The Devastating Effects of Plastic Pollution
by Alan Cruz, age 17
Over the last several decades, the proliferation of disposable plastics has emerged as one of the most critical threats to the environment. Plastic pollution is especially problematic in impoverished Asian and African countries, where waste collection services are frequently ineffective or nonexistent. Even developed countries, especially those with low recycling rates, are having difficulty collecting discarded plastics in a proper manner. Plastic waste has become so omnipresent in our world’s natural environment that scientists have speculated that it could act as a geological indication of the current Anthropocene period.
Plastic products made from fossil fuels have been around for a little over a century. Following WWII, the production of thousands of new plastic products skyrocketed. Plastics changed medicine with life-saving gadgets; enabled space exploration; helped make possible lightweight vehicles and aircraft; and saved lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for safe drinking water. These innovations revolutionized the modern world to the point that living without plastic would be unimaginable today.
However, the use of plastic has a significant cost. Since the 1950s, a consequential amount of solid plastic has been produced and accumulated but it has not been disposed of properly. While much of this plastic has ended up in landfills around the world, an extensive amount of waste has entered the natural ecosystem. Over half of all plastic is used once and then discarded, taking hundreds of years to degrade completely.
In addition to the sense that plastic pollution is unpleasant and unnatural, plastic kills millions of endangered species every year. For instance, plastic can injure marine life when it becomes fragmented into microplastics, plastic particles with a diameter of less than 5 millimeters. Microplastics are significant contributors to plastic pollution due to their tiny size. They’re poisonous to sea life and can injure humans who subsequently consume seafood.
Efforts are being made, nonetheless, to improve the situation or at the very least reduce the impact of plastic on our natural environments. For example, in 2008, the nation of Rwanda, in Africa, enacted legislation prohibiting the use of plastic bags, and many other countries have followed suit. Most recently, in 2017, all 193 UN Member States implemented a strategy to prevent plastic garbage from entering the ocean.
In order to eliminate plastic waste from reaching natural environments, it must first be collected. Naturally, keeping such tiny particles out of the environment is a big issue considering that the shape, size, and type of plastic are significantly different. Polyester microfibers, for example, are light enough to float in the air, but tire microplastics are heavy enough to be washed up from roads into streams and enter the ocean.
Although countries are struggling to control their plastic waste, global efforts are being made to counter the natural damage. In many developed countries, like the United States, most disposable plastic is collected. Despite this, five countries in Asia —Philippines, Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam— are dumping more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined. Hopefully with support of global organizations like the UN, countries can come together to combat this critical environmental issue. However, considering the rate that our world is continuing to produce plastic products, it seems that this issue is here for the foreseeable future.
[Source: National Geographic]