The Top 7 Things You Need to Know About Plastic Pollution

By Heir Arjun Subramanian

Plastic pollution entering our oceans is simply a problem that is not given its share of attention.  It does serious and maybe even irreversible damage to animals and humans.  Most or even all of us have heard about the carbon dioxide levels rising in our atmosphere, but plastic pollution is an issue that hasn’t gotten the spotlight it deserves.  Here, you will learn the top seven things you need to know about plastic pollution.

#7:  Plastic Is Made From Petroleum

Plastic is made of petroleum.  According to a report from the World Economic Forum called The New Plastics Economy1, about 5% of petroleum is used to make plastic worldwide, about the consumption of the aviation sector.  By 2050, 20% of petroleum output could be used for plastic.  Additionally, petroleum leaks CO2 into our atmosphere, escalating climate change and sea level rise.

#6:  Plastics Contain Cancerous Toxins

 BPA is used to make plastics like this water bottle; Source: Wikipedia

BPA is used to make plastics like this water bottle; Source: Wikipedia

Plastics have several toxins, most notably BPA (bisphenol-A) and PVC (polyvinylchloride). 

According to Scientific American2, exposure to BPA at a young age may increase the chance of having prostate cancer for men, because it mimics estrogen.  BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastics and some evidence even concludes all babies and fetuses have the toxin inside their bodies.  BPA has also been linked to breast cancer in female rats.  BPA is found in many everyday items including water bottles and packaging.

According to Tox Town3 (monitored by the U.S. Government), PVC or polyvinyl chloride may potentially be harmful, as vinyl chloride, one of the main components of this polymer, is officially carcinogenic.  PVC is usually found in pipes and plumbing equipment, things that we use daily. 

#5:  Plastics Could Even Be in Your Toothpaste!

 Microplastics collected from a sandy shoreline in Europe; Source: Current Biology, Wright et al.

Microplastics collected from a sandy shoreline in Europe; Source: Current Biology, Wright et al.

Microplastics are plastics which are less than 0.2 inches or the width of a half-grown fingernail.  Microplastics are present in many everyday items.  There are two types of microplastics:  primary and secondary microplastics.  Primary microplastics are plastics that were microplastics to begin with, while secondary microplastics are plastic pieces that have broken from larger plastic items i.e. water bottles due to the Sun’s UV rays. 

The problem with primary microplastics4 is that they are not caught by wastewater treatment plants and go into the ocean directly, where smaller fish eat the plastics.  Larger fish till humans eat the smaller fish, resulting in the bioaccumulation of toxins.

The problem with secondary microplastics is that they are hard to clean up.  Cleaning up a full water bottle that entered that 10 years ago would be a lot easier to clean up than a bunch of microplastic pieces.  Also, secondary microplastics degrade over time but never really decompose, so they are in our oceans forever.

Here are some common everyday items that include primary microplastics:

·      Toothpaste

·      Facial scrub

·      Makeup products

·      Shaving cream

·      Hand cleansers

 

#4:  One Full Garbage Truck of Plastic Is Being Dumped into Our Ocean Every Minute

 According to Dr. Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, 8 million tons of plastic5 go into our oceans every single year.  This rounds up to about the contents of 1 garbage truck per minute being dumped into our oceans.  Even though the oceans constitute 70% of our planet, imagine how many garbage trucks would have dumped in any one of our lifetimes.

Every minute one garbage truck full of plastic is dumped into our oceans.

Every hour 60 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into our oceans.

Every day 1,440 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into our oceans.

Every week 10,080 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into our oceans.

Every month 43,834 garbage truck full of plastic are dumped into our oceans.

Every year 525,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into our oceans.

#3:  By 2050, All Seabirds Worldwide Would Have Consumed At Least One Piece of Plastic

According to Dr. Julia Reisser6, 100% of the dead beached turtles she surveyed had plastic in them.  In fact, their intestines were filled with plastic till the point that they were rock hard.  Not only turtles are affected by this; various other marine creatures are affected by this problem, most notably seabirds. 

 Photograph by Education Images, UIG/Getty

Photograph by Education Images, UIG/Getty

According to National Geographic7, nearly 90% of seabirds now eat or have eaten plastics in the whole world.  Specifically, albatrosses are extremely prone to eating plastic as they scoop anything on top of the water.  Because plastic is colored like fish, it catches the attention of birds.  The bird consumes the plastic, mistaking it for food.  Eating plastic makes a bird think it is full while it dies inside due to malnutrition. 

#2:  Some Predictions Say That There Will Be More Plastic Than Fish in the Ocean in 2050

A few predictions say that the ratio of plastic to fish in 2050 could be as high as 1:1 if not higher.  This means that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by weight.  According to the College of Marine Science out of the University of South Florida, the ratio of plastic to fish was 1:5 in 20158.  If nothing is done in the future to combat this problem, we may well have a plastic dinner.

#1:  Recycling is Not an Effective Solution

While we think we are recycling, we are not.  According to The New Plastics Economy report, let us take the fate of 20 plastic water bottles.  8 water bottles go into landfill, while 6 leaks into the ecosystem.  3 are burned, and only 3 are taken for recycling itself1.  Out of the three that are taken for recycling, one is lost in the process of recycling.  One-and-a-half bottles are recycled into something of lesser value or down-cycled into something such as a garbage bag. This leaves less than one bottle to be recycled into a material of similar value.

In summary, the situation is dire, and it is out of sight and out of mind at least concerning the impact of plastic pollution on our oceans.  My next blog will be about what you can do. 

 

Heirs To Our Oceans is creating the next generation of environmental leaders.

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www.heirstoouroceans.com

 

Sources: 

1.     “The New Plastics Economy”, World Economic Forum, Jan. 2016, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

2.     Bienkowski, Brian.  “BPA Exposure Linked to Prostate Cancer.”, Scientific American, 7 Jan. 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bpa-exposure-linked-to-prostate-cancer/, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

3.     “Polyvinyl Chloride”, Tox Town, https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=84, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

4.     “The Search for Microplastics:  From Face Scrub to the Sea”, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/search-microplastics-face-scrubs-sea.html, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

5.     Jambeck, Jenna.  “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.”, Science, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

6.     Reisser, Julia.  Personal Interview, Oct. 2016

7.     Parker, Laura.  “Nearly Every Seabird on Earth Is Eating Plastic”, National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/15092-plastic-seabirds-albatross-australia/, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

8.     “Today, the Ratio of Plastics to Fish in the Ocean Is 1:5 - USF College of Marine Science.” Welcome to the College of Marine Science, www.marine.usf.edu/news/today-the-ratio-of-plastics-to-fish-in-the-ocean-is-1-5/604-today-the-ratio-of-plastics-to-fish-in-the-ocean-is-1-5./, Accessed 18 Jun. 2017

Brad Peebler