The World’s Plastic Crisis Explained

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them. Plastic pollution is most visible in developing Asian and African nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or non-existent. But the developed world, especially in countries with low recycling rates, also has trouble properly collecting discarded plastics. 

 

How did it happen?

Plastics made from fossil fuels are just over a century old. Production and development of thousands of new plastic products accelerated after World War II, so transforming the modern age that life without plastics would be unrecognizable today. Plastics revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jets—saving fuel and pollution—and saved lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water.

The conveniences plastics offer, led to a throw-away culture that reveals the material’s dark side: today, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

How Plastic moves around the world

Most of the plastic trash in the oceans, flows from land. Trash is also carried to sea by major rivers which act as conveyor belts, picking up more and more trash as they move downstream. Once at sea, much of the plastic trash remains in coastal waters. But once caught up in ocean currents, it can be transported around the world.

Microplastics

Once at sea, sunlight, wind, and wave action break down plastic waste into small particles, often less than one-fifth of an inch across. These so-called microplastics are spread throughout the water column and have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench the deepest trough.

The Harm to Wildlife

Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics.

Most of the deaths to animals are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles, and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing equipment or discarded six-pack rings. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates. In many cases, these tiny bits pass through the digestive system and are expelled without consequence. But plastics have also been found to have blocked digestive tracts or pierced organs, causing death. 

What Can We Do 

Once in the ocean, it is difficult if not impossible to retrieve plastic waste. The solution is to prevent plastic entering our rivers and oceans in the first place. To do this we need to educate ourselves on recycling properly, improve our waste management systems in all countries and choose brands that are conscious of this and making swaps to more sustainable or biodegradable goods. 

What changes will you make?

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