By Mary Watson
Plastic is everywhere. Every year 17.6 billion pounds of plastic is dumped into the ocean. Only 9% of the plastic we use is recycled. According to Harvard’s CSIRO team, it is estimated that at least 14 million tons of microplastics exist on the ocean floor alone, which is particularly a large issue. Plastic is detrimental to the environment, directly impacting all species, including humans.
The life of a microplastic is simple: It is a piece of plastic that slipped down the drain, and, in one way or another, ended up in our waterways. Often, these forms of plastic debris are the size of a sesame seed (5mm). Microplastics are categorized in two ways, primary or secondary. Primary microplastics are small plastic fibers in an exfoliating face wash or a simple cigarette butt. Secondary microplastics are larger materials such as plastic water bottles that have worn out and eventually released microplastics. Whether primary or secondary, it is physically impossible for microplastics to decompose. Typically, the consequences of this problem are exemplified in our oceans. In marine waters especially, the wear of the sun and waves directly impact the effects of microplastics.
Some of the 9% of the plastic that is recycled (Koji Sasahara/AP)
Even though tools exist to eliminate plastic waste from our oceans, unfortunately, these do not remove microplastics. Microplastics travel from tributaries to rivers to lakes, and eventually the oceans. Our own water sources are being contaminated with microplastics, everything from our soil and eventually our food. Something that scientists are heavily researching now is the effects of the powerful greenhouse gases plastics emit into the air. Currently, scientists are most knowledgeable about microplastics in the ocean, as they are the easiest to test. Paul Anastas, a green chemist, and engineer speculate why environmentalists are primarily focusing on microplastics currently. Scientists are aware of the overwhelming amount of plastic in the oceans and are focused on its effects on marine ecosystems. When plastic begins to “break down” it generates small fragments, which appear visible to the tiniest marine life, such as plankton, bivalves, and fish. Large species, such as whales, cannot see or control the large amounts of microplastics entering their mouths, thus they often consume the toxic materials in vast amounts. In all aquatic animals, plastics have been shown to block the digestive tracts and alter behavior and appetite when digested. The plastic thus causes a decrease in an animal’s quality of life or ultimately causes death. Plastic is destructive as it affects the population of many species.
A fish swimming in a sea of plastic attempting to find a healthy snack (Shutterstock).
Microplastics alone do not affect only the ocean, they affect all forms of life. When the sun’s rays are concentrated on a piece of plastic, it causes the plastic to emit harmful greenhouse gases. The materials that make plastic, such as benzene and vinyl hydrochloride, are derived from natural oil and gas and require time and energy to be invested in their production. Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law, says, “emissions from plastics production and incineration could account for 56 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050.” That is fifty times the annual amount of coal power plants emissions in the United States. Plastic is harmful to the physical well-being of our planet, and as a society, we need to take strides in doing what is best for ourselves, animals, and our environment.
Ways that society can stop contributing to this issue are easy: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Try to limit plastic consumption as much as possible, and, if you have not already, buy a reusable water bottle. There are plenty of filling stations around campus!
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Royte, E. (2021, May 04). “We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?” Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/plastic-planet-health-pollution-waste-microplastics
Says:, T., & Harvard, N. (2020, October 16). “14 Million Tons of Microplastic are on the Ocean Floor.” Retrieved from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/14-million-tons-of-microplastic-are-on-the-ocean-floor/
Yale. (2020, December 01). “Yale Experts Explain Microplastics.” Retrieved from https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-microplastics