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Plastic Waste | More Than 8.3 Billion Tonnes Produced So Far

What is plastic waste and why is it bothersome?

Plastics are synthetic organic polymers made from petrochemicals with additives such as colorants, stabilisers, fillers etc. Plastic wastes are the discarded materials whose shelf life is over or are left with no economic use. The sources of plastic wastes are wide, ranging from domestic to industrial sectors, such as plastic bottles or cups, straws, discarded fish nets, parts of electronics, construction materials etc. One third of plastic produce is used in packaging. It has a huge range of impacts on the environment – land degradation, oceanic and coastal health, marine life, ocean navigation and human well being.

Plastics may have definitely made our life convenient and easy as it is inexpensive, durable, light weight and easy to manufacture. However, the rapid rate at which plastics have been produced and utilised is alarming. They are still produced extensively besides plastic waste pollution being marked as one of the biggest environmental concerns in recent years. Plastics are non-degradable and persistent organic pollutants which stay dormant in the environment for thousands of years. They only disintegrate into small bits that aid easy distribution on land and oceans.

Statistics of plastic production

The first era of mass production of plastics date back to the 1950s when 2 million tonnes of plastics were reported to have been manufactured.  Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist from the University of California led an impressive project of the first of its kind to determine the entire amount of plastics the world has ever made since 1950 (Guardian, 2017). The data and information were gathered from publicly available industrial reports. The results couldn’t be more appalling as the Report says-

  • 3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950 till date.
  • Of this 6400 million tonnes have become waste with no value.
  • 79 per cent of these wastes are discarded in landfills or the open environment.
  • 12 per cent has been incinerated and only 9 per cent is being recycled.
  • Production figure is projected to reach 34 billion tonnes by 2050.

The Report also estimates that half the plastic that has been generated was produced in the past 13 years. This landmark sets a clear indication of entry towards a new geological era ‘anthropocene epoch’. In the year 2014, a kind of plastic-rock hybrid material was discovered from Kamilo Beach in Hawaii, which the Geological Society of America named it as ‘plastiglomerate’. It is formed when plastic trash melt and fuse together with materials such as weathered rocks, coral, sand, lava fragments, wood etc. (Moore, et al., 2014). Plastiglomerates are made hard by agglutination of rocks and plastics thus persistent as any other rocks. Meanwhile, scientists around the world have been continuously remarking that the present generation would leave behind geological plastic footprint as a marker of our era to the future archaeologists.

Plastic waste on land

Plastic waste pollution besides reducing the aesthetic value of surroundings has chain of effects spanning the air, land and ocean environments. It is estimated that 80 per cent of marine debris are land-based (NOAA, 2017) this is because rivers, streams and runoffs are the major pathways through which plastics are mobilised from land to the oceans. While the fate of a huge junk of plastic remains in the open landfills some are buried inside the earth due to tectonic activities. The environmental effect of plastics on land is manifold given that they are non-degradable and toxic in favourable conditions.

Microplastic changes the biophysical and chemical compositions of soil. When plastic comes in contact with moisture from rain, dew or snow toxins are leached contaminating the soil and the groundwater system.. Toxin from plastics such as phthalates alters the bio-function of microbes which nourishes the soil eventually depleting the soil carbon content and important micronutrients. These chemicals are further taken up by plants which subsequently enters the food chain through the process of biomagnification. Bisphenol A (BPA) is another mischievous chemical additive used in almost all the plastic products such as water bottles, food containers etc. Phthalates alongside PBA are known to be endocrine disruptors in human and animals (onegreenplanet.org). They are known to reduce fertility by mimicking the hormone estrogen and also increase the risk of breast and prostate cancers.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas therefore, burning of plastics in landfills is considered a potential source of air pollution. Air pollutants like volatile organic carbons (VOCs) and the above mentioned toxins are released in the air when burnt. Moreover, processing of plastics in petrochemical industries to produce Polyvinyl Chloride (PVCs), the main component of plastics, releases carcinogens like dioxin and benzene. Therefore, the entire life cycle of plastics from its production to disposal has varying environmental percussions.

Plastic waste

Fig: A sample of a plastiglomerate i.e. plastic melded into rock

The menace of plastic debris in the oceans

 NOAA defines marine debris as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally disposed off or abandoned into the marine environment”. Among them, plastic debris is the biggest concern regarding marine environments. Around 8 million tonnes of plastics are dumped in our oceans every day and as many as 51 trillion pieces of microplastics (plastic pieces less than five mm) is reported to be circulating in our ocean (Ocean Conservancy, 2017). Plastic pollution is a global issue where every dimension of the world oceans, seas and great lakes are not spared or are unaffected. Like most of the water pollutants, plastic waste is not confined to a definite periphery. The ocean is a dynamic entity whose currents and waves take along every fragment of trash on its way to circulate across the globe. Therefore, what is produced in one place can accumulate on the other end of the globe.

The Great Pacific Garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is the biggest marine trash vortex bounded by the North Pacific gyre. The western garbage patch is located near Japan and the eastern garbage patch between Hawaii and California in the US. Maximum amount of trash have been found to be plastics like bags, bottles and styrofoam cups mostly generated by North American and Asian countries. About 750,000 bits of microplastics have been found in an area of one sq. km in the great pacific garbage heap (National Geographic, 2017). It is also estimated that, to clean up less than one per cent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year (NOAA, 2017). This sums up the massive amount of debris that is accumulated in our oceans. There are other smaller trash vortexes in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean as well.

Consequences on marine life

It is estimated that more than 267 species of marine animals have been affected by marine plastic pollution- 86 per cent of sea turtle species, 45 per cent of sea bird species and 43 per cent of marine mammal species (cleanwater.org, 2017). ‘Ghost fishing’ is a very common phenomenon often encountered by marine animals where they are entangled, maimed and killed by lost, torn away or simply abandoned fishing nets in the ocean. Moreover, plastic trash hampers the marine food web by blocking the sunlight from reaching the primary producer and autotrophs such as planktons and algae – the base in the marine food chain.

Plastic waste undergoes photochemical reactions where it is disintegrated into tiny little pieces in the presence of sunlight. Microplastics and plastic resins pellets are harmful products that are often mistaken as food by marine animals due to their size and colour resemblance. Ingestion of these plastic remnants leads to starvation, poisoning and subsequent organ rupture ones it reaches the gut. Sea turtles, albatrosses, sea birds and even big mammals are victims of plastic pollution. Additive chemicals such as BPA and styrene trimer when leached from plastics form ‘toxic soup’ in the ocean and alter the hormonal functions and reproductive system of marine animals (Leggett, 2009). Another major concern of microplastics is the absorption of persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) on its surface from the seawater. Thus PCBs along with plastic toxins re-enters the food chain when consumed by marine life and harms the entire food web.

Is banning of plastics the solution?

Banning of plastics as a solution to this menace doesn’t seem to be viable as the ubiquity of plastic products in our day today life is concerned. At the first place, mass production of plastics began due to its longevity and cost effective nature which couldn’t be provided by any other alternatives. Many would suggest paper or natural products as a replacement but the question lies in the practical approachability. Production of paper at the rate equivalent to plastics are produced would simply mean cutting down of trees at an incomprehensible scale! Another major blow would be towards the food packaging and food processing industries which consequently would hit the consumers in terms of costs. So then, it is imperative to search for alternatives whose focus is on management rather than production.

The usual three R’s- reduce, recycle and reuse is the ultimate solution to plastic pollution for the time being. The very basic step to start with is to reduce the rate at which it is being produced since the amount served at the table is what we consume. Investment towards plastic recycling industries coupling with sustainable innovative technologies is another potential means in solving the issue. However, recycling only reduces the time taken by plastic waste towards the inevitable path of trash. Incineration is the only possible way through which plastics could be phased out from the environment. But, it is cost intensive and carries the risk of air pollution in case of improper handling. Several scientific research studies have found microbes which could digest plastics but the risk of harmful by-products when produced en masse and economical viability needs to be considered. Meanwhile, the quest for the ultimate alternative should continue.

Enhancing waste management strategies at the municipal level with the involvement of the community could reduce effects from the already generated plastic waste. However, individual awareness and consciousness on the harmful effects caused by plastic waste on environment and health is the key to a way forward. Cultivating small everyday habits like minimal shopping, abstaining plastic products, reusing plastic bags, avoid littering and opting for renewables like paper when required etc. could make a great change.

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