A TWO-MINUTE OVERVIEW OF THE PLASTIC POLLUTION CRISIS
Explaining the dark side of plastic pollution and its harmful impact on Earth
Words: Aleksandra Georgieva
Photography: Sincerely Media
17 November 2019
The production of new plastic increased dramatically after World War II. The miracle material helped space travel, transformed medicine, revolutionised live-saving equipment, devices for water filtration, incubators and made cars lighter decreasing fuel pollution.
Ironically, over 40% of the material produced today accounts for single-used plastics. Products such as food wrappers and plastic bags are often used between minutes and a few hours, yet decomposition in the environment lasts hundreds of years.
Over the past century plastic pollution has turned into one of the most environmentally threatening issues on the planet. An estimate of 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans each year. The skyrocketing throw-away culture combined with the overwhelming manufacturing of disposable plastic products is chocking Earth’s waterways.
In developing locations such as African and Asian countries the plastic pollution is at its worst. Waste collection is extremely inefficient, even borderline non-existent. Many other locations around the world face issues such as improper garbage collection systems and low recycling stats.
Most of the plastic that enters the oceans, comes from inland activities. Rivers are another source of carrying pollution towards our seas, gathering further waste along the way. The irreversible damage comes once plastic reaches the oceans and retrieving the waste becomes nearly impossible. A significant amount of plastics pollutes coastal waters, while ocean currents transport the rest around the globe.
Plastics are made of additives that increase their durability, strength and flexibility, while extending the material’s lifespan to a few hundred years. Once the ocean waves, winds, sunlight and other similar factors do break down plastic litter, small particles known as microplastics pollute the environment and become impossible to clean. Microplastics break down into even smaller pieces, named microfibers, which spread further into the air and reach many drinking water systems. Plastic pollution is known to harm not only human life, but nearly every other species in the marine ecosystem.
Oceans’ biodiversity is under threat as millions of animals die every year due to plastic consumption, suffocation, starvation etc. Marine organisms including endangered species suffer the effects of plastic pollution, from plankton to fish, whales, turtles and birds. Six-pack rings, fishing equipment, single-use plastic products and the broken down microplastics either cause major harm or get consumed by aquatic creatures, travelling through the ecosystem. Even land animals such as tigers, zebras, elephants, hyenas, camels, etc. are known to consume plastics, which often results in death.
The dark side of plastics threatens the population of many marine and land species, including humans. Consumption of microplastics may cause troubles to the reproductive system and may trigger many life-threatening illnesses in people alongside animals. It is confirmed that microplastics have been found across every corner of the world including the deepest point of the planet – the Mariana Trench, and the highest peak on Earth – Mount Everest.
Plastic production has been increasing by the year. An estimate of nearly 450 million tons were produced by 2015 and the number is prognosed to double by the end of 2050. Preventing plastic litter from entering our waterways is the most important step of resolving the plastic pollution crisis threatening Earth. Recycling and working towards better waste management solutions is a vital aspect of preventing further pollution. Another alternative is designing and manufacturing more reliable and eco-friendly products in the future.