The Problem with Plastic
Think you're doing your part by recycling? Think again. This research article dives in deep to the ends of the Earth to find out the entire life process of a simple piece of recycled plastic.
The problem with plastic, if you haven’t already begun to notice in the past few decades, or since you’ve been alive, is that it is everywhere. The problem that lies with that is that it will be everywhere for a very, very, very long time. Centuries. Upwards of 500 years, everywhere. In fact, the first pieces of plastic ever created are still, in some form, on the Earth, either still floating along the oceans, at the bottom of the sea, or ingested by a fish some decades back, and was more than likely that fish's demise. Plastic kills—that’s the other problem with it. It is everywhere. You probably couldn’t move a couple few feet without becoming aware of a plastic in some form or another. Your garbage can sitting outside is made of it, your water bottle, even the one you’ve been using now that you take along to the gym every morning, is likely plastic. While it is reusable, it still is plastic, and it’ll be here long after you’ve gone from this Earth, and long after your kids and your kids' kids' kids have gone.
I’ve had many friends who I've had to watch countlessly over the past years go through plastic water bottle after plastic water bottle, even proud of how many they can get through in a day without even recycling a single one of them. All the while claiming they love sea animals. How? How do you love them when you continue to fill their home with toxins that can kill them? The answer, in short, is you don’t. You can’t. Not because you don’t know, but because you simply don’t care. It’s more convenient for you to live this way than to be considerate of the way other species, sharing the same planet you live on, are living. A few years ago, while in college, living with a roommate who similarly did this same thing, I began to have garbage compulsions, often times waking in the middle of the night, after she had been sound asleep, and I’d take her eight to eleven plastic water bottles of the day and throw them in the recycling bin, which, at the time, was just another, separate bin which I’d take every morning on my walk to the gym, down to the recycling shoot. Obsessive compulsive disorder at its finest. Or, I should say, at its most useful.
However, what I find so baffling is not the countless times we recycle or how much we recycle, or that we use less and less plastic, instead opting for carry-on bags to take to the grocery shops so we don’t have to take the plastic grocery bags, or that we bring our own glass jars to bulk food stores to fill with rice, beans, and other staples. The question is not so much how do we stop consuming plastic, but how can we stop producing more plastics? To answer this, first, we have to become aware of where exactly on our Earth does all this plastic go? And how does it then begin to decompose? Deconstruct?
The scary truth of the matter is, in the last 10 years we’ve made more plastic than the entire century before that. Plastic is literally used for everything. Just take a moment to scale the aisles at the store, or take a trip to your local mall and look at the toys in the middle with the seats where moms can sit. That’s typically plastic. Go anywhere, for that matter. If you think going to the ocean is the place to get away from all the plastic, think again. That’s exactly where it is, at the bottom of the ocean, ingested in the dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, whales, and fishes stomachs, and littering the surface of the oceans waters, with a goopy-filament of plastic decomposition.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer interviewed from A Plastic Ocean (2016) spoke on the matter.
“We think we just toss something from a boat or a beach, that it goes away... We are now free of the plastic.”
However, over 80 percent of the ocean plastic leaks from land-based sources. Even plastics from the Great Lakes move through the rivers, directly to the oceans. More than 50 percent of marine debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean (The Plastic Ocean, 2016).
An article from Popular Science published findings that humans have created 9.1 billion tons of plastic, and ~ 9 percent of plastic actually gets recycled. So, when you think you're doing the world a huge favor by recycling, the odds are it will all still end up in the ocean at some point, whether you recycled it or the person who uses the plastic after you recycles it.
Plastic production, globally just this year, is expected to reach around 3 million tons. 3 millions tons. Let that sink in, then Google something that could resemble 3 million tons. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Only a fraction of that 3 million tons gets recycled for good use, and the rest coats our land “like a disease” (A Plastic Ocean 2016).
If you think it’s not just a bad thing that the plastics ends up in our oceans, or maybe you're thinking if it should end up someplace on our planet that it should be our oceans, think about this. If it’s becoming the layer of the bottom of our ocean, where plankton are, feeding our fish, which feeds all the sea life, which feeds our oceans, which feeds us—it is then affecting us—us. The creators of the problem in the first place. And it’s not just in some big glob somewhere far away from us in the middle of the ocean. It’s everywhere, in every square inch of the waters surrounding every continent. “In reality, our water on the planet is just one ocean with no boundaries” (A Plastic Ocean 2016).
Scientists, researchers, conservationists, and oceanographers are finding sea pelicans along the shores, dead, their bodies decomposed, and between the feathers and webbed feet are bottle caps and other forms of plastic that have likely filled their stomachs up and entered their bloodstream, killing them, a slow and painful death. There is so much plastic in our water that it has created what is known as gyres—large collections of plastic debris floating at the tops of our oceans. There are four to five known gyres, all estimated to be TWO times the size of the state of Texas.
There are some really great companies out there, because of this, that have decided to dedicate their efforts towards putting an end to plastic—either by reducing the amount we are consuming or by reducing the amount we are producing plastic, something that could help our future generations. However, future archeologists will probably know us by the amount of plastic they find. Maybe they will call us the killers of it all, if not the plastic-o-pithecus.
One of these great companies, 5 Gyres is a non-profit aimed to reduce the amount of plastic we use. They hold events, runs, and work to enforce public policy change. This organization is known for holding research at one of the 5 Gyres, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Another company, Boxed Water Is Better, instead focuses on reducing the amount of plastic used by switching to box. While it also gets recycled, it does not have the five year mark of degradation that all the plastics have. Even biodegradable plastics (if that has made you feel better about your purchases, let this clue you in) that are considered disposable are also made from material that is indestructible. It may be biodegradable, but it will still affect the planet and sit tight on it for a couple hundred or so years. Maybe less, but maybe so.
Worldwide, we use around an estimated 1 trillion plastic bags per year. Per year. PER YEAR. Two million a minute. (A Plastic Ocean 2016). Sea turtles mistake those plastic bags that end up in our oceans as jellyfish and begin to eat them. That ingested plastic begins to affect their bodies, and they are often spotted all over with floating problems. Researchers at Asinara, Italy noticed this in a loggerhead turtle that had issues swimming due to ingested plastic bags.
When animals eat plastic, they are also consuming the toxins that are in the plastics. Those toxins pass into their bloodstream, and there they bioaccumulate in the fatty tissue and around the vital organs.
By 2025, 10 times more plastic each year is estimated to be dumped into our oceans. Include the amount of fish we are eating, taking away from the marine life, and consider what we have left. Plastic nurales (very small pellets that serves as material in the manufacture of plastic products) are found in almost every ocean-based animal. From plankton to fish to killer whales. When you eat shellfish, you are more likely to eat the entire animal, so you're more likely to eat the plastic (2016).
In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, UC Davis researchers examined 76 fish slated for human consumption in Indonesia and 64 in California. In both groups, roughly a quarter had anthropogenic debris in their guts.
Scientists estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic afloat in our oceans—also known as plastic smog (2016). That plastic smog is the decomposition of that toxic material, with the sunlight’s ultraviolet light, the ocean’s current, wave action and the salt in the sea, creates a thick layer over the surface of the ocean – plastic smog. Smaller plastic pieces called micro-plastics are toxic poison pills that are ingested in our sea life, ultimately ingested in our human life.
In places like Manila, Philippines, huge landfills of waste and plastic materials over decades and decades collect on the surface of the mountain tops, where they sit and grow things like potatoes and corn. There is a very slow start to creating an environment in places like Manila that is heavily affected by the landfills of toxic plastic materials. Vetiver Grass is filtered out sediment that is trying to improve the soil strength while recycling soil nutrients. Bioremediation is also a natural organism that breaks down hazardous substances into less toxic or non-toxic substances. Coupled with bioremediation, phytoremediation uses green plants to detoxify soil and water contaminated with heavy metals or excess minerals (2016).
Known as highly toxic and carcinogenic, in our foods, the plastic is so washed up the people don’t know what to do with it. The toxic material acts as estrogenic activity, mimicking the hormone estrogen in our bodies. Even BPA-free plastics contain this toxic endocrine disruptor, Bisphenol-A. “Over 90% of all plastics that don’t have BPA, nonetheless release chemicals containing estrogenic activity,” says Dr. George Bittner, Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Texas, Austin. 92 percent of Americans over the age of six have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies, (Center for Disease Control, 2016).
After researching, and reading news article after news article about yet another bus-size whale that washed up on the shore somewhere who had 64 pounds of plastic inside their stomachs, I can’t help but think again about if maybe the plastic problem is not a question about whether or not we try to use less plastic, consuming less to the problem—because you vote with your dollar, always, right? Right. But maybe also if we take a more closer look at how can we stop the mass production of more plastics on our planet? This is a big question, a question two Texas-sized gyres answer. I hate to get political and all, but this really does seem to be a question that calls for petitioning the government and creating policies in place that call for this change. This plastic problem does not call on your need to reduce, reuse, and recycle only, but to be part of a movement that enforces change on our planet that, if we just turn a blind eye, could become a bigger problem, one the size of our entire oceans put together for future generations to come.
Focus more on how you can become part of the movement to end plastic mass production on our planet, and how you can help. Yes, recycling and using steel straws and BYOB (Bring Your Own Bags) may help the cause, but look towards something that would really put an end to the problem with plastic—look for change. Petition our government to stop producing the toxic materials and create new and healthier ways of transporting our goods.