Over the last century and a half humans have learned how to make what we call synthetic polymers. Ironically, similar to our energy sources that threaten our planet with global warming, these synthetic polymers are derived from the plentiful carbon atoms provided by petroleum and fossil fuels. First developed in the 1800’s, the popularity of plastic began to soar when its mass production became more feasible and efficient in the 1950s. And the use of plastics has been expanding ever since. Plastics are inexpensive, durable, and malleable, three factors that have made it one of the most useful products ever invented.
Unfortunately, the same factors that make it so durable also make it a leading threat to the environment. Plastic pollution is defined as the accumulation of plastic objects and particles, such as plastic bottles, bags, and microbeads, in the Earth’s environment. It has an adverse effect on both wildlife, habitat, and humans. Plastics are a threat in their larger forms, called macroforms, such as bottles or bags, and as they break apart into tiny pieces they become a threat in their microform. Other types of plastic start out virtually in a microform. These products are called microbeads.
Most likely you already know, at least intuitively, what a macroform of plastic is, such as a common plastic bag, or a plastic bottle. But do you know what a microbead is? Microbeads are a type of manufactured solid plastic particle, depending on which expert you are talking to, and what their own definition is, they are typically described as being less than one millimeter in size. Microbeads are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be made of other petrochemical plastics as well, and are used in exfoliating personal care products, such as facial scrubs, and toothpastes, and are found in biomedical and health products as well. Unfortunately, despite their usefulness, microbeads cause plastic particle pollution and pose an environmental hazard for aquatic animals in both freshwater and salt water.
“Some experts believe that most of the plastic that has ever been produced, dating back to the 1950’s or more, is still with us somewhere on the planet today.”
How does this process of microbead pollution occur? When microbeads are washed down the drain with our personal care products, they are so small, they can pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants. Untouched by the filtration process, they make their way back into the water supply, finding their way into rivers and canals, and ultimately to the ocean. Along the way, a variety of wildlife ranging from insect larvae to small fish, amphibians, turtles, birds, as well as even larger mammals, can mistake microbeads for food, either that, or they can accidentally ingest the microbeads along with their food. This ingestion of plastics introduces the potential for toxicity not only to these animals but to other species higher up in the food chain, including humans who drink the water and eat the wildlife.
The durability factor of plastics, while their primary benefit, is also their largest complicating factor. A product is considered biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by the action of bacteria and other living organisms over time, but the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to these natural processes of degradation. Depending on the type of plastic and the environmental conditions of its disposal, scientists estimate that it may take anywhere from 20 years to over 1000 years for plastics to decompose. Some experts believe that most of the plastic that has ever been produced, dating back to the 1950’s or more, is still with us somewhere on the planet today,- either sitting in landfills, or laying out somewhere in the environment, or having been washed out to sea.
The larger pieces of plastic can end up entangling marine animals. The smaller of these long-lasting pieces end up in their stomachs, resulting in the obstruction of their digestive pathways, resulting in a reduced appetite, or even starvation. With the prevalence of plastic and large vortexes of plastic waste, the oceans have become a hotspot for plastic pollution, and they face a massive, growing threat. Through streams, rivers, and the runoff flowing from coastal communities, billions of pounds of plastic leaks into the marine environment every single year. At the rate it is presently accumulating, many researchers suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish. A critical issue in the health of our environment is stemming the production and use of single-use plastics.
References and Resources:
A report from the World Economic Forum,- offering a blueprint for change.
The oceans face a massive and growing threat from something you encounter everyday: plastics. An estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic leaks into the marine environment from land-based sources every year—this is roughly equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the oceans every minute. Campaign from Oceana.
Our Last Straw is a coalition of restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, event venues, and organizations across the DC metropolitan region and beyond on a mission: Eliminate single-use plastic straws.
A simple walk on any beach, anywhere, and the plastic waste spectacle is present. All over the world the statistics are ever growing, staggeringly. Tons of plastic debris (which by definition are waste that can vary in size from large containers, fishing nets to microscopic plastic pellets or even particles) is discarded every year, everywhere, polluting lands, rivers, coasts, beaches, and oceans.
Whether being mistaken for food by animals, flooding low-lying areas by clogging drainage systems, or simply causing significant aesthetic blight, plastics are attracting increasing attention as a large-scale pollutant. Overview from Encyclopedia Britannica.
While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic — with severe environmental consequences. From UN Environment.