The amount of plastic we are consuming is growing and, if projections are correct, will continue to rise over the coming decades. Between the early 1950s when plastic production first began and now, we’ve consumed more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic and the rate at which we consume seems to be accelerating. More on the global production of plastic and its impacts there can be find in an article posted last week.
This article is to look at how our consumption and the pollution that has come from our plastic addiction has affected the natural environment. Every piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists and the vast majority of that has ended up either in landfill or the natural environment.
Whilst landfills offer an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ solution, plastics buried underground still leach toxins that, without careful management, can leach into groundwater sources, and those on the surface can be picked up by birds picking through waste or blown away into the natural environment. If landfills are ever breached after being decommissioned, there are a whole host of problems that can occur.
Perhaps the biggest crises we face with regards to plastic pollution, though, is the impact it is having in our oceans and on marine life. That starts from streams, sewers and rivers as they feed into the oceans where ocean currents are forming huge patches of waste like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastic in Our Oceans
It’s estimated that there are already 150 million tonnes of plastic waste in marine environments and we’re adding to that by almost 8 million tonnes per year – the equivalent of one truckload of plastic every minute. As global plastic production and consumption increases all over the world, the likelihood of that increasing is fairly high, at least without major improvements in waste management in developing countries. If this is the case, then by 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
The problem has become so widespread that plastic pollution has been recorded all over the world, including on some of the most remote islands and even at the deepest point on this planet. What this plastic pollution is varies. The majority is plastic packaging, whilst broken nets and other fishing equipment contribute another large share of what has collected in a number of different areas of global oceans.
The largest and most well known of these plastic [collections] can be found in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of North America. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometres and is made up of more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that weigh an estimated 80,000 tonnes. For an idea of scale, just including the most dense area outline below, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France.
That only considers the larger pieces of plastic waste that have conglomerated in these single locations. Smaller plastic pieces and microplastics that are much easier carrier in ocean currents and blown away by strong winds are thought to be found all over the world. A recent study of the Mediterranean Sea floor near Italy found up to 1.9 million pieces of plastic per square metre. These small pieces can have a huge impact on marine life.
Impact on Marine Life
Marine life is under particular threat from plastic pollution. Around 100,000 marine mammals and over 1 million sea birds located all over the world are killed by marine plastic pollution each year. In recent studies, 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabirds had consumed plastic. As the volume of plastic entering oceans increases and larger plastics break down into smaller microplastics, those numbers will more than likely rise.
We’ve probably all seen videos of birds with small pieces of plastic in their stomach, or how whales have died with stomachs full of plastic bags. Small plastic pieces or soft plastics can easily be mistaken for food and consumed. Eating that single piece of plastic won’t have an immediate impact, but the more that is consumed, the more that will remain lodged in the stomachs of marine life. This reduces the amount of food they can eat, often leading to starvation.
The problem of marine life consuming plastic isn’t limited to those that initially consume it either; there’s an increasing body of evidence to show that microplastics can travel up the food chain.
Moving On Up
It’s not just those animals that first consume these small pieces of plastic either. When consumed, tiny particles can enter the bloodstream and toxins absorbed by these plastic pieces can enter body tissue. These plastic particles and toxins can remain in the bodies and systems of animals that eat it throughout its life.
This can go down as far down the food chain as phytoplankton. They consume tiny microplastic particles that remain in the body throughout their life. Small marine animals and fish then eat the phytoplankton and the plastic particles start feeding up the food chain. The understanding of just how far this goes is still relatively unknown but there is a growing amount of literature about how this transfer of plastic up the food chain affects humans. Early literature estimates that humans could be consuming 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles from food and drink. The sources of those particles vary, but fish and seafood is a major contributor to that staggering number.
The global consumption of plastic has without doubt had a devastating impact on global oceans. Marine life has become collateral to our convenience. We’ve produced something that has undoubtedly made our lives easier, but it has come at the expense of nature and the natural environment we live in. The low cost in producing and it’s multi-purpose capabilities will ensure that it doesn’t disappear any time soon but we must manage waste better for the sake of those that have done nothing to suffer in the way that they are.