased toxicity levels and possibly even premature death of the affected animals.
The culprits of plastic pollution
Even though we're all part of the plastic problem, the following graph (data extracted from Sciencemag) shows the Top 20 nations most responsible for polluting our oceans with plastic. Conspicuous on the graph is South Africa ranked at number 11, ahead of the United States at number 20:
The graph indicates an absence of correlation between plastic production and plastic waste. This is largely due to the fact that some nations have succeeded better than others in rolling out litter disposal and recycling initiatives, and implementing legislation that targets single-use-plastics.
Where does all the plastic go?
The following flow diagram shows what happens to the world’s plastic packaging after it's produced:
Most astonishing is that only ±10% of all the plastic packaging produced is recycled, while 40% ends up in landfills, and a shocking 32% finds its way into the environment as 'mismanaged plastic waste'. This completely unsustainable situation will slowly but steadily contaminate the entire animal kingdom including ourselves.
Support plastic-free products, businesses and lifestyle trends
For decades, there has been a lack of both social and political will to address the plastic epidemic head-on. However, with the upsurge of awareness around plastic’s negative impacts on the environment and human health, there's a groundswell of opposition calling for plastic-free solutions, especially in the case of single-use-plastics.
Every one of us who buys products packaged in plastic is contributing to the scourge, even if we attempt to recycle it. We must accept that the pitiful 10% plastic recycling rate should not ease our consciences or lull us into a false sense of security about how much plastic we use.
Our only hope is that the growing 'plastic-free' consumer trend will drive product manufacturers to look at biodegradable ways to package their products.
If you're part of the plastic problem, then it’s time to become be part of the solution. Embrace a personal plastic reduction plan and work your way towards a plastic-free lifestyle. Huge change happens one person at a time.
- Robert J. Traydon is a BSc graduate of Engineering and the author of 'Wake-up Call: 2035'. He’s travelled to over 40 countries across six continents and worked in various business spheres. His articles explore a wide range of controversial and current affairs from a contrarian perspective.
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