The Unfortunate Resting Place of Plastics

With summer comes the heat, and there’s nothing better to ward off the powerful, unrelenting rays of the Sun than an ice-cold lemonade, or margarita - for the fun-loving crowd out there. But once the sweet delicious nectar is finished, and thirst satiated, what is done with the cup and straw with which you used to so thoroughly enjoy your tasty treat? 

Many would assume that they would be properly disposed of and buried - that our trash and recycling infrastructure fully takes care of our waste. Unfortunately, they would be mistaken.

Of the 275 million tons of trash that we humans generate per year, around 5-12 million tons of that trash makes its way into our oceans - and as more people create and use more disposable products, the problem is only getting worse (Jambeck et al., 2015). Though most trash disintegrates and decomposes in short periods of time, plastics do not. They take decades, sometimes centuries to fully decompose (Teegarden, 2004).

Being so durable and pervasive, plastics occupy large pollutive patches in our oceans and coastlines. But they’re not just an eyesore, they disturb the natural order of our marine ecosystems. Animals often become entangled in the large jumbles of nearly-indestructible waste. Thankfully, there are a number of conservation organizations that work to detangle and rescue creatures that find themselves trapped. However, most victims never receive such assistance, and ultimately die.

But large plastics aren’t the only danger, smaller pieces of plastic are frequently mistaken for food and ingested by marine biota. In a 2012 study of plastic ingestion by Albatross, as many as 83% of specimens were found to contain plastic in their digestive tracts (Gray, Lattin, & Moore, 2012). This ingestion can mechanically impair and even kill its host, but that’s just the beginning of the issue. Ocean plastics are especially toxic (Gregory, 2009).

It is well known that many of the chemicals we use to create plastics are harmful in and of themselves, but plastics can also serve as sponges for other kinds of chemical toxins (Andrady, 2011). When left to rot at sea, plastics begin to break up into small pieces called microplastics, which embrittle, and fracture over time. In the small cracks and fissures along the surfaces of these microplastics, dangerous chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POP’s, begin to congregate (Andrady, 2011).

When properly dispersed, POP’s are harmless and insignificant. However, when found in high concentration, they can be deadly (Andrady, 2011). Over time, microplastics become so contaminated with POP’s, that they are essentially floating death pills for marine creatures – creatures that are then eaten by other creatures, and so on and so forth (Andrady, 2011).

Scientists worry that the proliferation of POP’s through the marine food chain can affect ocean ecosystems, and even us humans (Andrady, 2011). After all, we do enjoy some lovely fresh tuna sashimi from time to time.

But why should this frighten us? We already know the chemicals within plastics themselves travel through our skin, into our blood streams – affecting the way our bodies function, our general health, and even our children in the womb (Thompson, Moore, Vom Saal, & Swan, 2009).

With all this information, it is difficult to understand why we still use plastics. Unfortunately, plastics are cheap to make, transparent, extremely durable, and lightweight. This makes them great candidates for disposable goods – especially in the food industry (Thompson et al., 2009).

But even if we consciously know that we need to use less plastics, and better dispose of them, it isn’t always easy to do. Sometimes they are extremely convenient, or even necessary.

 Cutlery Knife Plastic Cutlery Plastic Blue Fork

Hopefully one day we can have the proper technology and infrastructure to replace all plastic products. But for now, it’s up to us to determine if the plastic products we use are absolutely necessary, or just convenient. Only we can make that distinction.

Instead of plastic bags, cups, or straws, try to seek out paper alternatives. Consider whether or not a particular plastic item is necessary, or just convenient. Find companies, products, and technologies that work to reduce and replace plastic use, and support their efforts.

These changes may seem small, but one less straw or bottlecap in the ocean could mean one less marine life taken, one less shore polluted, and one less infant with a health complication. Together we can help to mitigate this problem.


References Cited

Andrady, A. L. (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(8), 1596-1605.

Gray, H., Lattin, G. L., & Moore, C. J. (2012). Incidence, mass and variety of plastics ingested by Laysan (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Black-footed Albatrosses (P. nigripes) recovered as by-catch in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64(10), 2190-2192.

Gregory, M. R. (2009). Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings—entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2013-2025.

Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., . . . Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), 768-771.

Teegarden, D. M. (2004). Polymer chemistry: introduction to an indispensable science: NSTA Press.

Thompson, R. C., Moore, C. J., Vom Saal, F. S., & Swan, S. H. (2009). Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2153-2166.