Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Addicted: The environmental disaster of single-use plastics

Human made plastics have found their way to every ecosystem on Earth, including at the bottom of the Mariana Trench

Next Generation Science Standards: 

  • HS-LS2-7. Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.

Key Vocabulary: plastic, microplastic, pollution toxin, polymer, detrivore, decompose, filter feeder, recycling

Plastics Article Guide

Plastic Plant Lab

It’s not hard to see why the video went viral. It was gut-wrenching to watch, but you couldn’t look away, the sea turtle, crying in pain because of a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Marine biologist Christine Figgner’s research team were able to remove the straw and the turtle’s life was saved, but not after it’s agony was documented for the world to see and feel. The response led many business and communities across the world to band plastic straws.

But straws are just the tip of the iceberg. Water bottles, grocery bags, plastic cups and utensils, single-serving coffee pods, so many of our everyday products have been designed around single-use plastics. And since only 9% of these items are recycled, they inevitably find their way into the ecosystem, where they can take centuries, if not millennia to decompose. Over 1.6 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, an area the size of Alaska, is covered in such plastics.

Not only are they a hazard for animals to choke on or become ensnared, but their very presence has polluted oceans and poisoned food webs. The widespread adoption of single-use plastics by consumers has led to an environmental catastrophe of our own making, and could ultimately prove as destructive as climate change or deforestation. We are, in a word, addicted to plastics.

Plastic has been found in the bodies of animals worldwide. This albatross found on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean died with a stomach full of plastics. (Photo Credit: Flickr)

The Age of Polymers

So how did we get the point where plastics have become such a plague? By the second half of the 19th century, chemists had started experimenting with polymers, long chains of repeating molecules. Most of the breakthroughs were from natural polymers such as cellulose, modifying it to make anything from hair combs to movie film. But in 1907, chemist Leo Baekeland found a cheap way to create a synthetic polymer in the lab. He described these insoluble chemicals “plastics” because they could be flexible, while still maintaining their shape.

Over time, the industries began adapting plastics into their manufacturing and packaging process. Refining oil produced ethylene gas as a byproduct, providing an inexpensive raw material by which most plastics could be produced. Using plastics to hold products or for consumers to use was a great way to cut costs. By 1950, the world produced about 2.3 million tons of plastics. By 2015, that number had grown to nearly half a billion tons.

But the extensive use of plastics isn’t the only problem. It’s plastic’s durability, which has made it so useful for humans, that’s so devastating to the environment. Most plastics are manufactured from petroleum, the end product of a few million years of natural decay of once-living organisms. There’s just nothing chemically similar to plastics found in nature, microorganisms don’t recognize them. Which is why plastic water bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose and why it takes plastic grocery bags up 1000 years to break down. And while there are researchers experimenting with bacteria that could easily digest plastics, very few detritivores in nature can eat the stuff. If Isaac Newton used a plastic plate and cup at a cookout in 17th century England, his trash would likely still be around.

astic debris littering Hawaiian shoreline. Hawaii is located near the center of the North Pacific gyre where debris tends to concentrate. Hawaii, Hawaii. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

The Deadliest Waste

There are obvious problems with plastic products in the ecosystem; animals easily mistake them for food, choking or getting themselves stuck. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, up to 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year globally from eating plastic. The problem is only likely to get worse. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans alone, a number that is expected to double by 2025. From anchovies to whales, more plastic than ever is showing up in the mouths and stomachs of living things.

Trash alone is not the only issue with plastics. While most plastics cannot be decomposed by microorganisms, which scientists call this biodegradation, plastic polymers do break down due to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, mechanical mixing, or reacting with seawater. Almost all large pieces of plastic that reach the ocean will eventually break down into microplastics. Marine scientists from the National University of Ireland found plastic bits in 73 percent of 233 deep-sea fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—one of the highest microplastic frequencies in fish ever recorded worldwide.

Additionally, microplastics contain harmful chemicals, which accumulate in the tissues of marine species and become more concentrated up the food chain. Microplastics are particularly harmful to filter feeders, such as oysters, krill, clams, and mussels. A new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology has found that it takes just six hours for billions of microplastic particles to be sucked up by a single sea scallop. The problem may be even worse on land – researchers in Germany estimate that soil microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution – estimated at four to 23 times higher, depending on the environment.

Plastics and plastic chemicals can be devastating animals and plants populations. But humans are not above the fray. Humans rely on many of the ocean creatures at risk from plastic pollution for food. A decline in fish or oyster or mussel numbers could hurt the livelihood of millions of people around the globe. If toxin levels get too high in a fishing area, fisheries may shut down, doing further damage to the local economy. Perhaps fittingly, earlier this year microplastics have been found in human feces.

Biomagnification of toxins in a food chain. The dots represent the organic molecules present in each trophic level and the crosses represent the toxins present in each trophic level. While dots remain relatively constant in each individual, the concentration of crosses become greater in each preceding trophic level. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Throwaway Living

In 1955, Life Magazine featured an article about a new standard of living where any item was disposable after you were done using it. It seemed, at least at the time, that cleaning up after yourself was a relic of the past. The article was titled “Throwaway Living” and decades later it almost poetically describes our attitude towards trash. Years of economic prosperity and material abundance has ingrained in our culture the idea that items are useless once they have served our purpose. We just don’t think about what happens to our waste once we’ve thrown it out.

The first step towards any recovery from addiction is admitting there is a problem. And it’s easy to point the finger at large industries and corporations creating an entire economic system around single-use plastics and its almost universal presence in our lives. But to do so would ignore the entire picture. Everyday citizens shoulder responsibility for the problem – the old toys found in creek beds and plastic shopping bags stuck in tree branches had to come from someone and that someone is each and every one of us.

7 simple single-use swaps people can make to save trash. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Will bringing a reusable water bottle to work instead of purchasing one at the vending machine help? Absolutely. Will politely declining a straw at a restaurant or purchasing bamboo utensils instead of using plastic forks and spoons at a barbecue lead to less waste in our ecosystems? Of course. And plastics have been revolutionary; they’ve been components in anything from medical devices to spacecraft.

But something more fundamental has to change in society if the problem is to be solved. From company leaders to folks just trying to get by, we have to think differently about the lifecycle of our waste. Where will a plastic cup go when you’re done using it? Will be it be recycled? Will it be thrown in a landfill? Is it compostable? Or will it be discarded on the ground for Mother Nature to clean? Many people in the developed world have not had to worry about the answers to these questions.

So much of what we use and throw away today will outlive not only ourselves but our grandchildren as well. Do we want our geologic legacy to be plastic wrappers and old action figures?

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