Effects on the Environment
Plastic pollution occurs in many forms, including but not limited to littering, marine debris (man-made waste that has been released into a lakes, oceans, and interior waterways), microplastic water pollution, synthetic clothing fiber and plastic netting. A large percentage of plastic produced each year is used to make single-use, disposable packaging items or products which will get permanently thrown out. Often, consumers of the various types of plastics mainly use them for one purpose and then discard or recycle them.
As per the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in 2011 plastics contributed to over 12% of municipal solid waste. As a comparison, in the 1960s, plastics contributed to less than 1% of municipal solid waste.
Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources and also the ecosystem. This can cause serious harm to the species that drink this water. Landfill areas are constantly piled high with many different types of plastics. In these landfills, there are many microorganisms which speed up the biodegradation of plastics. Regarding biodegradable plastics, as they are broken down, methane is released. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change.
Nurdles are plastic pellets (a type of microplastic) that are shipped in this form, often in cargo ships, to be used for the creation of plastic products. A significant amount of nurdles are spilled into oceans, and it has been estimated that globally, around 10% of beach litter is nurdles. Plastics in oceans can degrade within a year, but not entirely, and in the process toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A and polystyrene can leach into waters from some plastics. Polystyrene pieces and nurdles are the most common types of plastic pollution in oceans, and combined with plastic bags and food and beverage containers make up the majority of oceanic debris. In 2012, it was estimated that there was approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution in the world's oceans.
Effects on Animals
Plastic pollution has the potential to poison animals, which can then adversely affect human food supplies. Plastic pollution has been described as being highly detrimental to large marine mammals, described in the book Introduction to Marine Biology as posing the "single greatest threat" to them. Some marine species, such as sea turtles, have been found to contain large proportions of plastics in their stomach. When this occurs, the animal typically starves, because the plastic blocks the animal's digestive tract. Marine mammals sometimes become entangled in plastic products such as nets, which can harm or kill them.
Over 260 species, including invertebrates, have been reported to have either ingested plastic or become entangled in the plastic. When a species gets entangled, its movement is seriously reduced, therefore making it very difficult to find food. Being entangled usually results in death or severe lacerations and ulcers. It has been estimated that over 400,000 marine mammals perish annually due to plastic pollution in oceans. In 2004, it was estimated that seagulls in the North Sea had an average of thirty pieces of plastic in their stomachs. Marine plastic pollution can even reach birds that have never been at the sea. Parents can deliver plastic junk food to their hatchlings.
Effects on Humans
Plastics contain many different types of chemicals, depending on the type of plastic. The addition of chemicals is the main reason why these plastics have become so multipurpose; however this creates issues. Some of the chemicals used in plastic production have the potential to be absorbed by human beings through skin absorption. Much is unknown on how severely humans are physically affected by these chemicals. Some of the chemicals used in plastic production can cause dermatitis upon contact with human skin.
Phthalates are chemicals used in many plastics to make them soft or flexible, i.e. plasticizers. They are widely used in plastic products in the food and construction industries, plus they are used extensively in beauty products, pesticides, wood finishes, insect repellents, solvents and lubricants. There are a number of phthalates with differing though often overlapping health effects. Studies have linked various phthalates to abnormal male sexual development, male infertility, premature breast development, cancer, miscarriage, premature birth and asthma. Because phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastic polymer, they can easily migrate out. In many plastics, these toxic chemicals are only used in trace amounts, but significant testing is often required to ensure that the toxic elements are contained within the plastic by an inert material or polymer.
Billions of straws are discarded every year, filtering into landfill and littering the oceans. This is extremely detrimental to the environment, as plastics can’t biodegrade, they last indefinitely – breaking down into smaller micro plastic pieces known as plastic soup, feeding into the food chain and potentially ending up on our dinner plates. Not exactly what you would want to eat.
Unfortunately straws are not recyclable. So billions of these will be added to our landfills and will stay there forever. Sure they make easier for us so our drinks don't spill every where while driving or walking but is it really worth adding so many to environment? What can you do to help? Good question. They make glass straws that can be reused, using portable drink bottles are always a plus or just plain declining a straw while out could be very helpful. The one use straws from juice pouches and fast food restaurants seem to find themselves left on the beach, in our waters and parks.
Now certain cities are now banning the use of one use straws. Miami Beach, FL is one of these cities that are making concession stands and vendors ditch the plastic tube litter. They also have added cigarette bins to help cut down on that litter too. Every little bit a city, county and citizen can do to make our environment cleaner... can really make an impact.
Plastic caps can be found almost everywhere. Streams, seas, rivers and of course on our land caps can be found and create a hazard to our environment. Animals can easily ingest these pesky pop toppers and could cause them to choke, get sick or die! Countless numbers of wildlife have been affected by these caps that have been so carelessly littered. Good news for these caps is that they can be recycled. It's better to recycle these because even in a landfill birds that scavenge can swallow a cap. Check your local recycling department to make sure they accept caps. If not you can always do your part by sending them to a companies like Resource Depot and CapsCanDo. They will accept your caps and upcycle them into something else.
Every form of plastic can be a danger to our environment and plastic bags are no exception. Sea turtles ingest them thinking they are jellyfish, a food source for them. Animals can get entangled and strangled by plastic bags. Bags tend to shred easily as well making animals more susceptible to ingesting the plastic that can easily get caught in their digestive tract and can cause malnutrition and starvation. Basically it can kill animals if swallowed.
Don't be deceived by plastic bags that say they are bio-degradable. It can still take several years for a the bags to break down in the natural environment. Bags can smother and prevent the growth of flowers, plants and other vegetation if not picked up. Endangered plants in the Florida sand dunes could be at risk if litter is left there for too long.
Plastic bags may not be recyclable in our bins at home but many grocery stores have bins in the front of the store to bring your bags and have them recycled. We suggest nixing the plastic bags altogether and bring your own reusable bags. Also if you can carry your purchase up to the counter there is no reason you can't carry it out. One or two items really don't need to be bagged. As consumers we need to make changes such as using less plastic bags.