Once upon a waste…
The first fully synthetic plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland, back in 1907. Fully synthetic means that no molecules came from nature. This magical, versatile, and cheap material changed the course of our world, as we know it. Since it’s a malleable and lightweight material, molded into infinite solid objects, the introduction of plastic in our lives helped the development of transportation, medicine, computers, and cellphones. Plastic was crucial to the evolution of our modern life.
Problems started to arise just some decades after this great invention. In the 1960s, plastic waste started to be dumped in rivers and seas. Humankind decided to make the ocean its backyard, discharging trucks after trucks of trash and plastic in the waters, making it go away.
If we only knew, back then, there is no away.
Today, one garbage truck is dumped in the ocean every minute, equal to more than 1.4 billion tons each year. This amount of trash would be sufficient to go around our planet four times. We turned our oceans into a plastic soup and scientists predict that by 2050, there may be more plastic in the sea than fish.
Is this for real? About 40% of the plastic in the ocean was used only once. The average time a person uses one plastic bag is 12 minutes.
It is real. What we are facing today is one of the biggest mistakes of human species. We are saturating our planet with so much plastic to the point we are consuming it.
Why Is Plastic Waste a Problem?
Plastic is not biodegradable, which means that it is not capable of being degraded by other living organisms; it cannot break down without harming the environment. Plastic takes from decades to centuries to disappear, and the truth is that it never disappears completely.
Once plastic is in the ocean, UV radiation from the sun and wave motion will slowly break it into tiny pieces called microplastics. Microplastics can be smaller than a flower seed. Large pieces of plastic and microplastic travel freely throughout the ocean currents and most of it will end up in big islands of floating trash, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, considered the biggest floating trash island, estimated to be twice the size of Texas.
Plastic contains agriculture and industry chemicals and once broken into pieces, those same chemicals remain. Once in the ocean, plastic will mislead several animals such as seabirds, turtles, whales, and many fish species. They are attracted to plastic’s colors and shapes. They eat it and carry it in their stomachs without digesting it, as digestive enzymes are not capable of processing plastic. When these animals eat such pieces of plastic, they have an agonizing and cruel death.
Are We Eating Plastic?
Plastic waste is reaching our dinner table. If you eat fish or seafood, chances are you are eating plastic. Phytoplankton, a tiny organism that is the first source of the ocean food chain, is eating plastic. Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton. Small fish feed on zooplankton. Squids and big fish feed on small fish and so on, up through the food chain until it reaches us.
We are eating plastic and that may be threatening our health. When animals eat plastic, all industrial chemicals travel into their bloodstream. They are bio-accumulated in their muscles and fat (parts of the animal people eat mostly).
One of the most famous chemicals found in everyday plastic products (e.g., plastic bottles) is Bisphenol A (BPA). Once BPA is in our bloodstream, it may be carcinogenic and induce obesity. A study made in America showed that 92.6% of Americans aged six and older have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. BPA levels in children between 6 and 11 years old are twice as high as those in older Americans. BPA exists in cosmetic, silicones, baby bottles, sip cups, food cans, and water bottles.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently warned against the risks of plastic after some of the world’s most famous bottled water brands had been analyzed, finding that more than 90% contained tiny pieces of plastic. Scientists used Nile red dye to fluoresce particles in the water — the dye tends to stick to the surface of plastics but not most natural materials. In this study, analysis of 259 bottles from 11 different brands found an average of 325 plastic particles for every liter of water. These bottles were in the US, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Kenya, and Thailand.
Even if you don’t consume marine animals or drink bottled water, you can still have plastic in your body coming from toothpaste, cosmetics, and facial scrubs. These types of products include tiny particles of solid plastic called microbeads. So you may want to check the labels of the products you buy and look for harmful ingredients such as nylon, polylactic acid, polymethyl methacrylate, polyethylene, polypropylene or polyethylene terephthalate.
Burned Plastic Is Also Dangerous
In countries where trash management is lacking, people tend to burn their trash in their backyard or close to their homes. Burning plastic releases phthalates (an industrial chemical that makes plastic transparent, more flexible, and durable) which may harm us by changing our hormone properties, disrupting the normal functioning of our body’s hormonal system. Phthalates stay in our bloodstream and can either block or mimic the production of hormones. By doing so, it interferes with several biological processes such as reproduction, growth, kidney, and liver functioning. It can also induce tuberculosis and emphysema.
You can find plastic anywhere. If you go to the deepest ocean, you will find plastic there. It is with no doubt dangerous to the environment and is now making its way to our bloodstream.
The ugly truth
Plastic is not an issue to which we don’t know what the solution is. Because in the end, humankind created plastic and is now drowning in that same creation. That being said, humanity is the only one who can change the course of plastic before it becomes irreversible.
We all know what we need to do.