We are at a breaking point-- plastics accumulating in our oceans and beaches have led to a global crisis.
At current rates, plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.
Plastic pollution has a direct and deadly impact upon wildlife. Each year, thousands of birds, sea turtles and other marine species die from ingesting plastic or entanglement in plastic items such as fishing nets. Previous studies found that 88% were species listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act including Hawaiian monk seals and all six species of US sea turtles. The environmental impact of plastic cannot be understated.
The History of Plastic
The history of plastic is unexpected.
The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, a man inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The intentions behind creating plastic were good. With the growing popularity of billiards, there was a huge strain on the supply of natural ivory which was obtained through the poaching and slaughter of wild elephants. The same fate awaited many species of turtle as their shells were used for combs.
The Unexpected Origins of the Invention of Plastic
By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber with camphor, Hyatt discovered that plastic could be manipulated into a variety of shapes and could imitate natural substances. This was a revolutionary breakthrough. For the first time in history, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limitations of the natural world.
From nature, we derived wood, metal stone, bone, and tusk. Advertisements around the world praised celluloid as the savior of the elephant and the tortoise. Plastics seemed to have the potential to protect the natural world.
Now, we are paying the price for a material that may have been too good to be true.
Optimism for Plastic Didn’t Last as Environmental Issues Became Apparent
The term plastic was coined because it means “pliable and easily shaped.” It only recently became a name for the category of materials called polymers. Polymers are made of long chains of molecules. Over the last century and a half, humans have invented synthetic polymers often containing long chain carbon atoms from petroleum and other fossil fuels. It is the length of these chains and their patterns that make polymers strong, lightweight and flexible. It’s what makes them plastic. During WWII, the plastics industry continued to boom as scarce natural resources made synthetic alternatives important for military success. Nylon was invented as a synthetic silk and was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armor and more. Plexiglas became an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. During WWII, plastic production in the US increased by 300%.
Yet optimism for plastic didn’t last. Postwar, there was a shift in perception as people discovered plastic debris in the oceans in the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the dangers of chemical pesticides. As awareness about environmental issues spread, plastic waste began to trouble observers.
The Problem with Plastic
Everyday we’re surrounded by plastic. Everything from the single-use plastic packaging at stores to microplastic fibers being shed in our laundry contribute to this crisis. Today, 60% of our clothes are made of plastic-derived fibers like polyester, nylon and spandex.
Between 2000 and 2010, we made more plastic globally than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. This continues to grow, as every year, billions of pounds more of plastic end up in the world’s oceans. It is estimated that 13 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year - the equivalent of a garbage truck’s load every minute. Studies conservatively estimate that today there are about 15-50 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. Sadly, not one square mile of surface ocean on earth is free of plastic pollution.
Marine Life is Severely Impacted by Plastic Litter in the Oceans
According to the UN, 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris of which 80% of the litter is plastic. Fish, seabirds, sea turtles and other marine organisms ingest or become entangled in plastic such as fishing nets, causing suffocation, starvation and drowning. Experiments have shown that microplastics damage marine life, as well as turtles and birds, by blocking digestive tracts, diminishing the urge to eat and altering feed behavior. In addition to these effects, microplastics have chemical impacts because of free-floating pollutants.
Plastic waste can also encourage the growth of pathogens in the ocean. Scientists found that coral that comes into contact with plastic has an 89% chance of contracting disease, compared with a 4% likelihood for corals that do not. This report is merely a snapshot of what’s happening to the animals inhabiting plastic-polluted waters around the United States — imagine how great the numbers would be if they included the animals not observed or documented by humans,” said Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director at Oceana.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The plastic crisis has become so dire that there is a gyre of plastic debris in the north-central Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is the largest accumulation of plastic in the world (see map below). Imagine a giant swirl the size of Texas of plastic garbage filled with plastic straws, disposable water bottles, electronic waste and floating pieces of plastic.
Plastic’s Impacts on Human Health
Animals are not the only ones threatened by plastic; humans are not immune. While plastics are estimated to take hundreds of years to fully decompose, some of them break down into tiny particles which can end up in the seafood we eat. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species and more than half end upon our dinner plates. Microplastics have been found in 94% of drinking water in the USA and 83% of drinking water globally. On average, we consume a credit card’s worth of plastic per week.
Additives such as BPA and phthalates that go into plastics during the manufacturing process may leach out of plastics and into our food, water and bodies. In very high doses, these chemicals have been shown to disrupt the endocrine (or hormonal) system.
Nanoplastics Pose Further Risk to Marine Life and Human Health
Scientists remain concerned about the human-health impacts of marine plastics because they are ubiquitous and ultimately degrade into fragment nanoplastics which are invisible. Alarmingly, these tiny plastics can penetrate cells and move into tissues and organs. Chelsea Rochman, a professor of ecology at the University of Toronto, says “We know that there are effects from plastics on animals at nearly all levels of biological organization. We know enough to act to reduce plastic pollution from entering the oceans.” Fish at markets have been discovered with plastic in their bellies - a clear sign that we need to act now.
Otherwise, what effects might these chemicals and plastics have on the health of children and future generations?
While the current outlook appears bleak, there is hope if we change the path we’ve been on. A global crisis of this magnitude requires solutions from the public and private sector as well as individual action. Here are a few ways we can help reduce contribution to ocean plastics.
- Avoid single-use plastics. Use a water bottle and bring your own bag to grocery stores.
- Vote with your wallet - buy environmentally conscious products.
- Participate in or organize a beach or river cleanup.
- Vote for leaders who advocate for sound environmental policies.
- Write to your elected officials about the urgency to take climate action now.
- Introduce students to new career paths such as climate scientist, oceanographer, etc.
- Companies can reduce production of plastic and offer plastic-free choices to consumers.
- Offer eco-friendly fabrics and shift towards an on-demand model to minimize waste.
- Chemical engineers can study and formulate polymers that degrade.
- Invest in research behind bioplastics which are made from plant crops instead of fossil fuels.
- Innovators can search for ways to make recycling even more efficient and find a process that converts plastics back into fossil fuels from which they were derived.
- Governments can invest in infrastructure to capture and recycle materials before they reach water.
- Governments can pass policies that curb plastic use by enacting bans on certain types of plastic, focusing on those that are the most abundant and problematic.
- Schools should teach children to honor the oceans for oceanic health is imperative in the fight to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and climate disasters.
- Pass a carbon tax to incentivize companies to pursue carbon neutrality.