By Emily Southard
When people think of the word immortality, many think of superheroes, gods, and high-powered creatures. They think of mighty and powerful people who are able to live forever. Whether or not people believe that this kind of power exists, immortality has been achieved by another powerful substance. This very commonly known and used substance is plastic. Plastic is incapable of being fully destroyed, even when using chemicals to break it down. Plastic can be recycled, but it is never truly “gone.” Even though plastic is terrible for the environment, people still use it every day, whether they are aware of it or not. When a person wakes up in the morning, they use their plastic toothbrush, in the shower they use their plastic shampoo container, to watch television they use their plastic remote, and in restaurants they use a plastic straw. Michelle Sigler, a graduate of the Advanced Inquiry Program at Chicago Zoological Society, boldly expresses, “Annually, more than 35 million plastic bottles and 500 billion plastic bags are used by consumers, many of which end up in our oceans and along our beaches” (1). All of these items are used all the time, but most people don’t think about where they go after they throw them away. Most people assume that all plastic is recycled. That is somewhat true; however, most plastics end up being thrown in the dump, and in the worst cases, straight into the ocean. As streams, rivers, and lakes connect and join together to eventually flow into the ocean, more and more plastics are ending up in the ocean environments. The plastics found in oceans are negatively affecting organisms and habitats around the world. There are two interesting aspects to plastic pollution in oceans: the impacts of plastic pollution on animal health and the practical uses of plastics removed from the ocean biome.
The first interesting aspect of plastic pollution in the ocean is the impact of plastic pollution on animal health. As people are throwing away plastic on a daily basis, the plastic is ending up in rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, sewers, and oceans. Million of animals live in every type of body of water. These animals use the water and the resources around them like humans live in their houses. They feed, sleep, have families, and survive in each of these habitats. The plastic that is being throw in the ocean is ending up in these animals’ habitats. Many people believe that once they throw something away, it disappears. Unfortunately, instead of disappearing, it ends up as food for species who live in those areas. The most commonly known animals being affected by plastic are sea turtles. Jellyfish are a big part of a sea turtle’s diet. Sometimes the jellyfish that a sea turtle just ate was not a jellyfish at all, but a plastic bag. By having the same color and texture, a sea turtle has a difficult time distinguishing if it is food or trash. These plastic bags end up in their bodies, and in most cases, their digestive systems. Sigler horrifyingly adds, “For the last 40 years, of the 371 autopsies conducted on leatherback turtles, 37.2% of them had plastic in their gastrointestinal tracts” (3). In addition to sea turtles, plastic is hurting every species in the oceans. Just as sea turtles are gulping down plastic bags mistaking them as jellyfish, fish and birds are ingesting the plastic as well. Cozar and Cole, professors and coworkers in a biological and ecological impact of microplastic research project, professionally acknowledge that plastic is affecting organisms in every way possible:
Sea birds scoop up floating plastic pellets, which can resemble fish eggs. Young
albatross have been found dead from starvation, their stomachs full of plastic garbage.
While feeding, adult seabirds skim floating trash with their beaks. Parent birds then
regurgitate the plastic to feed their young. (These plastic bits eventually can kill them.)
The same effects are happening to sharks, dolphins, fish, and crabs. The plastic gets stuck in their airways, digestive systems, eyes, and gills. “Plastic Trash Altering Ocean Habitats” horrifyingly states “nine percent of the fish collected during SEAPLEX contained plastic waste in their stomachs” (24). Similar to the harmful effects that plastic has on sea turtles and seabirds, these other ocean species suffer from ingesting plastics. Sigler justifiably states, “Ingested plastic debris has been found to reduce stomach capacity, hinder growth, cause internal injuries, and create intestinal blockage” (2). One of the biggest and ongoing problem happening in the oceans, is the amount of microplastic. Rachid Dris, a Ph.D student at the University Paris-Est in the LEESU, and his cowriters knowledgably explain, “In the marine environment, studies consider microplastics as particles smaller than 5 mm in size” (546). These pieces of plastic are so tiny that most animals do not know they are there. These microplastics are “particles that are impossible to distinguish without optical tools and cannot be handled individually without optical tools (e.g. microscope, stereo microscope)” (Dris et al. 546). The article “86 Million Metric Tons of Plastic Polluting Oceans” truthfully explains, “The pieces of plastic we discard break down into smaller and smaller bits during their travels through the ocean, but never break down completely, becoming part of our food chain when consumed by marine life.” The plastic gets in the skin and gills of the organisms and gets stuck on barnacles and reefs. “The BBC reports that anyone consuming an “average amount” of seafood in a given year ingests some 11,000 plastic particles annually” (“86 Million Metric Tons”). Not only are organisms ingesting microplastics in their meals, but humans are eventually ingesting the microplastics as well. The plastic being put into oceans will not stop destroying the environment, and it will only get worse unless people do something to stop it. The impact of plastic pollution on animal health is the first interesting aspect to plastic pollution in the ocean.
The second interesting aspect of plastic pollution in oceans is the practical use of plastics removed from the ocean. The removal of plastics is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. With the never-ending amount of plastic, including microplastics, being disposed in the ocean, scientists and engineers are having to devise new methods to extract and recycle these plastics. Of course, one way to reduce the amount of plastic pollution is to use less plastic, but in a materialistic world, that can be extremely difficult. A second way is thermal degradation. Sigler knowingly defines that thermal degradation is a method “for chemical recycling involving gasification” (7). The plastic is heated to an incredibly high temperature and then converted into a fuel. This method has been found to produce minimal waste, however, it does produce carbon dioxide in the air, which could eventually cause problems with air pollution. The third and most environmentally friendly way would be to use alternate materials to plastic to produce daily-use products. The article “What are Businesses Doing to Turn off the Plastic Tap?” enthusiastically comments that the “UN Environment examined the potential of replacing conventional plastics with a range of natural material, such as paper, cotton, wood, algae and fungi, and alternative technologies, such as new generation bio-polymers made from biomass sources.” This is saying that a company may start making containers out of waste organic material and fungi to help reduce waste. The greatest change that is taking place is the fact that companies are removing plastics from the oceans and reusing them in their popular, widely-used products. Why produce more plastic when companies can just use the waste plastic in their products? That is what companies are starting to do, and it is already making a positive impact on ocean environments. Companies are starting to use plastics found in oceans to produce both products, including clothing, jewelry, and shoes, and their packaging: “REN Clean Skincare reported it will be one of the first skincare brands to offer consumers a product in a 100 percent recycled bottle containing reclaimed ocean plastic” (“REN Clean Skincare”). Even though scientists have researched and found many types of plastics and trash in the oceans, companies are getting the most use out of these plastic bottles. Not only are the companies using the plastic, but they are also playing a crucial role in changing this unsustainable dynamic of one-time use plastics. A handful of large and small firms have already started trying to do their part by collecting and incorporating plastic from oceans in their products or packaging. The article, “86 Million Metric Tons of Plastic Polluting Oceans” reveals that more known brands are involved in this recycling plastic project:
Perhaps a more surprising user of ocean waste plastic is Dell Computers, which recently started processing plastics collected from beaches, waterways and coastal areas and using them as part of the packaging system for its leading “2-in-1” laptop line, the XPS 13. Likewise, German activewear maker Adidas has partnered with the non-profit Parley for the Oceans in launching three lines of its popular UltraBoost shoes all made from plastic debris from oceans and beaches.
As these popular brands are starting to publicize their contribution to this type of plastic recycling, other brands are becoming interested and joining the movement. Whether they are large or small firms, and whether they are joining the plastic movement for environmental or economic reasons, it does not matter because it is positively affecting environment. It is hard to suddenly change the way a product is made in a large firm, but many companies have stated they are working on changing production in future years. The following statements are just a few of many projects companies are working on towards the future: “Nestlé pledged to make all its plastic packaging 100 per cent recyclable or reusable by 2025”, “Coca-Cola, which uses around 120 billion bottles a year, launched its World Without Waste campaign in January, saying it would recycle a used bottle or can for every new one sold by 2030,” and “McDonald’s has said it will make all its packaging from renewable and recyclable sources by 2025” (“What Are Business Doing to Turn off the Plastic Tap?”). These companies are a part of a world-changing movement to help eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign and effective recycling. To be able to recycle the plastic found in oceans and to reduce the amount of new plastic being made, can help reduce the environmental impact on Earth. The practical uses of plastics removed from the ocean is the second interesting aspect of plastic pollution in the oceans.
There have been some great discoveries, data, and research work done on plastic throughout the recent years, and this is just the beginning. Researchers have a better idea on how much plastic is out there, what is affected by it, and some ideas on how to dispose of it. Even though companies are helping clean the oceans, there are still billions of plastic products floating in the ocean systems. Sigler professionally explains that “The United Nations has estimated that 5-10 million t[ons] of plastic are circulating in the North Pacific Ocean between California and Japan” (2). As this human-generated plastic trash is floating and traveling around in the water, the size of the plastic is broken-down to the “size of a fingernail” (“Plastic Trash Altering Ocean Habitats” 22). “Floating Plastic Trash Common in Oceans” educationally comments that research “categorized plastic into four size classes: from roughly equivalent to a grain of sand to a grain of rice to a water bottle and finally anything larger” (21). Since these plastics are not disintegrating or decomposing, they are ending up in clumps together. The largest clump of plastics is famously called, “The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch” and is “estimated to be twice the size of Texas” (Sigler 2). This patch of plastics is so huge that scientists have given it an actual name. The patch is a “big nebulous clutter of large and small plastic pieces extending 100-ft deep” (Sigler 2). Some people even compare this patch to be almost the size of the continent Australia. This patch and several other patches around the world are only growing larger with the extensive use of single-use plastics. “Plastic Trash Altering Ocean Habitats” dramatically comments, “the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has increased by 100 times over the past 40 years” (23). These gigantic patches, the tiny pieces of plastic, and even the water bottle sitting on the side of the road, are affecting the natural habitats of animals and are negatively impacting oceanic ecosystems. Every living organism cannot live without water. With a resource being so precious to life, humans should not be contaminating it. The dramatic increase of plastic could soon have ocean-goers swimming in plastic and seafood nonexistent in grocery stores, unless engineers, researchers, companies, and even ordinary people can do something extraordinary and save the planet Earth.
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“What Are Businesses Doing to Turn off the Plastic Tap?” UN Environment, 28 June 2018, www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/what-are-businesses-doing-turn-plastic-tap.