Health and Science News

The Plastic Consequence

Plastic’s convenience is taken for granted. Not much thought goes into the negative consequences plastic brings to the environment and humankind. Unfortunately, despite its alluring convenience, plastic has devastating consequences that will be irreversible if nothing is done to stop it.

Producing plastic is fast, simple, and cheap, which is why it is so widespread. It costs only a penny to make a plastic bag. Compare this with the five cents needed to make one paper bag, and it becomes clear why many companies prefer to make plastic bags instead of paper. 

Additionally, plastic is incredibly convenient. As an integral part of society, it forms nearly everything used in daily life. There is no other material quite like it in regards to convenience and versatility. Companies rely heavily on plastic and would not be able to manufacture their products without it. 

        However, the disposal of these plastics raises many concerns. Only 0.5 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled, and only 20 percent of plastic bottles end up in recycling facilities. This means that 38 billion plastic bottles and 100 billion plastic bags are sent to landfills in America per year. Here, they take up to a thousand years to degrade. A paper bag takes only one month. As plastic breaks down, it creates a chemical called leachate. This plastic leachate is toxic, and can quickly permeate the landfill liners and pollute nearby soil and groundwater.

            Plastic waste often ends up in waterways, where it is eventually pushed out into the sea. More than 8.8 million tons are swept into the ocean every year. There are approximately 580,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the ocean. By 2050, there will be more pounds of plastic than fish in the ocean.

As plastic degrades, it breaks into tiny particles called microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters wide. They sink and contaminate water far below the surface. The whole region of water then becomes toxic, and the chemicals from the plastic contaminate the aquatic plants and animals living in that area. 

         It is essential to act now and solve the problem. Plastic does not just harm the environment–it also hurts humans.  The chemicals inside plastic are carried around the world, contaminating different locations as it breaks down. In the ocean, the contaminated water is passed through fish, where most of the chemicals stay stored in their bodies until eaten by humans. The fish can have harmful side-effects when ingested. This is due to biological magnification: chemicals become denser the higher up the food chain they go. By the top predator, they are so dense, they can become deadly. In this case, the top predator is humankind. The consequences of plastic pollution in the sea, while not obvious, have serious repercussions.

One plastic chemical found in fish is known as diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). It has been known to cause cancer, birth defects, and childhood developmental problems. Another chemical spread by plastic, bisphenol A (BPA), affects hormones. A study done by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 93 percent of Americans had BPA in their urine. It is linked to increased risk of autism, birth deformities in boys, and breast cancer.

Plastic toxins are deadly, but so is the plastic itself. In one study, scientists took tap water samples from over twelve different countries. They found that over 83 percent of the samples contained microplastics. Not only are microplastics harmful to digest by themselves, but they act as sponges and could potentially harbor many pathogens along with the harmful plastic chemicals they were made with. A majority of the world consumes microplastic and incredibly dangerous chemicals just by drinking tap water.  

There are three different levels at which we can begin to unravel the effects of plastic. Citizens can recycle, reuse, and reduce more often, as well as teach others about the harms of plastic. 

            Companies can reduce their plastic footprint by, for example, using different packaging for products, such as paper and cardboard. There are also biodegradable packaging options. Once finalized and distributed to the market, these materials will be a significant keystone in fighting against plastic pollution. Companies could also no longer hand out free plastic bags.

             Countries or states can ban plastic bags and bottles. While the transition would require a lot of logistical maneuvers, it would substantially decrease the plastic produced every year and ultimately reduce the amount of plastic swept into the ocean. 

Plastic is dangerous in all forms of its existence. It increases human health risks. The plastic consequence is not a problem that should be taken lightly. However, it is a problem that has a solution. If citizens, companies, and countries all act efficiently in the remaining time left, the effects of plastic pollution can still be mitigated.

About the author

Claire Barry