Plastics are inorganic polymers usually derived from petrochemicals. The reason why plastic is so popular as a material is because of its low cost and versatility. The usage of plastic ranges from common food packaging to automobiles, spacecraft and even the medical field. Indeed, plastic has become an indispensable material for humanity however continued usage of plastic has led to the production of an enormous amount of plastic waste which owing to the non-degradable nature of plastic, has saturated our environment and is causing a lot of ecological harm.
In the 1950s the world’s population produced 1.5 million tons of plastic. In 2016, we produced over 320 million tons of plastic. Most of our disposed of plastic end up in the ocean where it harms the aquatic life in addition to reportedly killing close to a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals. Some of our waste plastic ends up in landfills where it gets incinerated, this leads to the production of harmful greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.
How Does Plastic Kill?
Plastics can take 500-1000 years to get degraded naturally. Around 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean annually. Plastic waste including food packaging, microplastic beads used in exfoliating creams and face washes, and PET bottles used in our daily life can cause harm to marine life once it ends up in the ocean.
Since there is a tremendous amount of plastic in our oceans, marine life ingests this plastic pretty often. There have been multiple reports of whales, sea turtles and more commonly seabirds ingesting plastic and ultimately dying because of intestinal blockage. Also, fishes get entangled in plastic waste inhibiting their movement which leads to their untimely death.
Apart from direct physical effects caused by plastic pollution, the chemicals used in making plastics such as Bisphenol A (BPA) disrupts the endocrine system of fish which reduces their reproductive rates hence effectively lowering the number of fishes.
Fishes also ingest plastics and microplastics regularly, chemicals such as BPA and certain phthalates are regularly added to plastics. These fish usually end up on our plates and we consume the chemicals consumed by them. By a process called biomagnification, the concentration of said chemicals continues to increase in our body and may lead to adverse effects. In fact, some phthalates have been linked to causing adverse effects to our reproductive system while others have been linked to increased risk of cancer.
Plastic in our Everyday Life
We use a lot of plastic in our day to day life. The household items which are major contributors of plastic pollution include:
1. Plastic bags
It’s estimated that 500 billion single-use plastic bags are used every year. These ‘use and throw’ plastics either end up in the sea harming marine life or ends up in a landfill where it’s incinerated leading to the production of harmful gases which contribute to climate change.
2. Plastic Straws
Single-use plastic straws are another big contributor of plastic pollution. Plastic drinking straws are simply discarded after they’re used. Very few of them are actually recycled, most straws end up contributing to plastic pollution.
3. Plastic Bottles
Plastic water bottles have gained recent popularity. Most people tend to throw away these bottles after use.
4. Plastic Packaging
It’s estimated that a third of all the plastic produced is used for packaging. So a tremendous amount of plastic waste is actually generated by discarded plastic packaging.
5. Microplastic Beads
Many cosmetics have added microplastic beads. These include facewashes, exfoliating creams and even some toothpaste. These microbeads have been proven to be harmful for the environment and has already been banned in some countries like USA and Canada. India’s ban on microbeads is planned to be enforced in 2020.
Check here to know more about Microbeads in Everyday Products: Their Negative Impact and How to Avoid.
6. Food packaging
Plastic is used to package most perishable foods. Also, every time we order takeout the food always comes in plastic containers and small plastic bags.
7. Plastic cutlery
Disposable plastic knives, forks and spoons are used by people especially at parties or when out eating fast-food.
8. Everyday household items
Things like combs, toothbrushes, mugs, food containers, medicine bottles, etc. are usually made of plastic and end up contributing to plastic pollution once they’ve been discarded.
Replacement of Plastic Products
Together humanity can strive to decrease our overall plastic footprint by just following a few simple steps.
1. Reusable shopping bags
An alternative to single-use disposable plastic bags are reusable carry bags made of cloth or other materials. These can be used when out shopping and can help reduce your plastic footprint drastically.
2. Reusable or biodegradable straws
Buying and using a reusable straw made of metal or alternatively using an environmentally friendly bamboo-straw can help reduce plastic pollution.
3. Stop using cosmetics containing microbeads
Exfoliating creams and other cosmetics containing microbeads have already been banned in several countries. Stopping its use will actually help reduce the amount of microbeads which ends up in the sea.
4. Reusable drinking cups
Use a reusable drinking cup made of stainless steel or some other environmentally friendly material instead of use and throw plastic cups.
5. Buy in bulk
Buying non-perishable items in bulk will actually help you avoid the excess plastic packaging which goes along-with buying single items.
The discovery and subsequent production and use of plastic has completely changed our world. Plastic is a lightweight, durable and malleable material which has greatly aided the progress of humanity. However, we as a collective have decided to use this revolutionary material in our day to day lives as disposable thrash leading to a tremendous amount of plastic waste being produced daily leading to plastic-pollution.
We as a collective have to cut back on our usage of plastic especially in areas where environmentally friendly, plastic alternatives can be utilized.