Plastic is certainly a superhero when it comes to making life more convenient. It can be made into dishes and eating utensils that you never have to wash. Single-serve beverages and snacks in plastic packaging are an easy grab-and-go option when you're running out the door for work or school. And how about plastic shopping bags so you don't have to remember to bring a gazillion reusable bags every time you head to the grocery store?
You may already be shaking your head at these excuses for using plastic, but the reality is that this material is very appealing to many for the fact that it makes life much more convenient. It can save you time and energy in your daily routine. And besides, a lot of those plastic water bottles and shopping bags end up in recycling centers where they're made into awesome new products, right?
Well, it is true that some plastics do end up in recycling centers and can be made into sweet new objects like a park bench or playground equipment. The reality is that the majority of plastics go un-recycled. In the United States, the EPA estimates that only 12 percent of plastic waste gets recycled. The plastic materials that don't end up recycled typically get sent to landfills where they may take as many as 1,000 years to decompose.
For something that is supposed to be quick and convenient, there is nothing quick or convenient about the complete lifecycle of a plastic object. It spends a mere fraction of its existence actually serving a purpose. And the rest of the time, you'll find, it is actually a nuisance and threatens the health of the environment, animals, and even people. How so? Read on.
1. To Make Plastic, We Need Oil...
Before we can even address the issues that improperly discarded plastics present to the planet, we have to talk about the dangers they cause to the environment as they're simply being produced. Petroleum and natural gas are required to manufacture plastics. For the 30 million plastic bags used in the United States per year alone, 12 million barrels of oil are required. And for all of the water bottles manufactures in the United States each year, roughly 17 million barrels of oil are needed. The drilling, transportation and processing of this oil into plastic materials is an energy intensive process that involves burning fossil fuels which ultimately furthers the effects of climate change. Estimates for the amount of carbon released from plastic manufacturing vary, but anywhere from 100 million to 500 million tons per year as the direct result of plastic manufacturing. That works out to the equivalent of emissions from between 19 million and 92 million vehicles on the road, depending on which estimate you're going with. So, even if you don't use a vehicle to get around on a regular basis, a plastic addiction may still be causing you to contribute pretty heavily to our growing problem with climate change.
2. Mountains of Plastic
While it would be nice to think that all plastic ends up in a recycling plant once it is done being used, that simply is not true. As has been mentioned, a majority of plastics actually don't end up making it to a recycling facility to be manufactured into a new object. Sadly, 80 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States each year end up in a landfill. That's roughly 38 billion water bottles! Numbers for plastic grocery bags are even worse. Between 0.5 and three percent of plastic bags are recycled, sending an estimated 100 billion plastic bags to landfills in America each year.
With such poor statistics on recycling, it is obvious that the bulk of plastic has to go somewhere once it is discarded. And that somewhere typically ends up being a landfill. According to Zero Waste America, there are 3,091 active landfills in the United States. And while landfills are designed to withhold their materials and seclude them from the surrounding environment, landfills end up leaking a variety of nasty pollutants. Leachate, liquid that forms as materials break down in a landfill, often leaks through the liners of the landfill and can pollute groundwater below. And greenhouse gases like methane are produced from decaying material inside landfills, leaking into the atmosphere and furthering climate change. Plus, plastic has a tendency of finding its way out of landfills ... and ends up in local waterways.
3. Oceans of Plastic
You may already be familiar with the fact that there is a lot of plastic pollution in our oceans. Maybe you've seen a plastic bottle washing down a storm drain that would eventually empty into the ocean. And maybe you've seen a plastic shopping bag or two wash up on the sand during your last beach trip. Maybe you're already aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where ocean currents have allowed a large swath of the north Pacific to collect a spinning mass of garbage that is largely made up of plastics.
But all of that anecdotal evidence of plastic in our oceans doesn't quite tell you the magnitude of the problem. A recent study released this year has scientists estimating that 8.8 million tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean in 2010. And with plastic use becoming more and more popular for individuals all over the world, it is estimated this figure will increase 10 times over the next decade. Another recent study released by the 5 Gyres Institute estimates that there are currently 5.25 trillion plastic particles in the ocean. Sources of this waste are wide ranging including plastic fishing nets, food and beverage containers, microbeads from personal care items, cosmetics, straws, and bags just to name a few.
And who is dumping all of this plastic into our oceans? Well, everybody. Countries with less advanced waste management systems are at risk of contributing more to the pollution. China leads the world in contributing to the plastic problem in our oceans, followed by the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Even though the United States boasts a more advanced waste management system, it does rank 20th on the list. There is still a dense population on the coast and plastic use in high demand, so there is a lot of available plastic that can slip through the cracks.
4. Marine Animals Eating Plastic
Plastic doesn't just accumulate in the ocean and make for an unsightly mess. It is hurting and killing a great deal of marine life all over the world.
Ingestion of plastic pollution can be downright deadly for marine animals. And sadly, it's a common occurrence. Last summer a necropsy on a deceased sei whale found in the Chesapeake Bay showed the animal had been unable to feed due to a laceration in its stomach caused by a plastic DVD case. In 2013 in Spain, scientists found a dead sperm whale and determined its cause of death was intestinal blockage. In its digestive system were 59 pieces of plastic waste totaling 37 pounds in weight. Sea turtles are now ingesting twice the plastic they were 25 years ago. In total, it is estimated that ingestion of plastic kills 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year.
Sadly, ingestion of plastic isn't the only threat that this type of pollution poses to marine animals. Plastics can also entangle marine animals, making movement, feeding and growth difficult or even impossible. Plastic-based ropes, fishing nets, and even soda can holders can get wrapped around heads, flippers, and tails of marine animals. A recent literature report released by NOAA states that roughly 200 different marine species worldwide have been reported suffering entanglements, with 115 of those species reported originating in the United States. And because some species happen to inhabit areas where plastic pollution is more common, a larger portion of their population is more susceptible to entanglements. This fact proves true for species like the Hawaiian monk seal which swim and feed in areas close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
5. Killin' The Mood For Fish
Plastics in aquatic ecosystems don't just become a problem when they wrap around an animal or end up blocking digestive systems. Plastics can also introduce a chemical warfare to the bodies of fish, and scientists are actually finding that it is killing reproductive health of many fish species.
Included in the chemical cocktail aquatic animals are hit with from pollution is something called "endocrine disruptors." These impact the endocrine system, obviously, which can be detrimental to the immune system, reproductive system, development, neurological responses and overall growth. Bisphenol A or BPA is found in many plastics entering the ocean and, unfortunately, it acts as an endocrine disruptor for fish. Scientists have observed BPA exposure to some freshwater fish species as a source of confusion for the fish, make it difficult for them to pursue their own species to mate. Clearly, a fish of one species attempting to mate with a fish of another species will not result in reproductive success for either.
Lines between fish species not only become blurred by plastics. This type of pollution is also impacting gender in some fish species as well. Chemicals in plastics are one of several types of pollution that are feminizing male fish. When fish are exposed to chemicals that mimic estrogen during development, their ability to develop into males is thwarted and female characteristics develop instead. There have also been scientific observations in which fish become intersex due to their exposure to BPA, among other pollutants. There have been promising results when water can be treated in a treatment plant which removes some of these chemicals. But the problem of plastic pollution is very widespread and difficult to address on a large scale. Until we can get a handle on it, the reproductive rates of some fish will continue to be at risk.
6. Plastic On Your Plate
If you thought plastic pollution in the environment was not something that could directly impact human health, you were wrong. And, depending on your diet, you may actually be eating a variety of nasty chemicals as the result of plastic pollution.
Fish consume plastics both intentionally and unintentionally. And these plastics, depending on how long they've been floating in the water, may have a variety of chemicals attached to them such as heavy metals, PCB's and other pollutants. Once fish absorb these chemicals from ingested plastic, the chemicals are then free to enter the bodies of anything higher up on the food chain, including humans. While some fish sold in the United States is tested for contaminates by the EPA, the amount of dangerous chemicals in most seafood harvested outside the country is not known. By including fish in your diet, you may be exposing your body to a variety of chemicals you'd never willingly ingest. With the amount of plastics fish are exposed to in aquatic environments, it really does become a gamble with your own health to rely on fish as a source of nutrients in your diet.
Is it Worth the Convenience?
Even if you're a recycling rockstar when it comes to plastic, you may now be considering whether the convenience of using plastic is actually worth the cost. It may be difficult to avoid plastics in all aspects of life, but surely you can find ways to reduce your dependence on plastic. Since you can't guarantee that everything you toss into the recycling bin will actually end up at a recycling plant, reducing your dependence on plastic is really the way to go.
Luckily for you, One Green Planet is here to help you break free from plastic. Consider these 10 Life Hacks To Help You Get Plastic Out of The Picture. Replace those microbeads with coffegrounds for your exfoliating routine. Plan ahead to buy what you can in bulk without packaging in order to avoid extra plastic. And think about storing your produce in towels as opposed to plastic bags. Tell that plastic to take a hike! If you're still itching for more, check out these 20 Switches to Get Plastic Out of Your Life. There is a multitude of materials out there to replace your plastic materials- stainless steel, glass, ceramic, bamboo, canvas, etc. The possibilities are limitless!
Kicking plastic to the curb will take some effort. But doesn't it sound like the more convenient choice for the planet?