You might have heard claims like “by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans”. Just doing research for this article, I have read it on every second homepage I visited. It does make sense to use it as a catchphrase. It paints the image of a world that we don’t really want to live in in our minds. A world full of plastic bottles floating in the ocean, with dead coral reefs and otherwise empty oceans. It’s effective. It stays in your mind.
What often doesn’t stay in your head, is why exactly it is supposed to be so terrible for us. We all know plastic impacts the oceans. We’ve probably seen pictures of cute turtles eating plastic bags and birds who’ve eaten too many bottle caps to survive. So we go out and fight for plastic bag bans or start avoiding plastic water bottles. But do we really know why plastic is bad for us? Like really really? I mean apart from killing cute turtles and annoying seabirds..
It really just boils down to one problem: Plastic is not biodegradable!
When we throw biodegradable products like food scraps, leaves and paper away, nature sends some of their tiniest creatures to help out. Bacteria come to the rescue and actually turn our waste products into useful products so new life can thrive. Unfortunately, bacteria cannot do the same magic with non-biodegradable products like glass, steel and.. you guessed right: plastic! That is exactly why plastic is such a problem. Wind, sunlight and water can cause plastic to break down into smaller pieces, but it never really disappears. These tiny pieces of plastic, called microplastic, then penetrate our oceans and waterways, where they cause all sorts of damage. It does more harm than “just” killing Nemo though. The fact that plastic is not biodegradable affects the health of animals, our planet, us humans, and even some economies.
The four problems caused by plastic
1. Animal Health
This might be the most well-known effect of plastic pollution. Stories of sea animals dying by mistaking plastic for food are widespread. There are videos online of a turtle with a straw stuck in her nose which has to be painfully removed. The effect of plastics on animals is more serious than the fate of a couple individual animals though. Studies have shown that as many as 700 marine species are threatened by plastic in their living environment (ref). What’s more, evidence is growing stronger that plastics play a part in the accelerating rate of species extinction (ref).
The ways plastic affects animals are versatile. Some animals mistake it as food, others get entangled by it. Consuming plastic can result in malnutrition, blockage of intestines, or poisoning from toxic chemicals. Recent research even showed that seabirds intentionally look for plastics to consume as the algae that covers it actually releases a substance that attracts them (ref). Not even the smallest animal in the sea is safe from plastic. Zooplankton, some tiny microscopic animals upon which the food chain is build, ingest microplastic. This then causes reduced feeding, injury or even death (ref).
2. Planet Health
As you’ve learned by now, plastic breaks down but never really disappears. It can survive the harshest of environments, traveling hundreds of miles in its lifespan. There are accounts where plastic has been found on some faraway shores where humans have never even lived. It lasts forever. The tragic part is that about 50% of plastic is single-use plastic which is used less than 15 minutes before it is thrown away (ref).
But plastic doesn’t only become a problem after its useful life. In fact, plastic pollutes all the way from extraction, to production, consumption and finally disposal (ref). It all starts with fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal which are the basis of what plastics are made of. Extracting those from our planet comes with problems like oil spills and groundwater pollution, to name a few. The conversion of these raw materials into plastic feedstock then requires huge chemical processing plants. These do not only release a whole variety of pollutants in the air. They also tend to be located close to poor communities which don’t have the power to fight back.
Eventually, plastic is thrown away and that’s where pollution becomes the most visible for us. Of all the plastic ever produced, only about 9% has been recycled so far (ref). The rest ends up in landfills or goes straight into the environment. Small and poor islands often struggle the most as they are literally drowning in plastic. A lot of it is unseen by the majority of people though. Five trillion pieces of plastic are estimated to be floating on and in the oceans of the world (ref).
3. Human Health
This is one of the areas where people are often unsure of the effects of plastic. And for good reasons. You can’t really experiment with human health. No study will make people ingest plastic and study the effects of that diet. There is a very high chance that we are consuming plastic almost on a daily basis though. Studies have shown that microplastics contaminate air, water, food and drinks. Since it’s so present in our oceans, plastic simply moves up the food chain (ref). Plastic itself is often not dangerous. The poisons and pollutants that are attracted to it are, however. Plastic serves as a sort of sponge, soaking up all kinds of toxins from the its environment. Links have been found to cancer, birth defects and immune system problems.
Other types of toxic plastics, also known as BPA, may also interfere with the human hormonal function (ref). You might have seen water bottles being advertised as BPA free. Not all producers have jumped on that bandwagon and banned BPA from their products though. The effects of plastic on human health may not be as clear-cut as the damages for animals and our planet. There are major red flags though which suggest that the effect is definitely not a good one.
4. Financial Health
But that’s not all. Plastic is not only causing harm to the planet, animals and humans, it’s also costing us billions of dollars every year. It is estimated that the damage to the marine ecosystems is as high as 13 billion dollars per year (ref). Next to the costs for cleaning up and removing the litter, there are also entire industries being affected by plastic pollution. The damage done to the ocean and marine animals is hitting the fishing industry especially hard. Nowadays less fish are being caught. And the ones that are caught are of lower quality.
The tourism industry is another example. People flocking to the beaches of South East Asia are often put off from coming back after literally swimming in plastic during their holiday. South Korea even experienced a loss of about 500,000 visitors in one year as a result of a single marine litter event. The tragic part is often that poorer countries are especially vulnerable to those economic consequences. They are not the ones producing most of the plastic in the world. Their poor waste management, however, mean that much of it ends up where it doesn’t belong (ref).
Why did we create such evil in the first place?
Plastic was first invented in the 1950s and quickly spread everywhere. Until this day, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. The scary part is that literally all of it still exists today as it can take up to 700 years to decompose. On a more positive note, plastic has helped many people transform their lives to the better. It revolutionized medicine, extends the live span of fresh food, is found in airbags, incubators and helmets. But that’s not all. By delivering clean drinking water, plastic has the ability to save thousands of lives every day. It also helps protect our wildlife by replacing elephant ivory as the raw material for piano keys or billiard balls (ref).
The lightweight, low-cost and resistant material has clear benefits we still struggle to find alternatives to. Some researchers have even found a way for plastic to help fight climate change. Few people know that plastic is actually made of long chains of carbon molecules such as carbon dioxide and methane. The exact same ones that are causing our planet to heat up! A small start-up in California has already found a way to reduce the methane problem of wastewater treatment plants by capturing the gas to produce plastic (ref).
So how do we make sure to still have more fish than plastic in the ocean by 2050?
As you’ve seen, plastic can have catastrophic effects on the health of ourselves, our planet, animals, as well as our economies. All the fuss that people are creating around plastic clearly does have its reasons. While it has created a lot of positive change, the sheer amount that has been produced since its inception is starting to overwhelm us. Luckily, people and organizations are slowly waking up to solve that crisis. Some governments have started to introduce plastic bag bans or fees, whilst start-ups are inventing big scale solutions to clean up the garbage islands that are floating in the pacific ocean (e.g. the Ocean Cleanup). If you are not actively involved in those organizations, there are also small steps you can take yourself to reduce your own plastic footprint. Head over to this post to find out how to get started today!