The Plastic Plague
Plastic is a massive issue, not only for the environment but also for our planet’s overall survival and well-being. When Leo Baekeland created the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907, it was called “the material of a thousand uses.” In WWII, the United State’s plastic production increased by 300%. Environmentalists first recorded plastic debris in the ocean in the ’60s, and it has overrun our seas ever since. As of 2016, 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been used and discarded as waste. To put that into perspective, 1 billion elephants are equal to 7.5 billion tons, and that waste ends up in the ocean, where it stays for 20 to 500 years until it decomposes. Plastic is often inadequately disposed of, and it ends up in the sea. Even when adequately recycled, companies don’t always succeed and fully recycle them. In most cases, the plastic floats on the top of the ocean. For example, the 79,000-ton Garbage Patch floating in the Pacific Ocean.
The Effect On Our Animals
The massive amounts of plastic have affected almost every animal in Marine ecosystems. For example, baleen whales feed by opening their mouths and consuming small animals called Krill, and they cannot control what enters their mouths, so any debris in the ocean they might eat accidentally. The plastic then builds up and blocks the digestion system of the whale; a young Cuvier beaked whale died of starvation because of 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Whales are not the only ones affected. Sea birds have also eaten pieces of plastic because bacteria grow on the plastic, and the birds smell it and think it is food. Sea turtles are also victims of plastic, mistaking a floating plastic bag for a jellyfish. Every piece of plastic has a 50% chance of being fatal. Plastic consumption is destructive and harmful to the Oceans’ health and well-being.
Consumed plastic is only one of the worries when it comes to impacting animals and their ecosystems. Animal entanglement is a common side effect of plastic waste. Once the fishing gear was biodegradable, it can still harm animals since the nets contain plastic. When fishing nets get lost at sea, they can still entrap animals and damage them. Called “Ghost Fishing,” these loose nets can trap animals; if one gets stuck to an animal when it is young, it can constrict when it grows and cause cuts, leading to infections. Most entrapment cases become fatal because they can prohibit the animal from finding food, escaping, predators, and cause scratches that become infected. For the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale’s most common cause of death is entanglement. Coral reefs are also affected by this. Fishing nets can wrap around coral and smother it so it cannot get food.
Reducing Our Plastic Use
Reducing the overall use of plastics can lower the amount of waste in the ocean:
- Plastic coffee cups are one of the most discarded items, so getting a personal cup will help reduce their use; most shops offer a discount for using a personal coffee cup.
- Plastic water bottles are the most common item found on beach cleanups, and reusable bottles are better for the environment and the well-being of Marine life. If offered any plastic cutlery, it is best to decline, and it is best to reuse plastic utensils.
- Plastic straws last for 200 years before they decompose. Paper straws or silicone straws are more environmentally friendly than a piece of plastic that will live longer than the average human.
- Beeswax wraps are new environmentally friendly ways to seal and preserve food, along with aluminum foil, which is better than using plastic wrap.
- Glitter and gum are both derived from plastic, and plastic-free substitutes are small ways to help improve the environment.
History of plastic – https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics
The Smithsonian’s Marine plastic- https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/pollution/marine-plastics
Tips to reduce plastic waste – https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/ten-tips-reduce-your-plastic-footprint