Plastic pollution is the accumulation overtime of plastic in the Earth’s natural environment. These plastics come in many sizes (micro, meso, macro) and are partially responsible for destroying wildlife and their natural habitats. Plastic is commonly used by companies and individuals as it is inexpensive to make and durable for the tasks that is required of it. But the chemical composition of plastic makes it hardy and resistant to natural wear and tear which makes it slow to break down in the environment.

Plastic pollution from coastal towns and communities is responsible for 1.1 to 1.8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste entering waterways and oceans every year. This plastic pollution directly affects marine wildlife through ingestion, entanglement and exposure to toxic chemicals which interfere with their physiology. The degree of the effect of plastic pollution on our ocean environment can be seen in results of a  recent study where scientists found microplastic embedded deep in Arctic ice.

It is estimated that 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950’s at a rate of 380 million tonnes a year and although there have been efforts made to reduce the plastic waste that enters the environment only about 9% is recycled worldwide. Considering these plastics do not break down researchers suggest that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Not only are plastics harmful to the environment and marine wildlife, they are also said to be detrimental to human health. The chemicals used to produce plastics can be carcinogenic and have been known to disrupt endocrine functions in humans. But, due to research on the effects of plastic in humans being so recent not much is known about how significant long-term effects of plastic chemical exposure can be. What is known, is that 95% of participants tested in a plastic chemical study in the United States had BPA chemicals directly from plastic detectable in their urine.

Main sources of plastic pollution come from

  1. Plastic being flushed through local sewerage systems
  2. Pedestrian litter being dropped in towns and cities and thrown from cars and public transport
  3. Landfill sites and council bins being ill managed near coastal communities
  4. Fishing equipment being lost or discarded at sea
  5. Shipping materials being thrown over board
  6. Poorly managed industries
  7. Pedestrian litter being left on beaches and riverways

Globally and locally, efforts are being made to reduce plastic production and consumption. From supermarkets changing their plastic bag policies to companies providing more biodegradable packaging options. Some businesses, towns and communities across the world have become plastic free. In January of 2019 a “Global Alliance to End Plastic Waste” was formed. The alliance plans to clean the current world environment of plastic waste and increase recycling efforts. However, little is being done about reducing current global plastic production and plastic continues to be produced on such a large scale all across the world.

In 2019 Santos Organics funded a plastic clean up of Moreton Island in Queensland in collaboration with Sea Shepherd Australia.

On Moreton Island, deceased turtles have been found washed up with their stomachs full of plastic and dolphins
discovered with discarded fishing debris entangled in their jaws. This area is also home to a large population of dugongs,
many sea bird species and humpback whales migrate past here in the Winter months. Over 500kg of rubbish was removed from Moreton Island as a result of the Santos Organics grant.

Individually, we can all do something about the amount of plastic pollution that ends up in our oceans and waterways. Here are some small things we can all implement into our routines:

  1. Reduce your use of single-use plastics – Get into the habit of using reusable cups, utensils, shopping bags, and bottles.
  2. Learn how to recycle correctly – Check with your local recycling venue what plastics they do and don’t accept and how they need to be prepared prior to depositing for recycling.
  3. Organise or participate in a beach or river litter clean up – This could be as simple as making a walk on the beach or along the river a daily ritual and picking up any rubbish you see along the way.
  4. Support businesses that are proactive in banning plastic –Santos Organics.
  5. Avoid any product that contains microbeads – face scrubs, toothpastes, body wash. Look for products that contain ‘polythelene’ or ‘polypropolene’.
  6. Become more educated – Find and watch documentaries on plastic pollution like “Garbage Island”, “Bag It”, “Addicted to Plastic”, and “Plasticized”.
  7. Support organisations that address plastic pollution – The Oceanic Society, 5 Gyres, Plastic Soap Foundation, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Algalita.
  8. Spread the word – let others know about the detrimental effect plastic is having on our environment and ways they can help to reduce the amount of plastic that is discarded in the environment.

No matter what we do. The main fact is the Earth and the animals that reside here need to be protected from the pollution that humans are creating. But remember, we don’t need one person doing zero waste perfectly, we just need millions of people doing zero waste imperfectly to make a difference.

Written by Megan Lee

Email: megan.lee@scu.edu.au

Instagram @meganlovingmeagain

Twitter @MeganLeePhD