Plastic is everywhere and intertwined with some of the most crucial aspects life, whether you realize this or not. With each piece of plastic that enters marine ecosystems, society faces both direct and indirect repercussions, that you may not be aware of.
How do I contribute?
Every package you order, every item you buy, and every single-use item you consume each day, unless stated otherwise, contributes to the plastic epidemic. In addition, you indirectly consume plastics along the entire journey from production to consumer, resulting in the average American producing 4.2 lbs of waste each day. When most people generate plastic waste, they believe that placing recyclable forms in a recycling bin solves the issues, but in reality, only 9% of all recyclable plastics are actually recycled. After each recycling process, the quality of the material becomes less and less desirable until it ends up in the landfill or in the surrounding ecosystem.
How does plastic pollution affect me personally?
Once plastics are out of sight, they are out of mind. Unfortunately, due to the longevity and durability that are also their most beneficial traits, they persist for years after their use. Many versions of these plastics surpass you for centuries after the ten minutes that you used it. Once they are in the environment, they will eventually break down, however, the biodegradation process begins with plastic becoming smaller particles of itself. These particles, commonly referred to as microplastics, are small enough to be directly or indirectly consumed by organisms. They also leach toxic chemicals into the environment and even return to our drinking water as they can pass through even the best filtration systems. Each of these scenarios affect you in a variety of ways:
Consumption by organisms: Plastic consumption is known to affect organisms on every level of the food chain on land and in the sea. As plastics degrade, they become increasingly available for consumption, and are often mistaken for food. Smaller particles can be consumed by microscopic organisms called zooplankton in the ocean, which increases the likelihood of consumption by larger organisms through what is known as bioaccumulation. For example: microplastics have been reported in the digestive track of krill, which are be consumed by fish, marine mammals, and more. As the larger organisms eat krill by the thousands, much more plastic is distributed to their tissues. To make the issue worse, if a whale were to consume a fish that had eaten krill, the plastic chemicals that were once stored in the tissues of the krill, are now magnified in the fish, to then impact the whale to an even higher degree. For this reasons, humans are not protected from plastic toxicants in the ocean. Seafoods such as mussels, clams, or shrimp, to name a few, are entirely consumed (meaning their digestive track) which have the possibility of having plastic within them and therefore within us (1). In addition, seafoods such as fish may retain plastic chemicals in their muscle tissues, which are then consumed by people.
Leaching toxic chemicals into the environment and drinking water: The wide variety of different traits that plastics can have are made available by a combination of different chemicals. These chemicals will eventually leach out when exposed to sunlight or other environmental conditions when they break down. Under landfill conditions, these chemicals are contained, but if in nature, these chemicals make their way into the groundwater of the surrounding area. These chemicals have a variety of known impacts on the body, some of which are endocrine disruptors (hormone mimicking chemicals) (2) and others may be carcinogenic and linked to disease. The microplastics can also sneak through filtration systems and may be present in some drinking water.
Are Plastics the Enemy?
The issue is not with the product itself, rather the consumerism surrounding the product. Plastic has increased safety and sterility in the medical field, improved natural disaster relief, and allowed for other countless advances in society. In addition, thousands of companies rely on these single-use plastics to distribute their goods it the most cost effective manner. Plastic products are not the enemy, but society needs to become more aware of what resources are used and where they end up. Some products that utilized on a daily basis, including flossers, plastic utensils, or food wrappers are used and thrown away without thinking about the long impact associated with such a short lifetime. Plastic is too integral to humanity to eliminate it, but by limiting the consumption of these single-use items and replacing them with products that have a higher recycling yield, environmental health will improve.
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Citations: Research Articles Pertaining to the Issue
1. Van Cauwenberghe, L., & Janssen, C. R. (2014). Microplastics in bivalves cultured for human consumption. Environmental pollution, 193, 65-70.
2. Roy, J. R., Chakraborty, S., & Chakraborty, T. R. (2009). Estrogen-like endocrine disrupting chemicals affecting puberty in humans--a review. Medical science monitor, 15(6), RA137-RA145.
3. Rochman, C. M., Kurobe, T., Flores, I., & Teh, S. J. (2014). Early warning signs of endocrine disruption in adult fish from the ingestion of polyethylene with and without sorbed chemical pollutants from the marine environment. Science of the Total Environment, 493, 656-661.