Plastic is a form of pollution and has become a pressing issue because of its harmful effects on the environment.
Plastic is a synthetic material that is cheap, strong, and resistant. Its characteristics make it an appealing material for production and consumption, while those same characteristics are problematic for the environment.
Plastic is mass-produced and consumed across the globe and is a major part of our day-to-day lives.
Plastic is bad for the environment for various reasons but mainly because it ends up in the environment (e.g. water, land or soil) and does not decompose.
Ways that Plastics Harm the Environment
The following section will outline six ways that plastics harm the environment.
1. Release Toxins into the Environment
Only a limited amount of plastics are properly recycled or reused. The remaining plastics are incinerated or end up in the environment in one way or another. This is a concern because plastics contain a multitude of chemicals and toxins.
When plastics end up in waterways (e.g. rivers, lakes, and oceans) or in landfills, chemicals from the plastics seep into the environment. Once the chemicals are present in the environment, they begin entering the food chain, threaten human health and reduce the economic viability of the coastal environment.
Plastics that are incinerated also create problems for the environment. The burning of plastics in incinerators releases harmful gases (e.g. dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls), which leads to toxins being released into the air and air pollution.
The burning of plastic also releases black carbon, also known as soot, which contributes to climate change and low air quality.
2. Threatens Wildlife and Marine Species
Plastic is a threat to wildlife when it enters the food chain and ecosystem. Plastic contains several chemicals and when ingested, those chemicals can lead to injury or health problems.
Thousands of seabirds, seals and other marine species and wildlife are killed every year after ingesting or getting entangled in plastic.
When wildlife and marine species ingest plastic, it can cause them to starve to death because they cannot digest plastic. However, their stomach is then full of plastic, which makes them feel full.
Toxic chemicals can also affect their health and eventually affect the food chain. For example, a fish consumed microplastics that it mistook for food, the chemicals leached into the fish and now the fish has been caught for consumption by humans or eaten by a predator. Now the chemicals reside in the predator or are consumed by the human.
The transfer of contaminants between marine species and humans through the consumption of seafood is known. It has been identified as a health hazard but there remains a lot of uncertainty as to what extent this harms humans and wildlife and marine species.
3. Contributes to Climate Change
The production and manufacturing of plastics contribute to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases. All plastics are made from chemicals that originated from fossil fuels (e.g. gas, oil and coal). For example, eight percent of the world’s oil production goes to manufacturing plastics.
The production of plastic also uses a lot of water, taking nearly 22 gallons of water to produce one pound of plastic.
Our reliance and mass production of plastics prolongs our dependence on fossil fuels and non-renewable energy resources. The more plastic we manufacture and produce, the more fossil fuels we will need and the more we will intensify climate change. Plastic and its production is not sustainable.
4. Microplastics are Harmful
Microplastics are small plastic particles that are less than five millimeters. They are the result of larger plastics breaking down into smaller pieces. They are considered a pollutant that is harmful to the environment and the health of wildlife and marine species.
Microplastics are often consumed by marine species, as they mistake them for food. For example, microplastics have been found in over 100 aquatic species and have been consumed by land-based animals.
Microplastics are harmful because they cannot be digested, block gastrointestinal tracks, and trick wildlife and marine species into thinking they don’t need to eat. They also expose organisms to high concentrations of hazardous toxins.
Microplastics are increasingly being found everywhere, from seabirds stomachs to water processing and treatment plants.
5. Plastics in the Ocean
Every minute two garbage truck’s worth of plastic enters the oceans, which means roughly 33 billion pounds of plastic find their way into the ocean annually. What is even more alarming is that by 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).
The major problems associated with plastics floating around the ocean are ingestion, suffocation, and entanglement of marine species. Marine mammals often mistake plastics for food, whether it be large or small pieces of microplastics.
Entangled animals often drown or starve because they are restricted, may suffer physical trauma or are not able to escape.
Plastic waste can survive thousands of years in the water and does not biodegrade. Creating the perfect mechanism and transportation device for invasive species.
An invasive species is an organism that is not indigenous or native to a particular area and when introduced has the potential to distribute the ecosystem and cause serious harm.
Invasive species can out-compete native species or food and habitats and sometimes even cause their extinction.
6. Long Lifespan of Plastic
Plastic is a very durable material, which is one property that makes it so appealing. However, that property also makes plastic problematic. Since it is durable and resistant to degradation, it is impossible for plastic to completely break down.
In most cases, plastic will never disappear, it just gets smaller and smaller and eventually turns into microplastics. Plastic can remain in the environment for centuries.
How long does it take plastic to decompose?
Plastic bag – 20 years
Coffee cup – 30 years
Plastic straw – 200 years
6-pack plastic rings – 400 years
Plastic water bottle – 450 years
Coffee pod – 500 years
Plastic cup – 450 years
Disposable diaper – 500 years
Plastic toothbrush – 500 years
History of Plastic
The first plastic (polymer) was created in 1862 by Alexander Parkes. In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer in response to an urgent need to find a substitute for ivory.
Plastic quickly became an attractive and effective alternative to natural resources. Plastic also has a lot of redeemable qualities, such as its ease of use, easy cleaning and low cost.
After World War I, scientific advancements enabled the development of new forms of plastics (e.g. plastic wrap, Styrofoam, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene).
Mass production of plastics speeds up after World War II when machinery and technology were more readily available.
Plastic revolutionized many industries with its conveniences and disposal nature (e.g. medicine). The manufacturing and production of plastics have continued to grow and expand to this day. This has led to what is often referred to as the plastic problem.
Researchers estimate that over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s. Half of all plastic in the world today was produced in the last 15 years.
There has been a distinct trend towards the use of single-use or disposal plastic. For example, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute and 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used globally every year.
Half of all plastic that is produced and manufactured is used only once and then thrown away. Globally, over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced every year.
Final Thoughts on Plastic Bad for the Environment
Plastic is a man-made non-renewable and unsustainable resource that has become a huge part of our day-to-day lives. It is not biodegradable and a small percentage of the world’s plastics are recycled. That means that a large proportion of plastic ends up in our oceans, landfills or in nature.
The plastic problem is one of the most pressing environmental issues because it releases toxins into the environment, ends up in our oceans, does not decompose, threatens wildlife and marine species and contributes to climate change.
The best alternative to single-use plastic and plastic in general is something that can be reused and properly disposed of.
Plastic should be treated as a reusable material instead of a one-use product that is disposable. Changing the narrative around plastic and finding more sustainable solutions is needed to mitigate this pressing environmental issue.
Related content: Learn how to reduce use of plastic »
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