Today's Plastic, Tomorrow's Fish Pie

The detrimental price of plastic on human health and the environment

The ocean, seemingly pristine and pure; a home for the unknown and a place that attracts many of us due to it’s beauty; a place many of us visit to escape, to clear our minds and to open our imagination.

An experience that, once witnessed, demands it again and again.

Yet, now, it’s all too common that we venture to these places to see nothing but mess; The place we thought of to be pristine is now looking more like a dumping ground with around 5,170 pieces of litter being cleaned up per km across UK beaches and a staggering 13,840,398 pieces across 14,997 miles of shoreline in 112 countries (statistics from the 2016 International Coastal Cleanup).

The emotions that once filled us with joy and serenity are now places that fill us with anger, regret, sadness and hurt. What we see today on our coasts is a mixed array of broken plastics, non-degradable string and plastic packaging. We see everyday plastic packaging, plastic bottles, old ‘cut-away’ fishing nets, tyres and so much more.

We don’t even have to go to the beach to witness this travesty, images of how these plastic products are impacting the environment and wildlife are across all social media channels and the news. You have probably seen the strangled seals with plastic materials wrapped so tightly around their necks that they imbed deep into the flesh showing deep, strangling, open wounds. You have seen the images of the turtles with deformed shells due to the 6 rings that are used on beer cans. Maybe you have watched the video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nasal passage so tightly that pliers were needed to pull it out. Images and videos of this nature can sometimes be distressing to many, causing us to simply scroll straight past. Feelings of guilt and sadness flood through us and we make ourselves feel somewhat better by either playing ignorance (ignorance is bliss) or by telling ourselves that it is out of our hands and that the damage has already been done.

Plastics and the ocean

In a 2014 study by the 5 Gyres Institute, it was estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing around 269,000 tons were floating on the surface of the ocean. However, although this is an incredible amount of plastic, the findings have been argued due to a large proportion of plastics being negatively buoyant (sink rather than float). Anna-Marie Cook a scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, believes that plastics collected from the surface of the ocean using trawl nets vastly underestimates the amount of plastic that is actually in the ocean. Trawls do not account for the amount of plastics on the ocean floor or in sediments. Adding to this, the 2014 study is now outdated, indicating that the data is now different. With the human population rising, plastic is more than likely rising too! Clues around what this growth rate may be can be found in the rate of Plastic production which has risen rapidly from 1.9 million tons in 1950 to 330 million tons in 2013.

Even with today’s knowledge of the impact plastic is having on the environment, a group of scientists from the University of Georgia found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics with 6.3 billion tons already being waste. They estimate that by 2050, 2 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment, that is, if we carry on in the way that we are at this present moment in time, even when recycling efforts are put into practice.

Recycling is extremely important; however, recycling plastic comes with a waste footprint. To recycle plastic, it takes up a great deal of energy and resources and due to the structure of it’s molecules it becomes heat sensitive. Meaning it can only be used for specific products such as bumper stickers and textiles. So, although it is great to reuse the plastic, it will inevitably end up in the environment at one point or another. An article published in the Discover Magazine outlines that using recycled plastics to make new products takes two-thirds less energy than using virgin plastics. However, the article also explains the complexity of recycling plastic. Not all plastics can be recycled, and the process is very complex due to the sorting. If a food substance of any kind is left on the plastic, it would ruin a whole batch of would-be recyclables.

The Effect on Marine Life

Extensive research has been undertaken to discover the effects that plastic has on the environment and to species living in the ocean and on land. It is quite a disturbing thought when understanding the fact that, we humans have indirectly caused death to many living entities. Even when we are conscious of the issue and we try our best not to use plastic, it is for the most part un-avoidable. The great issue here is that it is a great challenge to avoid the use of plastic. Try to monitor your waste bin over the next week, or be a little more mindful when shopping to understand how much plastic you use; most of which is used just once and then thrown out. A large quantity of that plastic ends up in the environment and causes a variety of negative impacts such as diseased coral reefs, internal damage to marine life and starvation to sea birds due to blockage of the gastrointestinal tract.

Due to the durability of plastic, it exists in the environment for years to centuries, in some cases failing to degrade at all if not exposed to bacterial activity or UV exposure. When exposure has not taken place, plastics eventually break down into ‘microplastics’. Plastics found to be 5mm or under are classed as microplastics and they can be found everywhere! They have the ability to sorb (take up) persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances and are now present in almost all water bodies. Microplastics are ingested by a variety of species that live In and around ocean habitats. The tiniest microplastics are mistaken for zooplankton by many marine species; whereas nurdles (small pieces of plastic used to make plastic products) that have been accidentally spilled at sea, are mistaken for eggs by larger predators. A study published by Scientific Reports in 2015 found that the ingestion of plastic by fish species causes physical harm from the material itself and also causes liver toxicity due to the harmful chemicals that have been sorbed to the plastic from the surrounding waters.

A study conducted by the University of California found that some plastics are attractive to consumers due to the smell. The researchers placed plastic beads in the ocean in mesh bags to be monitored; when recovered, they found that the beads emitted dimethyl sulfide, a compound produced by phytoplankton. This compound attracts predators of zooplankton. With this information, the researchers collected data from 13,350 seabirds and found that bird species known to be attracted to dimethyl sulfide ingested the greatest amounts of plastic.

The chemicals found in plastic are now found in marine species and are present in many of the fish that humans eat such as tuna and swordfish. Scientists are trying to develop ways to test the harmful chemicals on human tissue but have yet to come to any definitive answers. Due to this, it has been argued that the chemicals are not impacting human health, so the consumption of and the production of plastics is still accepted. It is evident that plastics are a danger, yet government officials wait until humans are affected rather than ending the use before they are affected.

Not only are microplastics found in water (where most research has been conducted), they are also present in the environment due to the use of plastic mulch on farms and sewage sludge which is used to fertalise farm land. The microplastics continue to breakdown (but not degrade) in the soil which eventually results in ‘nanoplastics’. Nanoplastics are small enough to pass through the cells of plants. This is due to the sorb effect that the chemicals within plastic has to water. In-depth research has not yet been undertaken to determine how the plants are affected; however, this is likely to cause knock-on effects to the ecosystem.

If we just think about the amount of mulch that has been used over the years, it has been estimated that farmers have been inadvertently adding some 300,000 metric tons annually to farmland in North America and a further 63,000–430,000 metric tons in Europe. This beats the amount found on the surface of the oceans by a significant amount! With that in mind, you can imagine the amount of nanoplastics that are now in the environment effecting plants and wildlife.

The effect on Human Health

As this article outlines, there are many negative impacts that are associated with plastic. However, looking at the statistics of the growth of plastic production and the estimations of future growth, it seems unlikely that there will be a global change in the way that we use plastic.

Scientists have been working hard over the last decade to show evidence of plastic impacting human health. One group of harmful chemicals found in plastics is phthalates which have shown to cause birth defects and impaired learning in animal subjects. A human study published in The Scientific World Journal found that all participants involved had phthalates in their sweat and majority had it in their urine, suggesting widespread phthalate exposure.

The most researched adverse effect of phthalate exposure is endocrine disruption. This system is responsible for the production and secretion of hormones. Therefore when disrupted, sex organs may be effected. Animal studies have shown that animals exposed experience adverse effects such as a decrease in weight of the testis, progressive degeneration of germ cells and hormonal disruption in Leydig cells.

With the evidence that has been found, there is still much skepticism. A baffling reaction as plastics are now so deeply integrated into our environment that by the time there is solid evidence on human health, it will be far too late to reverse the damage. There are still no regulations to limit the amount of plastics found in food products, yet concentrations of plastics that are said to exceed the allowable limits for human consumption, are being found in food products across the world such as: cabbage, radish and lettuce that have been grown using plastic mulch according to a study published in Sci Total Environ.

Get involved with the change

There is no doubt that plastic has had an incredibly great impact on today’s society. It has been a revolution in the medical industry, it has reduced the amount of infection and pain management. It is also used to create prosthetic limbs. Plastic has significantly reduced carbon emissions by reducing the weight of aircrafts and vehicles. Packaging for products are expected to weigh 400% more if we are to remove plastics, this will then cause energy costs to double. It could be argued that this is a trade-off worth making as natural energy could be used to generate power, however, plastic is needed to produce the renewable energy systems themselves.

Nevertheless, the problems plastic creates is not in these large system advancements and developments, but more in the consumer field as most plastics found in and on the oceans are single use plastics. Plastic bottles greatly outnumbered any plastic found in the 2016 International Coastal Cleanup. It is our unnecessary use of plastic that is the problem. This over consumption has come at a great cost to our environment and the many species living within it. We cannot drastically change or reverse the damage, but we can begin to shift our behaviours. We can watch what we buy and use and monitor our recycling habits.

We can, for certain, stop using plastic water bottles! Save money too by purchasing a water bottle.. Government can also get involved with the reduction of plastic waste by implementing incentives to ensure a higher success rate of recycling plastic bottles such as the plastic tax. Apply a tax to plastic bottles which the consumer can have returned upon recycling into the appropriate bins. Sweden, Germany and Norway now have an average recycling rate of 90% since implementing this scheme, whereas Britain has a lower percentage of 57.

Further tips on reducing your plastic footprint include:

  • Pre-pack lunch in a re-usable lunch box — start small with maybe twice a week and build from there. Find lunch containers that you like and disregard the plastic wrap and sandwich bags.
  • Carry a shopping bag (the 5p bag charge has resulted in an 85% drop in usage! Great move by the UK government!)
  • Stop using plastic straws
  • Try out an eco-toothbrush
  • Think quality over quantity! Treat yourself to a nice razor and stop using disposable ones, purchase quality food containers or rethink your storage — wood/glass over plastic.
  • Buy your food in bulk — Most of the plastic we buy is from grocery shopping. Use your own bags and boxes and buy in bulk to avoid an unnecessary build up. Look out for refilling stations and aim to by fresh produce that you pick yourself using a brown paper bag rather than pre-packaged fruit and veg.

To summarise, plastics have shown to cause serious health implications to wildlife. The same chemicals that have negatively affected wildlife have been found in human foods at high levels and have also been found in human urine and sweat. Science has not concluded the effects that this may have on our health. However, if animal studies are anything to go by then we too may be greatly affected by these harmful chemicals. Moreover, plastics have become a huge eyesore and waste problem due to them not degrading.

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