Plastic pollution is alarming to say the least. The ocean has basically become a garbage soup with millions of tons of debris floating around in it with most of the content being plastic. This continuous barrage (equivalent of 136 billion milk jugs each year), poses a real and dangerous threat to marine life. Animals often get tangled up in this trash or ingest it – either because they mistake it as prey or because they mistake the broken-down plastic to be food and consume it.
Plastic in itself is a unique problem owing to its non-biodegradable nature and therefore stays around for about 1000 years, much longer other forms of trash. About 80% of marine litter originates on land – either they are swept in from the coastline or carried to the rivers from the streets during heavy rains via storm drains and sewer overflows.
Causes of plastic pollution
Every kind of natural waste decomposes. Then, human invented plastic which has ‘unnatural’ properties that prevent it from getting decomposed. Plastic making is in abundance and the distribution and applications of the material are endless. It is so widely used that it almost always ends up in the environment, causing the menace of plastic pollution.
Single use plastic
Of all the plastic that gets used, around 40% is used only once. A straw in our iced coffee, a plastic bag to carry the groceries, a candy wrapper – when considered individually, seem so harmless. Their presence in our lives is so ubiquitous that we do not even think when we use them. But single-use plastics come with a steep environmental price and are a glaring example of our throwaway culture. Instead of investing in quality goods that will last, we pick easy convenience which has long-term negative impact. Our reliance on plastics is directly proportional to the accumulation of staggering amount of waste. We produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items. That is close to being equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. The majority of this pollution – dominated by single-use plastic waste – comes from countries who are not equipped with adequate infrastructure to manage waste properly. India generates 25,940 tons of plastic waste everyday but collects only 60% of it.
There are other causes contributing to plastic accumulation in our environment as well. For instance, car tires made of rubber and plastic, wear out while driving and through this friction, thousands of microplastics get released onto the road and in the air. Additionally, machine washing and drying of synthetic clothes let millions of microfibres flow into the drainage system. Personal care products and paint can also contain microplastics that wash away in wastewater. Exposure to microplastics, as well as the chemicals that get added during processing, impact our health adversely. Many chemicals in plastics are known endocrine disruptors and research has pointed out that human exposure could cause health problems like hormonal imbalances, infertility and even cancer.
Current state of plastic pollution
Marine animals have to bear the brunt of this influx of garbage into their habitats. Bleached whales were found with their stomachs full of plastic trash. Recent studies have also found plastic in the gut of 90% of seabirds tested and 100% of turtles. Scientists estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight. This alarmingly excessive amount of plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals and seabirds every year while also contaminating seafood that humans have relied on for millennia.
Our plastic addiction impacts negatively on the climate as well. According to a report, plastic production contributes to planet-warming greenhouse emissions at every point in its lifecycle. The process of drilling for plastic’s source materials, oil and gas, leads to methane leaking and flaring and is often combined with clearing forests and wetlands which would have otherwise sequestered carbon. Refineries where crude oil is turned into plastic are considered one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector. Cracker plants which break or ‘crack’ ethane molecules, a component of natural gas, into the chemical building blocks of plastic products are energy intensive and highly polluting.
Steps needed to lessen plastic pollution
Avoid disposable, single-use plastic
90% of the plastic items that we use daily are used only once and then disposed – grocery bags, plastic wraps, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Be conscious and replace those items with reusable versions. Bring your own bag to the store, metal cutlery to the office and soon it will become a habit. Repeat this with straws, cups and containers.
Stop buying bottled water and cold drinks packaged in single use plastic bottles