Plastics in our society
How the plastic pollution of today came to be
These days, plastic pollution is everywhere. When we buy a soda, eat at a fast food restaurant, order take-out, visit the local grocery store or even work on home improvement projects, we’re buying and using a wide variety of plastics.
In this article, we’re going to go over the main dangers that arise from the widespread manufacturing, incineration and usage of plastic products.
When the plastic industry emerged at the start of the 20th century, it was widely embraced as a state-of-the-art solution by businesses and consumers alike. After all, what’s not to like in a lightweight, flexible and sturdy material that’s cheap to produce? But scientists quickly showed us the ugly sides of it, as research on the topic became abundant.
Plastic manufacturing releases toxic chemicals (benzene & dioxin) and pollutes the environment, with the cheapest and most widely-used plastic products taking a ridiculously long time to break down – in many cases hundreds of years. Carelessly discarded plastic bags will damage animals in the wild and are hazardous to marine life if they find their way into rivers, lakes and the sea.
According to researchers, consumers in western Europe alone use approximately 92 kilos (or 202 lbs) worth of plastic per capita on an annual basis. Looking at the bigger picture, the research suggests that worldwide usage per capita roughly amounts to 35 kilos (77 lbs).
The main culprits in the plastic pollution
There are two main types of plastics – synthetics and semi-synthetics. The former is made from mineral oils, coal or natural gas, accounting for 4% of worldwide oil and gas use. Semi-synthetics come from natural polymers, like cellulose.
With the help of strong environmental awareness movements, the production of semi-synthetics is on a rise and will hopefully continue increasing in popularity.
The most commonly used types of plastics – also called ’mass plastics’ – are PVC, polystyrene, polyethylene, polyurethane, polypropylene, and PET.
Polyvinyl Chloride (or PVC for short) products, contain phthalates, which is known to disrupt hormone balance, and both the manufacturing and incineration of phthalates are known to release dioxin – a dangerous carcinogen. Yet, PVC is widely used in the production of cling film wrap, bottles, food trays, plumbing parts and even medicinal tubing.
Polystyrene products are used in the production of cups, bowls, plates and cutlery, take-out containers and egg cartons. When heated, this type of plastic can leach styrene – a hydrocarbon classified by The International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen.
Polyethylene, the number one material used in the production of disposable plastic containers, such as water and soft drink bottles, is advertised as safe, but only for its very first use. On repeated use, it can leach toxin into your food or water, causing damage to the body.
Polyurethanes (or PUs) are the main material used for producing sponges, mattresses, furniture and flooring coatings. Difficult to recycle and toxic when burned, this type of plastic can cause a lot of damage to humans and the environment alike.
Polypropylene (or polypropene) is a very low-density type of plastic which floats easily in water and sports high stability. It’s mostly used in the production of household and medical appliances, bags, plastic furniture and food packaging. Polypropylene has been found to leach compounds that can disrupt human enzymes and receptors.
Polyethene terephthalate (PET) is made from ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Lightweight, compact and transparent, it’s an ideal material for use in the production of bottles, cosmetics, consumer goods packaging and belts. PET bottles, however, can release acetaldehyde and antimony in liquids. While this has not been linked to serious health hazards, it makes sense to avoid reusing PET containers.
As is the case with any sensitive topic, there’s a lot of information concerning plastic pollution. Some of it cites certain types of plastic as harmful because they can damage the human body, some warns of environmental damage.
Looking at the bigger picture, however, we’re all part of the world’s ecosystem – so anything that harms the environment is also harmful to us. We can’t isolate the two issues and pretend we’re unaffected by the problem just because it may not have a direct physiological effect on us.
The companies that produce environmentally-damaging plastics exist only to make profit and as long as they (and emerging businesses) continue to see merit in the manufacture of these products, the plastic pollution problem won’t go away.
In fact, it will simply keep growing, as it has done for the decades.
Plastic pollution and its effects on the marine ecosystem
A recent study, published in 2016, suggests fish would often opt to eat plastics instead of their natural food sources, greatly increasing their mortality rates. The study argued that plastics will change innate marine habits, stunting growth and making marine life more susceptible to predators.
The scientists point out that although there is mass awareness of the negative impact plastics have on fish and other marine organisms, not much is being done to address the issue.
This, however, goes further than ’just’ fish. Everything in the marine ecosystem is affected by plastic pollution, albeit in different ways.
Fish: The tonnes of plastic that end up in the oceans of the world cause numerous problems to fish, from changing their behavioural patterns through to internal injuries, premature death, disruption of their ecosystem and a destabilisation of the entire marine food chain. It’s important to remember that humans consume fish as well!
Sea Turtles: These creatures, many of their species threatened with extinction, often mistake floating pieces of plastic for food. Researchers point out that nearly half of the world’s sea turtle population has ingested plastic throughout its lifespan.
Seabirds: When seabirds ingest plastic, the storage volume of their stomachs greatly reduces, often leading to starvation. The most recent studies carried out into this field estimate that 60% of all seabirds have swallowed plastic waste at some time. Some scientists forecast this number could rise to 99% in the next 30 years.
Marine mammals: The massive plastic pollution is also hazardous to marine mammals as well. Even the mighty whales have been found to ingest and get tangled in plastic waste, suffering internal and external injuries in the process and causing increased mortality rates.
Almost everyone has, at one point or another, heard of the plastic pollution issue, yet the situation has not seen significant improvements. We can all contribute to resolving these problems by simply reducing our plastic consumption and raising eco-awareness.
And when we do use plastic products, if we make sure we dispose of them in the appropriate manner we can all make a difference. We have a long journey ahead of us, but the battle against plastic pollution can certainly be won – but only with the help of all of us!
If you would like to learn more about plastic pollution, please refer to the following sources. This article has been written with the help of these materials: