Plastic proliferates our world today. It comes on the phones we use constantly, the pens we use to write, the keyboards of our laptops, and sometimes, even in the fibers of our clothes. But what is this material and why has it made its way into virtually every aspect of our lives?
Plastics are a material chiefly made from petroleum into polymers. The first plastic as we know it today was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907 and the industry expanded and changed with the push for new technology in World War II. Plastics start out as small beads or pellets of polymer resin and are then melted down, and then molded into whatever form is desired. It is a multi-billion dollar industrial complex that has founded an important niche in our society today.
While plastics are lightweight, flexible and durable, and cheap to make, they have vastly negative environmental implications. Plastics require the use of large amounts of petroleum and energy, mainly in heat and electricity to be created. Once created they cannot be completely destroyed. Instead, if they even do break down, the do so into very minuscule bits called microplastics. They might be hard to see but they are everywhere.
Besides the pollution production, plastics provide a very real threat to the environment through its negative impacts on ocean species. They suffer the most out of all organisms because bodies of water act as magnets for plastic litter. Basically any plastic trash we can imaging ends up making its way into the ocean to be carried around by the currents and wreak havoc on the enviroment. From commonplace water bottles to large industrial nylon fishing nets, these plastics end up tearing up coral reefs, entangling sea animals, and even ending up in their stomachs. A large concern is the ingestion of plastics by these animals. Sea birds, sea turtles, and fish are of main concern. Birds are very attracted to colorful objects and plastics come in many bright ones. Sea turtles are known to commonly eat plastic bags because they look like jellyfish that they eat. Fish eat the microplastics. This translates to humans very directly. Not only are we slowly killing ocean species but we are also poisoning them and therefore ourselves. The plastic exudes its own toxins into the flesh of the fish, but it also releases those that it has absorbed int he polluted water around it. A study done by Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral researcher in California emphasizes this effect. The researchers took two groups of fish and fed one a diet of “clean plastic” that was not found in the ocean, and the other a diet that consisted in part of plastic found in the ocean. It was found that those fish with the diet of ocean plastic had higher levels of toxins and chemicals in their systems in tissues than those fed the “clean plastic.” This underscores just how dangerous plastic can be, especially as it moves up the food chain, the toxins become even more concentrated in larger fish species, and people start to become affected.
When looking at this problem from this perspective, we are not just poisoning the planet with our disregard for plastic pollution, but ourselves. All the plastic we’ve thrown away, that we thought would stay gone, is coming back to haunt us. We have the option to address this problem seriously, or to ignore it. However, it isn’t going away and all the while the concentration of plastic waste in the oceans if growing. How long can we wait until we completely poison our oceans?
History of Plastic
US Plastics Industry Information
NPR Ocean Plastics Article