The Impact of Plastic Pollution

By:  Mycah Houser

Academic, 2017



In modern times of the twenty-first century, a tremendous amount of human-made products and technological advances are created using plastic, a resource that has various helpful uses. However, because of the abundance and durable lifespan of plastic, the resulting waste is exponentially growing and harming the environment. Plastics are long-lived, inexpensive products that are mainly used as single-use items that get disposed of within months of production, only to take centuries to decompose. This poses a problem for plastic waste, especially when millions of metric tons of plastic are produced annually (Thompson). Pollution, especially plastic, persists for decades in habitats, creating significant environmental consequences on the planet, a fact that can be helped or harmed by human actions.

How Plastic is Created

Plastic, a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, and nylon, can be molded while soft and set into a slightly elastic or rigid form. The production of plastic begins with the separation of heavy crude oil into lighter “fractions,” or mixtures of hydrocarbon chains. Large inputs of natural resources that go into the production of plastic include coal, natural gas, cellulose, and crude oil. Aside from being used in common products like Ziploc bags, utensils, and toothbrushes, the durable material is utilized in many transportation and construction products because of its anti-corrosive properties. Plastic has a lifespan of over 100 years for plastic pipes and 50 years for underground exterior cables (What is Plastic?). The world uses plastic to make peoples’ lives easier, more enjoyable, and safer. Plastics are found in the transportation people commute with, the clothes people wear, and the entertainment systems people spend hours on. Unfortunately for the environment, plastics can also be found haphazardly discarded in ecosystems and water systems.

How Plastic Waste Affects Ecosystems

Waste pollution has varying effects on the ecosystem, but several effects can specifically be traced back to plastic waste. Perhaps the most highly publicized problem regarding plastic waste in the environment is that of animal entanglement. Aquatic organisms, birds, and even some land animals can ingest plastic particles or become tangled in them, leading them to choke or starve to death because the plastic prevents them from properly moving or eating. An article from the journal Environmental Health News, titled “The Environmental Toll of Plastics,” reports: “More than 180 species of animals have been documented to ingest plastic debris, including birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals” (Knoblauch). Certain species are more susceptible to plastic ingestion or entanglement depending on how they feed and the level of pollution in their ecosystem. Another issue regarding waste in the environment is how it changes the very ecosystem that organisms live in. The presence of waste can change the temperature of the atmosphere or the pH level of water, causing a ripple effect in plant and animal health. These waste items can be extremely simple or small, but the accumulation can become toxic for animals and habitats. According to the article “Using Expert Elicitation to Estimate the Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Marine Wildlife” from Marine Policy, the leading journal of ocean policy studies, “The top 10 items collected during Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup have remained remarkably consistent, with cigarette butts topping the list and plastic items making up 83% of the remaining items” (Wilcox). The careless litter of objects even as small as cigarette butts can have cascading environmental consequences. Changing the smallest of behaviors and actions could prevent the enormous accumulation of waste.

How Plastic Waste Affects Human Health

According to the World Health Organization, pollution is responsible for 8.9 million deaths around the world annually, 8.4 million of which are in low and middle income countries (Suk). Today, environmental pollution is now recognized as a major cause of mortality in low income countries. Also in these areas, toxic chemical pollution is growing into a big threat to children’s health. Of these toxins, many are synthetic chemicals, such as the plastic components and plasticizers bisphenol A, other bisphenols, and phthalates, all of which have never undergone safety testing. A journal article titled “Environmental Pollution: An Under-recognized Threat to Children’s Health, Especially in Low- and Middle-Income Countries,” published by Environmental Health Perspectives, writes: “only about 20% [of synthetic chemicals] have been screened for developmental toxicity” (Suk). In addition to this, national biomonitoring surveys in the United States show several hundred synthetic chemicals in detectable quantities in the bodies of virtually all Americans, no matter their age (Suk). The problem with these chemicals, many of which are in plastic products, is that exposure can be associated with increased risk of diabetes, pollution-related chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and hypertension. In these lower-income countries, pollution, hazardous waste, and electronic waste are accumulating, along with pollution-related chronic illnesses. These toxic plastic chemicals are degrading not just the landfills, dumping grounds, or other locations they are put in, but the nearby human populations as well.

Biomagnification of Plastic Particles

Biomagnification, or bioaccumulation, is a natural process that has been around since the dawn of time. This process can be described as the increasing amount of a substance, such as a toxic chemical, in the tissues of organisms at successively higher levels in a food chain” (Sjollema). In nature, this process is supposed to be beneficial to organisms higher up on the food chain, like major predators. However, because of the presence of toxins and waste in the ocean, certain chemicals can bioaccumulate in organisms upon consumption and travel up the food chain, ultimately to humans (Seltenrich). Because many people eat fish, which have bioaccumulated chemicals in their meat, amounts of these chemicals transfer into human bodies. The organization Geology and Human Health reports: “Direct toxicity from plastics comes from lead, cadmium, and mercury. These toxins have also been found in many fish in the ocean, which is very dangerous for humans. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen. Other toxins in plastics are directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues” (Andrews). The chemicals that fish eat often transfer into the bodies of the organisms that eat them. So if the fish contains carcinogen toxins, those enter the cells of the human. Studies done to determine the effects on human health from biomagnification are often inconclusive due to a wide range of variable. However, this is not the case when studying marine animals. According to Bradley Clarke, a lecturer at RMIT University in Australia, “Exposures to plastic debris have been clearly documented for marine organisms at all trophic levels (i.e., positions within the food chain). What remains to be determined is whether this exposure increases the body burden of … marine organisms in the natural environment and if it does, by what magnitude” (Seltenrich). This study shows how biomagnified toxins in marine animals are a sure thing, but the consequences vary. Similarly, research on biomagnification regarding human health is unproven due to numerous variables in peoples’ diet, location, and food sources. Although biomagnification could be beneficial to passing on nutrients, it is more often a way of transporting toxins up the food chain. Ultimately, human health is threatened by the bioaccumulation of toxins because the chemicals ingested can cause cancer, developmental issues, or other problems.

Possible Affects of Plastic Waste in the Future

Plastic is a great tool for transporting and sealing materials, but a terrible pain everywhere else after it has served its purpose and been thrown away. The abundance of plastic in the environment will have many ecological effects that become more prominent in the future. One of these effects may be the rapid spread of diseases. Both land and aquatic plastic waste has the potential to carry hosts from nonnative lands and threaten biodiversity. Plastic can serve as a transportation device for pathogens, bacteria, or organisms from foreign lands (Knoblauch). This spread of invasive species can threaten the stability of ecosystems. Diseases are a natural biological control that cannot always be prevented; however, the overuse of fossil fuels is an action that can be avoided. Plastic production is a major use of fossil fuels: “Eight percent of world oil production goes to manufacturing plastics” (Knoblauch). Already plastic use has caused numerous problems, and the production of it is just another. If the world found a way to recycle plastic more, less fossil fuels would have to be burned to produce new plastics. By decreasing plastic productions, carbon dioxide emissions from burning these fuels could decrease as well. Not only would decreasing plastic manufacturing lower air pollution inputs, but also the amount of plastic waste in waste management facilities and as litter on the planet. In Europe alone, “around 40% of the plastic items produced are used as single-use packaging” (Green). If that percentage would decrease across the globe, waste management facilities could focus on better purifying, recycling, and disposing of other garbage that truly is single-use, unlike most plastics. However, despite the potential for reducing waste and cleaning up the environment, one potential outcome resulting from the overuse and excessive waste of plastic materials is that the world’s food supply will be irreversibly damaged. Microplastics are plastic particles that are smaller than 1-5 millimeters in diameter and are consequently the most abundant type of plastic in the ocean (Seltenrich). These particles become so small from the gradual breakdown as a result of sunlight exposure and the physical action of currents and grazing by fish and birds. Because the microplastic particles are so small, it is easy for them to end up in the bodies of marine life and birds. Once the microplastic accumulates in an organism and it is consumed by another organism on a higher trophic level, these particles then get absorbed into the consumer’s body. This bioaccumulation of microplastic is becoming an increasingly important topic for seafood industries and the general population because it poses a toxic health hazard for every organism involved. If plastic waste continues on its path of exponential growth, these microparticles will disrupt the food supply that comes from the ocean.

Biodegradable Plastics

The scientifically proven threat pollution poses on the planet is a problem countless scientists and researchers have thrown themselves into trying to solve. Many solutions have been proposed, the first of which is to alter plastic pollution at the source by changing the very composition of durable material. Plastics can be conventional or biodegradable, meaning they can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms (What is Plastic?). However, while many people think biodegradable materials are meant to be thrown away, this is not the case. These special plastics are designed to decompose in controlled environments, not landfills or the environment. A field experiment conducted in Dublin, Ireland, by a biogeochemistry Research Group studied the impact of conventional and biodegradable plastic bags on an intertidal shore. After nine weeks of observation, the collected data showed that the presence of either type of bag created anoxic conditions—areas in bodies of water that are depleted of oxygen— that negatively impacted the organisms and their primary productivity (Green). This shows that both regular and biodegradable plastic can alter and disrupt the ecosystems they enter. So, instead of wasting excess time and energy on biodegradable alternatives, scientists and researchers proposed inspecting the basic microparticles of plastic and find a way to make them able to completely degrade, rather than just shrink. This science is in the stages of being tested, and so far is mostly unproven. But, what researchers have determined is that if the components of plastic can use less harsh chemicals and simpler compounds, it will improve the environment in the terms of degrading waste (Andrews).

Proposed Solutions

The general populous is not composed entirely of scientists, so although they cannot necessarily break apart plastic atoms and solve the biodegradable hitch, they can spread public awareness about the subject. In order to work on reducing plastic pollution, schools need to treat reducing, reusing, and recycling as less of an off-hand thought and more of a necessary lifestyle. Society has a “use once and throw away” mindset, a way of thinking that is adding much of the wasteful pollution on the planet. The Marine Policy article “Using Expert Elicitation to Estimate the Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Marine Wildlife” found that “reducing the amount of mismanaged waste by 50% in the 20 countries where the mismatch between waste generation and the capacity to manage it is greatest could result in a nearly 40% decline in inputs of plastic to the ocean” (Wilcox). The data shows how individual states, regions, and even countries can reduce their plastic waste outputs and aid the environment by being mindful of what they throw away into the trash. A stronger emphasis on educating the public would also help to stop the rapid flow of waste into aquatic habitats like lakes, oceans, and rivers. If more people understand the total impact of plastic on ecosystems, it would be a step in the direction of diminishing the amount of animal deaths related to ingesting or being trapped in plastic debris. The problem with plastic pollution is that it is easy to determine but harder to fix.

Why Plastic Waste Matters to the World

Time has shown again and again how nature rewards good behaviors and punishes bad ones. With the way plastic pollution and other toxins are being exponentially poured into the environment, causing animal deaths and disrupting ecosystems, nature may soon “punish” these behaviors, possibly through bioaccumulation. Every biological process has a tipping point that leads to collapse, and plastic waste pollution is heading in that direction. If this tipping point is to be avoided, humanity’s “use once and throw away” mindset must be reset. To preserve biodiversity, reduce the toll of pollution, the planet will have to collectively think about and edit their plastic use and waste.

Works Cited

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Knoblauch, Jessica A. “The Environmental Toll of Plastics.” Environmental Health News. 2 July Web. 03 Apr. 2016.
Seltenrich, Nate. “New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety.”
Editorial. Environmental Health Perspectives Feb. 2015: Science in Context [Gale]. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
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Growth?” Aquatic Toxicology 170 (2016): 259-61. ScienceDirect. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
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