Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: The Impact Of Plastic On The Environment
Since its invention in 1907 with bakelite, fossil based plastics have grown year on year in terms of production volume.
With this increase comes the unwanted increase of waste as well, with much of it entering the natural environment one way or another.
In this blog, we're going to discuss the impacts of plastic on the environment, both in the aquatic environment and on land.
Plastic Pollution: How Did We Get Here?
In recent years, plastic pollution has seen a huge increase in awareness due to many documentaries bringing it to the front of the public's mind.
Plastic pollution is the build up of plastic waste in the natural environment, due to mass failure of disposing of plastic through waste management channels.
We should quickly mention that when referring to 'plastic' in this blog, we are talking about non biodegradable fossil based plastic. This is opposed to bioplastics, which are either produced from renewable resources, can biodegrade, or both.
Over half of the world's plastic waste entering the oceans are from just four countries, predominantly in Southeast Asia.
This is not to say all of that plastic is produced in those countries, however. Much of the waste entering the oceans from developing countries in the region is from developed countries exporting their plastic waste.
Countries such as the UK and the USA are massive exporters of plastic waste, whether it be for recycling or landfill. In 2018, the UK alone exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic waste to other countries to be recycled.
The reason for exporting plastic waste, from a developed country's point of view, is mainly for economic reasons. It is far cheaper to export plastic waste to be recycled, than to use domestic recycling centres.
From the developing country's side of the fence, they can import plastic waste to be recycled. Companies who are carrying out the recycling use cheap labour to ensure they make good returns.
Employees in these recycling centres, often illegal, are exposed to horrendous conditions.
The way the current system works in the UK is not efficient, and is causing huge amounts of damage to the natural environment through incentivised short cuts. Packaging recovery notes are subsidies from the UK government, in an attempt to increase recycling rates.
If a recycling company in the UK processes plastic, they only get the value of the output. For example, if a recycling centre took in 10 tonnes of plastic waste to be recycled, and they managed to output 1 tonne of recycled plastic, they would only get paid the value for the 1 tonne.
For exports, different rules apply.
The exporter will get paid the total value of the input, which clearly puts them in a better position than domestic recycling centres. With the same example, if an exporter takes in 10 tonnes of plastic to be exported for recycling, they get paid the value of the 10 tonnes.
The obvious problem with this system, is that UK exporters of plastic waste have no incentive to ensure the plastic waste is actually recycled, in the destination countries the waste is being shipped to.
This results in illegal dumping of plastic waste on the other side of the world, as well as illegal burning of the plastic. Burning plastic waste releases toxic airborne pollutants, which result in entire villages being covered in plastic fumes.
From 1992, China was the main importer of plastic waste from countries around the world.
From 1992 - 2015, China imported 45% of the world's plastic waste. Since the opening of China's economy in the early 90's, state funded recycling businesses made huge profits from importing cheap plastic, and using cheap labour.
This all changed in 2018, when the Chinese government brought in a programme to significantly decrease the amount of plastic waste being imported.
The National Sword Programme stated that China would only import plastic waste of 99.5% purity, ruling out much of the plastic waste sent from countries such as the UK.
As a result of this, countries such as Malaysia began to take in the plastic waste that China was now refusing.
The Malaysian government quickly began to see a huge rise in the amount of plastic being imported, and took action to prevent it. The environmental minister stated that Malaysia would not be the dumping ground of the world, saying she would crack down on plastic waste being imported.
This has led to vast amounts of plastic waste being sent back to the UK. The real problem, for the UK government, starts here.
Marine Plastic Pollution
Many documentary films and media outlets have been covering the effects of pollution in the aquatic environment for a few years now. In particular, turtles, seabirds and whales are all widely covered victims of plastic debris.
80% of the ocean's plastic waste originates from land, with the other 20% being made up of fishing nets and shipping waste.
The main problem that plastic debris poses to marine animals is inadvertent ingestion. Through taking in plastic, the stomachs of the marine creatures begin to fill up.
These creatures, such as whales, then think they don't need to take in any nutrition, as they feel 'full'. This results in potential starvation, without the whales knowing it.
The autopsy declared the cause of death was due to the ingested plastic making the whale sick, and unable to hunt for food.
This story is not uncommon, and deaths resulting from marine plastic debris are causing marine populations to dwindle in numbers.
It is not just large pieces of plastic debris that is causing the problem, though. Microplastics are now being found in oceans, our drinking water and on top of mountains.
They have seemingly spread to almost every water system the world over.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size. They can be produced and manufactured to be this size (primary), as are nurdles and clothing fibres, or can be formed from larger pieces of plastic breaking down over time (secondary).
Microplastics enter the marine environment in many different ways, but it is predicted that clothing is the biggest microplastic pollutant.
Every time clothing that contains synthetic fibres are washed, such as polyester clothing, microplastics are released into the water system.
From there, it is easy for these microplastics to enter rivers, and then into seas and oceans.
Microplastics enter the food chain at the lower trophic levels, with zooplankton estimated to consume vast amounts of microplastics every year. From then on, microplastics are passed up the food chain via the trophic transfer of microplastics.
This process is carried out when zooplankton are ingested by it's predator, on the next trophic level up. By ingesting the zooplankton, the predator has also taken in all of the microplastics that were stored in the zooplankton at the time of ingestion.
This process continues all the way up the food chain, to larger predators such as seals, large fish and cetaceans. The next step up is us, and we are now estimated to be consuming thousands of microplastics every year.
It is hard to definitely say where these microplastics come from, as they can originate from many sources. Airborne microplastics microplastics in drinking water are just another two ways in which humans can take in microplastic content.
The danger of microplastics are still being fully researched, so it's hard to say what the health risks are.
However, a main health risk that has been picked up is the effect microplastics have on the immune system. Immune cells that came into contact with microplastics died three times faster than immune cells which had no contact with microplastics.
Plastic Pollution On Land
An area which is not as widely covered when it comes to plastic pollution is terrestrial, or land based plastic pollution. It is estimated that plastic pollution is actually at least four times more prevalent on land, than it is in aquatic environments.
A main concern is not just the effects of microplastic, but the other chemicals added to plastic to bolster certain characteristics. One of these additives are phthalates, commonly used as a plasticizer to make plastics more flexible.
Phthalates are not chemically bonded to plastics, meaning they have the potential to leach out of plastics. Because of this physical bond, and lack of chemical bond, phthalates can enter the natural environment once separated from the plastic they were bound to.
A main route into the natural environment is through manufacturing facilities disposing of them, and ending up in the surrounding soil. One in the soil, phthalates can drain into water courses, and from then on enter freshwater environments through rivers.
Phthalates have been researched to find they are potentially carcinogenic, as well as being endocrine disruptors.
With this blog, hopefully you have garnered some useful information on how plastic impacts the environment around us. Through discussing aquatic marine pollution and terrestrial pollution, you now know the risks that plastic poses to humanity as well as other species.
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