Plastic Pollution | Types, Source, Effects

Plastic pollution is an accretion of plastic materials like plastic bottles, microbeads, and bags in the environment that in return unfavourably affects the wildlife habitat and human beings. Plastics are divided into micro and macro debris depending on their size. The chemical bonds of plastics render them to degrade naturally for many years and thus have led to the presence of a high amount of plastic in the environment.

Just like different types of pollution, Plastic is continuously affecting both oceans and land. It is calculated that almost 1.1 to 8.8 MT of plastics are dumped into the oceans from land almost every year. As a result, marine animals are harmed by the entanglement of plastics, ingestion problems, or chemicals that changes their tissue structures. Plastics also disrupt various hormonal systems within a human body. It is thus important to increase awareness about its ill effects and cover it under environmental education being imparted to students.

Till 2018, 380 million tons of plastic are manufactured across the world. The Nile, Ganges, Niger, Yellow, Mekong, Indus, Pearl, Hai He, Amur, and the Yangtze are the top rivers that pollute 95% of the world’s ocean. According to research, it has been estimated that if the use of plastic is not reduced by 2050, then there will be more plastic in the ocean than the fish.

Plastic Pollution

Different Types of Plastics

There are two types of plastics depending on their size. They are Micro Debris & Macro Debris.

Micro Debris

Micro debris is generally of size 2mm to 5 mm and starts as macro or meso debris. With time it breaks down into smaller pieces and forms the micro debris. They are also known as Nurdles. Micro debris present within the cosmetic and cleaning products are called scrubbers. Scrubbers are so very little in size that filter-feeding organisms consume them.

10% of the plastic pollution in the ocean is formed due to nurdles, along with food containers and plastic bags. The chemicals within the micro debris result in the growth of Bio Toxins like DDT, PCB, Polystyrene and bisphenol A and can cause undesirable health distress. It is predicted that by the end of the year 2030, there will be 300,000 plastic items per square km on the surface and 100,000 microbeads per sq km at the bottom of the ocean.

International Pellet Watch has collected samples of harmful pellets with a high amount of pesticides from Vietnam, South Africa, and America.

Macro Debris

Macro Debris is 20 mm or bigger. Plastic bags and fishing nets are the prime sources of macro debris. When abandoned into the ocean, the marine animals continuously get trapped in them. The nets are also difficult to remove from the water as they tend to gain in weight up to 6 tons.

Sources of Increased Plastic Pile Up

Following are the reasons for the accumulation of plastics both on land and water:

  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP): The global production of plastics is 250 meters every year. The augmented use of plastic has led to the transportation of POP that has increases the algae distribution with red tides.
  • Slow Decomposition of Plastics: Plastic occupies 10% of the discarded waste. Polymer degradation is very slow in plastics due to their chemical composition and power of absorption and adsorption of contaminants. The Marine Conservancy has predicted that the decomposition rate of plastic cups made of foam will take up to 50 years, a beverage holder will take 400 years, a disposable nappy will need 450 years and a plastic fishing line will take 600 years to completely decompose into nature.
  • Commercial Pollutants: The plastic used for commercial purposes is another high source of pollution. In 2019, 70000 volunteers from 51 countries collected over 59000 bags, 29000 bottles and 53000 sachets made of plastics by brands like Nestle, Pepsico, and Coca-Cola.

Related: Sustainable Development Goals, Environmental degradation

Effects of Plastic Pollution

On the Environment: The circulation of plastics due to ocean currents and wind has lead to a distribution of organisms to other places that are not their native environment. This results in the dispersal and variability of the species that are less physically diverse. Plastics also act as a catalyst for the growth of chemical contaminants like POPs and heavy metals.

On the Climate: According to a report named “Plastic and Climate” published in 2019, plastics will release 850 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, thus enhancing greenhouse gases. By 2030, 2050 and 2100, the emissions will increase to 1.34,56 and 260 billion tons respectively.

On Land: The total amount of plastic on land is between 4 to 23 times more than that of the oceans. Chlorinated plastics release injurious toxic chemicals into the soil. These in return seep into the surrounding water or groundwater causing serious harm to the ecosystem and species that are drinking that water.

In 2017, a study shows that 83% of the tap water across the world contains pollutants due to plastic. USA, India, Lebanon, the UK, Germany, and France have the highest tap water contamination rate. People from these countries might be consuming 3000 to 4000 plastic microparticles from the water every year.

On Oceans: It has been estimated that there is almost 5 trillion plastic in the ocean. This gives rise to marine pollution. The toxins from these litters emit components like carcinogen, diethylhexyl phthalate, mercury, lead, and cadmium. The organisms of the ocean ingest these chemicals which in return are consumed by the human race. This has lead to several terminal diseases like cancer, birth defects, and immune disorders.

Plastics that are carried out by the ocean currents accumulate in oceans forming gyres. In pacific Gyre, large quantities of floating plastics are found. Two major buildups of plastic can be seen in the Pacific- the western and the eastern garbage patch. The debris from these two patches covers more than 100 feet under the water. Landfills situated near the ocean contain liners that can break emitting poisonous gases and chemicals, thus contaminating the nearby water and soil.

On Animals: Many marine animals like Sea Turtles are found to consume large quantities of plastic. This leads to the death of this species due to starvation as plastic blocks the digestive tract. Sometimes aquatic animals like fish, turtles, and fish get entangled in the plastic fishing nets and got killed. They die as a result of starvation because of their inability to untangle themselves. According to a report in 2006, 267 species of different varieties have died because of entanglement and ingestion of debris. Over 400,000 oceanic animals perish due to plastic pollution each year. Plastic or nylons nets spread across the seabed can destroy the coral reefs also.

A large amount of plastic debris is also found in the stomach of the Sperm and beached whales. In 2018, more than 80 bags of plastic were found inside the stomach of a dying pilot whale in Thailand. In 2019, 88 lbs of plastic were discovered in Cuvier’s beaked whale’s stomach in the Philippines.

In the Mesopelagic zone of the ocean, (200 to 1000 mts deep) small fish were found to consume microplastic debris. 9.2% of plastic debris was discovered in their stomachs. About 12000 to 24000 tons of plastic is ingested by marine animals every year. The most famous mesopelagic fish is Lantern Fish which is, in turn, is consumed by swordfish and tuna. The human race consumes this fish and plastic becomes part of the food chain.

On Humans: Chemical compounds like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), phthalates, and bisphenol A (BRA) are used in the manufacturing of plastic food containers, floor cleaners, bottles, medical devices, cosmetics, and perfumes. Consumption of large doses of these chemicals destroys our endocrine system. PBD damages the thyroid hormones in the human body. Some chemicals can also cause skin diseases like dermatitis.

95% of adults in the USA are detected with BPA in their urine. Disruption in sexual maturation, fertility, and reproduction are some of the side effects due to BPA.

Related: Causes & Effects of Indoor Air Pollution, Importance of Environmental Education

Measures Taken to Reduce Plastic Pollution

Measures are taken like usage of many biodegradable materials to reduce the usage of plastics. Several countries have already banned plastic bags, bottles, and containers. Some of the initiatives taken to decrease plastic pollution are:

  • Use of biodegradable plastics that are polymers and can be degraded inside the industrial composters
  • 60% of the plastic equipment is now incinerated instead of dumping them into a landfill
  • There are two forms of collection method-drop off recycling centers and curbside collection. Curbside collection is a method where private or public hauling company collects plastics from a special bin. In the drop-off method, people take their plastic collection to the nearest facility and get them recycled.
  • Reduction in the use of plastic or ban on the usage

Actions for Plastic Pollution Awareness

  • On 22nd April 2019, on Earth Day “Keep America Beautiful” has declared this day as the Earth Day CleanUp in the USA.
  • 5th June is observed as World Environment Day to create awareness on this pressing issue.
  • On 23rd April 2013, Artist Maria Cristina Finucci inaugurated The Garbage Patch State to clean up and more awareness among the common people about the adverse effects of plastic pollution.

It is high time to realize that Earth is drowning in plastic pollution. So we have to change ourselves and slow the flow of plastic use at its source! Let us take this tiny step by changing ourselves of not using plastics any more..

Tags: Plastic Pollution, Plastic Material, Marine Pollution, Plastic Pollution in Ocean, Plastic Pollution Facts, Control Plastic Pollution, Reduce Plastic Pollution, Plastic Pollution Effects, Floods and Plastic Pollution, UN SDGs