Plastic pollution: a big risk for the environment and human health

Today, an average person living in Western Europe or North America,
consumes 100 kg of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging.
Worldwatch Institute, 2015

Plastic is literally omnipresent in our lives today. We use plastic at home to wrap food or to store it; our utensils, toothbrushes, cds and dvds, beauty products, diverse types of cases, lamps, pots, are all made of plastic. Plastic is in our offices, in computers, pens, chairs and tables. We use plastic in children’s playgrounds, toys, and baby strollers. This material has supported innovation in transportation efficiency; in healthcare equipment; also plastic reduce food waste because it allows to store and maintain products fresh longer. However, severe concern is rising because plastic poses a significant risk to both the environment and human health. 

Estimate of the quantity of plastic that flows into oceans, Ocean Conservancy 2015.

Threat to the Environment

About 4 % of the petroleum consumed worldwide each year is used to make plastic,
and another 4 % is used to power plastic manufacturing processes.
Worldwatch Institute, 2015

Most of the plastic items, such as food and cosmetics packaging, are made to be used only once, and only  5-10 % of the plastic that is produced is recovered. Plastic is a danger particularly to the ocean as much of it ends up in the sea, approximately 10–20 million tons, according to the Worldwatch institute (2015). A major environmental concern is that most of this plastic is not biodegradable. Instead, it is photodegradable, that is under the sun’s exposure, it breaks down into small fragments and spreads into the environment. To counter this issue, industry has developed additives that induce biodegradation, however these types of plastic are still made of petrochemicals. The best option are biodegradable plastics made from renewable raw materials, which decompose by the action of living organisms (bacteria) or to  sunlight exposure. 

Marine animals are also threatened as fish, water mammals (e.g. whales) and sea birds ingest plastic objects that can sicken or kill them; while turtles, dolphins and seals are often trapped by plastic waste that may entangle and suffocate them. Other discarded plastic items such as nets, docks, and boats, can transport microbes, algae, and fish into non-native regions, affecting the local ecosystems.

Intestinal tract of an albatross full of marine debris.

Floating plastic islands

Marine debris (litter) is the term used to indicate the garbage that accidentally or purposefully is discarded in the sea. The Pacific Trash Vortex (or Great Garbage Patch) is an island made of plastic that floats in the Pacific ocean. The exact size is not known, but estimates range from 700,000 square kilometres to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres, that is, among the 0,41% and the 5,6% of the Pacific. It means it may be as big as Europe. It is made for 80% of plastics from land-based sources , while the remaining 20% comes from garbage left by ships. The island developed because of an oceanic system of currents called North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, whose spiral movement aggregates plastic waste into a whole.

Even more troubling, the fact that the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific, is not unique. Four other garbage patches are present in the oceans of the world: a second in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, one in the Indian ocean.

Greenpeace Trash Vortex Campaign.

Threat to Human Health

Small ocean animals like fish, ingest tiny plastic particles,
and these toxic particles pass on to us when we eat seafood.
The 5Gyres Institute

The enormous quantities of plastic in the ocean, produce micro-particles that dispersed in the water, contaminate fish and other living organisms, thus entering in the human food chain. Contaminants (i.e. dioxins, Pcbs, and Pvcs) are bioaccumulating in humans. Indeed, these toxinc substances are not only found  in the seafood, but have also other sources, such as the food containers we use everyday. The main risk for human health is related to reproduction, particularly pregnancy. During gestation, the mum transmits to the foetus these toxic substances that may damage the child’s brain, provoking permanent effects. Scientists refer that further consequences of the diffusion of micro-plastics in the food chain are linked to immune system dysfunctions, hormonal imbalances, and asthma.

 What we can do:

1. Reduce unnecessary plastic use:

  • Buy fruit and vegetables without plastic packaging
  • Use glass containers to store food at home
  • Avoid bottled water whenever possible
  • Bring your own cloth bag for shopping
2. Look for environmentally-friendly materials:
  • When using disposable cutlery and dishes, buy the biodegradable version (you find it in most supermarkets today)
  • Look for recycled packaging – probably mostly found in supermarkets specialised in natural and organic products, for instance I found a shampoo with 100% recycled plastic packaging 
3. Recycle

4.
Spread the word!

This is the maybe the most crucial. When consumer awareness exist, overtime it generates a demand, that industry will want to meet.

 

Image credit: Oliver Lude graphics, Museum fur Gestaltung, Zurich. Source: NOAA.