PLASTIC, WHAT A RESOURCE! IT’S DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE MODERN LIFE WITHOUT IT. IT LURES US IN WITH ITS DURABILITY, ITS LIGHT WEIGHT, ITS LOW COST, AND ITS INSULATING CAPACITY, BUT IS PLASTIC REALLY ALL THAT IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE? DO ALL OF THESE ALLURING PROS OUTWEIGH THE CONS?
Plastic pollution is a rapidly progressing issue from which no nation is exempt. All over the world discarded plastics are becoming increasingly prevalent in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, finding their way from human sources into the environment. Plastic is commonly used in many kinds of useful, durable products from cars to stethoscopes, but over time society has adopted a throwaway culture where single-use plastic is widely used and accepted. These single-use plastics have become a major contributor to plastic pollution, due to their convenience and deep integration into our lifestyles, and it’s now difficult to shake them. The accumulation of these plastics in areas where they are not intended to be can of course be visually unappealing, but plastic pollution is also accountable for a whole host of other environmental issues that are not immediately apparent.
Plastic's wonderfully useful characteristics are, unfortunately, the very same features that make it so environmentally devastating. Light weight and durable, this allows plastic to be easily transported over long distances by wind and water currents. It has been found not only in human populated areas, but also in places usually unoccupied by people. Originating largely from coastal landfills, mismanaged sewage outlets and fishing waste, plastic is able to make its way into the ocean. Swept hundreds of kilometres away from urban centres by ocean currents, it accumulates where ocean currents converge to form huge swirling masses of waste. Because of its durability, plastic is able to persist in the environment for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. These ocean masses show no signs of disappearing or even diminishing in size in the foreseeable future.
So, it’s pretty clear to us that the sight of plastic waste swanning around in our favourite natural areas, acting like it owns the place, is far less than ideal. It certainly isn’t what we like to see when we want to escape from the city into nature, but is that all that plastic is? A bit of an eyesore? What about the plastic that we don’t see in the environment?
Even when it does eventually break down, this is not where plastic’s story ends. In fact, the breaking down of plastic would be more accurately referred to as breaking up. Plastic does not just disappear or dissolve into the ocean but is instead, over time, fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are defined as being plastic particles smaller than 5mm in length, usually formed through the degradation of larger plastic items through a combination of wave action and sun exposure.
Despite their small size, microplastics have been found to have large detrimental effects on organisms and commonly accumulate in terrestrial, fluvial and marine sediments. Because of their large surface area compared to their volume, microplastics can act as lovely rafts for pathogens and chemicals to attach too, carrying them over long distances. So far, research on molluscs has suggested that microplastics have the potential to disrupt growth, feeding behaviour, reproductive success, and larval development, with their chemical and pathogenic hitchhikers likely exacerbating the effects of the plastics themselves.
ENTANGLEMENT AND STARVATION
As well as transporting harmful contaminants, larger plastic waste products can entangle, cut and suffocate animals, and if consumed can become stuck in an animal’s digestive system and lead to starvation. You may think a sea turtle silly for mistaking a plastic bag for a jelly fish and gobbling it up. But what you might not realise is that when organisms lower down in the food chain consume microplastics and their associated contaminants can work their way up the food chain to us, with the concentration of plastic and its associated chemicals increasing with every step up the chain. Much research on the effects of plastics on human health is still in the works, but it is suspected that some of plastic’s associated chemicals could be carcinogenic and disruptive to reproductive processes.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Unfortunately, at the rate we’re going, plastic pollution is only going to get worse going into the future. Currently, humans produce around 275 million tonnes of plastic every single year, and this figure is expected to double over the next 15 years.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP THE SITUATION?!
There’s plenty of things that individuals can do to have a positive effect on the problem of plastic pollution:
Stop buying products wrapped in plastic packaging where possible.
Buy groceries and produce that come without packaging.
Shop around for packaging-free alternatives.
Refuse to buy products that are plastic-wrapped.
Look for items that come in recyclable containers by checking for the recycling symbol on the packaging.
Refrain from using disposable items such as plastic bags, coffee cups and straws.
Keep your own reusable items on hand when you’re leaving the house.
Ensure that you’re recycling plastic packaging correctly by looking up your local council’s recycling policy.
Take your soft plastics to a RedCycle recycling location near you.
Sign petitions to ban single-use plastics in your area.
Encourage others to reduce their single-use plastic consumption.
Join our emailing list to get tips in reducing single-use plastic.