Globally we produce more than 380 million tonnes of plastic each year. Most of the plastic we use ends up in landfill, but a large percentage ends up in our oceans, rivers and other natural environments. Find out what the four key environmental issues that are caused by plastic pollution.
Plastic Pollution found in Landfill
The highest percentage of plastic pollution, including single-use plastic bottles, bags and cutlery finds its way to landfill. Plastics in landfill can leach harmful chemicals into the surrounding environment and groundwater sources. Plastic takes over 500 to 4000 years to degrade, which is a long time for these chemicals to be released constantly into the environment. It is estimated that at the current rate of plastic production that by 2050 there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills all over the world. Unfortunately, many landfill sites are also mismanaged, meaning that plastic pollution often escapes these facilities and ends up in the natural environment. Many of us think that most of our plastic can be recycled. However, it is estimated that 91% of all plastic is not recycled or recyclable. This is due to the varying types of plastic compounds that make up plastic products and consumers not recycling plastics correctly. This is often not the fault of the consumer, but the lack of education and confusion surrounding how to recycle plastics correctly.
The Affect of Plastic Pollution on Marine Wildlife
Plastics that are produced and discarded in coastal countries and towns are responsible for 1.8 million metric tonnes of plastic entering oceans and other waterways. Harsh chemicals leach from the plastic into the waters affecting marine life which absorb the toxic chemicals. These toxic chemicals contribute to the spread of bacteria and organisms that can disrupt the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystem. Fish, whales, seals, seabirds and turtles are also affected by being tangled in or swallowing plastics that can make them unwell, disabled or kill them altogether. Many marine animals suffer from infections from plastic cuts or injuries that prevent them from being able to swim in their natural environment. They also may suffer internal injuries from swallowing chunks of plastic that may look like their natural source of food, like a small jellyfish. Some endangered species such as Pacific loggerhead turtles and Hawaiian monk seals are in danger of extinction as they often get entangled in plastic debris. Unfortunately, scientists have found plastic debris within the pup nurseries of the Hawaiian monk seal, endangering the species even at the beginning of its life.
The Affect of Plastics on Human Health
Firstly plastics are full of carcinogens, a cancer-causing agent that disrupts the endocrine system in humans. The likelihood of these carcinogens to be released is higher when heated in a situation such as a plastic water bottle that has been sitting in the car in the sun and gets to a scorching temperature and then cooled and heated, cooled and heated and cooled over days or weeks and then being ingested by a human when it is at a cooler temperature. The science on the release of toxic chemicals into food and drinks that they are contained with is limited and in its infancy, as our consumption of plastics at such a high rate has occurred increasingly since the 1950s.
The second way that plastic can be detrimental to human health is through the ingestion of microplastics, tiny little plastic particles, by fish and shellfish that then end up on the plate for human consumption. These microplastics are then ingested by humans and may accumulate in the body over time and produce adverse health consequences. Studies undertaken in the US on randomly chosen subjects found traces of chemicals from plastics in 97% of subjects. Once again, due to the recency of the scientific evidence of microplastic consumption in humans, it is unknown what the long-term effects of this could be over time.
The Affect of Plastic Pollution on our Soil
Plastics that make their way into the environment, including those found in landfill leach toxic chemicals into the soil as they decompose over hundreds or thousands of years. These chemicals make their way into groundwater which is then drunk by animals in the natural habitat on land. This leaching of chemicals into native animals drinking sources can cause harmful effects on whole species such as hormonal disruptions, inflammation, and may cross cellular membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or into the placenta. The toxic chemicals in plastics can also trigger changes in biochemical reactions and animal gene expression. Scientists have found behavioural effects in animals when plastic chemicals pass the blood-brain barrier.
A team of scientists in France also found that microplastics fall from the air onto land surfaces. They found that 250 pieces of microplastic were found in every square metre of land across 24 hours. They estimated that the wind could transport plastic pollution over a distance of 95 kilometres at a single time. The same scientists also found that this microplastic pollution was not only falling in the natural environment but was also found inside houses and buildings in the dust that settled on the floor. The unfortunate thing about these airborne microplastics is that they are being inhaled by humans and animals every day.
Plastic pollution is becoming a key environmental issue that needs to be remedied. There are many things that we can do on a personal level to reduce the number of plastics that enter landfill, oceans, and other natural environments. Say no to single-use plastic always, get involved in community clean up days, pick up other peoples rubbish if you see it in the natural environment, find out from your local council how to best recycle, avoid products with microbeads, and support local businesses who address plastic pollution like Santos Organics.