Plastic is everywhere. From soda bottles to cars, packaging to electronics, fishing gear to clothing and everything in between, it’s not surprising that such a widely used substance has environmental consequences. Though plastic has many advantages in the right situation, it’s simply been used too much. Here are 5 ways that plastic harms the environment, and 5 reasons to reduce plastic waste as much as possible.
5 Ways Plastic Harms the Environment
1. Kills Ocean Life
By now you’ve probably heard about the mass amounts of plastic polluting oceans and other waterways. Plastic debris makes its way into oceans from rivers, shorelines, or boats. This plastic debris affects all kinds of ocean life, from sea turtles to ocean birds to sharks to fish and everything in between. Animals get tangled or stuck in discarded nets or bottles, choke on plastic debris, fill their stomachs with plastic they mistake for food, and much more. As these animals die, the ecosystems they play an essential part in begin to die with them.
Besides killing marine animals, plastic pollution also harms the environment by destroying habitats. You may have heard of the ocean garbage patches, huge collections of plastic thousands of miles across containing literal tons of plastic. These areas contain solid plastic debris as well as tiny microplastic beads, kept in place by ocean currents. These areas are uninhabitable and uncrossable by most animals, and they now cover huge swathes of the ocean.
As ocean ecosystems die, the effects don’t stop at the ocean itself. This also creates catastrophes for humanity, including starvation, overheating, widespread land erosion, and more.
Twice the Ice Refillable Water and Ice Stations Divert an Average of 250,000 Plastic Bottles per Location—approximately 500 million bottles a year network-wide
2. Kills Terrestrial Wildlife
Plastic also harms the environment by killing land animals. Just like their water-dwelling counterparts, land animals haven’t evolved to deal with ocean pollution. They get tangled and choked in many of the same ways as ocean animals. Once again, this creates a ripple effect within ecosystems, which depend on every participant, from plants to bugs to apex predators to thrive. As their numbers decrease, the ecosystem weakens and shrinks.
Though the effects of plastic on plant life are still being studied, early experiments show that plastic negatively affects plant growth. This not only affects the ecosystems around us, which store carbon and provide oxygen, but also affects our own ability to grow food and feed livestock.
3. Takes Up Space
Keeping plastic debris contained is a difficult task, especially when dealing with the sheer amount of plastic waste produced daily. Around the world, humans produce 380 million tons of plastic waste annually. That number is hard to even imagine; it’s about 95 tons of plastic spread over every square mile of the United States.
The weight of plastic is only a fraction of the problem. Most plastic waste is lightweight, but takes up space, so the volume or the space that plastic waste takes up is a bigger problem. Most people don’t want to live close to landfills, so finding space for plastic waste often means moving it far away and making surrounding wildlife habitats even smaller. This is another way that plastic harms the environment.
Recycling seems like a solution to this problem. However, 90% of plastic waste is either buried or burned. Deceptive campaigns by plastic producers led consumers to believe that plastic could be effectively recycled, when it isn’t realistic. It’s much more expensive to recycle plastic, the options for using recycled plastic are slim, and it can’t be reused more than once or twice. The best option is simply not to use plastic that will end up as trash.
4. Produces Chemical Pollution
Plastic also harms the environment through pollution. Plastics are essentially made from oil and gas. Mining these nonrenewable resources produces harmful chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and many more.
With no place to store plastics, much of the world also incinerates plastic waste or attempts to recycle it. Both of these activities produce toxic chemicals into the air, which is harmful to both humans and the environment.
5. Creates Microplastics
You’ve probably heard the phrase “plastics don’t break down.” This is partially true; plastics don’t break down like organic materials do. Organic materials, like paper, cotton, hemp and many others decompose into nontoxic substances. In a sense, plastics do break down; they break into much smaller plastic particles now known as microplastics. These can be as large as a pebble or smaller than a single cell.
Microplastics are now found just about everywhere. These small particles pollute waterways, soil, plants, animals and humans. The effects of microplastics are being newly studied. Microplastics have been shown to affect soil quality, the microbes that live in it, and the tiny insects responsible for decomposition. Microplastics also affect larger animals in many ways, from damaging their DNA, stunting their growth, damaging reproductive organs and more.
The additives coating plastics, such as flame retardants and chemical stabilizers, also leach away as microplastics break down. The full effects of microplastics likely will not be well understood for years to come.