Plastic is an abundantly used resource, but it drastically affects our planet. The relationship between plastic & planet needs to change.
Plastic has become an addiction. Every product now comes in a plastic alternative. We are so used to opting for single-use, disposable plastic products that we don’t see the severe damage it is causing to the environment.
The only time we take notice of this problem is when we are out sightseeing and see a big pile of plastic waste. But simply acknowledging the plastic waste problem is not enough, we have to take action and change our habits to adopt easy plastic-free swaps and alternatives.
Plastic does not just severely affect our planet’s health but also our own health. let us understand the effects of plastic and how we can actively shift our attitude towards plastic and planet.
How does plastic affect the planet?
Plastic has become one of the most persistent pollutants on earth. It is made to last, and so it does. At every step of its 400 years long lifecycle, after or before being discarded, plastic creates greenhouse gases. That is contributing to global warming.
Here’s how plastic is drowning our planet.
Plastic and Climate Change
Almost all the plastic is produced and manufactured with materials like ethylene and propylene, and many fossil fuels. The process of extracting and transporting those fuels, and the production of plastic results in millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. Greenhouses gases contribute most to global warming and have a major impact on climate change.
Even the plastic that goes into circulation is equally troubling. India generates 15 million tonnes of plastic every year, out of which only one-fourth of plastic reaches recycling centres. Developing nations have poor solid waste management systems, resulting in more pollution and waste generation. These nations often rely on poorly-managed incineration process that develops more greenhouse gases.
Researchers have estimated that the global production and incineration of plastic creates 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in the air. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes each year.
Plastic pollution, like climate change, requires global cooperation because they are two sides of the same coin.
Plastic and the Environment
From the air we breathe, the water we drink to the land we live on; plastic is everywhere and affects all aspects of the environment.
Plastic & Marine Life Extinction
Plastics drastic effect on the ocean is common knowledge. But it is not just limited to the plastic waste in oceans. Approximately, there are about 2700 tons of plastic floating around the ocean surface. And according to a recent study by Plymouth University, this floating plastic has endangered 700 different marine life species.
Researches have found that up to 693 species have been documented as encountered by plastic debris. Out of this, 400 involved entanglements and indigestion. Plastic packaging and single-use plastic items like straws, ply bags and spoons make their way into the ocean and accidentally ingested by marine animals.
“We found that all known species of sea turtle and more than half of all species of marine mammal and seabird had been affected by marine debris – and that number has risen since the last major study,” explains Sarah Gall, one of the report’s authors as shared with the Business Standard.
Ocean plastic is an excellent surface for chemicals to cling to, that enter the ocean surface through runoffs, spills or other wastes. Through bioaccumulation, the predators store or digest the pollutants from multiple preys. Thus, species that are at the top of the food chain like whales are most likely to accumulate the highest amount of these chemicals.
Plastic Pollution and Landfills
Do you know where does the plastic waste that was not segregated and recycled land up? – in landfills. India generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste annually (as per a report from 2019). 40 per cent remains of this waste remain uncollected and stay on land taking thousands of years to decompose.
Landfills directly make the soil and land it’s located on, unusable. The toxic chemicals that spread over the soil, in time damages the adjacent soil fertility and land use. Industrial and electronic wastes destroy the soil quality and thus upsetting the land ecosystems.
Landfill gases and a large amount of landfill waste can easily start a fire. Once, the fire is ignited can be very difficult to douse it down. And thus furthermore adds to the plastic air pollution. Even combustion of landfills worsens the ecosystem even more. The burning chemicals adds more chemical load to the area, thus slowly but creating havoc.
Plastic polluting the Air
Plastic is not just polluting our lands and oceans, but also the air we breathe. Air pollution caused by plastic may not be as visible as the plastic washed up on our shore, but it certainly is a great threat to our human life and environment.
Plastic pollutes the air from the beginning to the end of its lifecycle. Production materials of plastic include benzene, carbon monoxide, ethylbenzene, hydrogen sulphide, ozone, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, toluene, volatile organic compounds and xylene. Each of these can result has a huge human health hazard not just to the factory workers but also to the nearby communities.
It’s not only the factories that pollute the air but our homes too. Many of the plastic items that we use regularly in our homes are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride)- a type of plastic that is difficult to recycle. PVC volatile organic compounds (VOCs that evaporate into the air at room temperature. The scientific term used for this process is outgassing.
Presence of Microplasticsor tiny plastic components has also been discovered in the air we breathe thus entering our bodies.
Plastic and Animals
As stated above marine animals digest plastic pollution floating in the oceans. But land animals and reptiles are equally at danger of plastic pollution.
When plastic is exposed to the elements for a long time, it breaks away into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are easy to consume for animals, without knowing what that is. These pieces of plastic whether large or small can clog the digestive system of the animals. Thus, hazardously impacting the animals.
Eating plastic is major distress, but even if it is not eaten, it still stands as a huge hazard to the animals. We have all seen videos and images on our social media, about sea turtles and seals helplessly entangled in plastic. This entangled plastic can lead to starvation and the death of these animals. In some documented cases, this entangled plastic cuts through the skin of these animals which leads to severe injuries.
Plastic is no friend of the environment and the planet. Now with microplastic, we have many macro level problems. The effects of plastic are not just limited to the environment but in variably extends to us, humans as well.
How does Plastic Waste affect Human Health?
We have all known how plastic pollution is hazardous to the environment and the ecosystem. But did you know that this eternal plastic is haphazard to our health too?
“Health problems associated with plastics throughout the lifecycle includes numerous forms of cancers, diabetes, several organ malfunctions, impact on eyes, skin and other sensory organs, birth defects” and many other impacts, said David Azoulay, one of the author’s of the report titled ‘Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet‘ published by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
He further adds, “And those are only the human health costs, they do not mention impacts on climate, impacts on fisheries or farmland productivity.”
Azoulay and his fellow research partners found unique health risks from each part of the plastic lifecycle:
- Extraction of fossil fuels, used in manufacturing plastic, results in air and water pollution
- Refining and producing plastic resins and additives results in cancer-causing elements and other toxics
- Plastic products or packaging leads to inhaled or ingested toxins or plastic particles
- Plastic incineration releases toxic compounds
- The degradation of plastic leads to microplastics, which is later consumed by wildlife, soil, water and humans.
Then there’s the plastic itself—research is rapidly revealing that microplastic may be found in our water, air, food, and even ourselves. What this means for our health as these particles move through our bodies is still unknown.
How is Plastic Pollution getting worse during the COVID-19 pandemic?
In the last two years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the need for PPE kits has been rising too. Single-use items for health safety means tons of plastic accumulating around us. This is impacting the predicted amount of reduction of plastic usage.
Furthermore, some recycling plants that normally assist in the disposal of plastic waste have been shut down as a result of COVID-19 lockdown. As a result, additional plastic garbage is being dumped in dumping grounds, negatively impacting the environment and the health of those living around these garbage dumps.
Plastic is definitely not a friend of the environment. Even though plastics were invented as an alternative to glass products as plastic is more durable, plastic has become a macro problem.
July is celebrated as #PlasticFree month. We urge our readers to re-evaluate their plastic consumption this month and make small plastic-free swaps to begin a plastic-free journey.
The planet is yours, the choice is yours. So, choose wisely!
Vaishnavi is a blogger and sustainability enthusiast who runs a small business. Her love for crocheting has resulted in starting an Instagram business account by the name of Sage Green where she sells handmade crochet products.