Use of plastics and the impact on our Environment

By Khadijah and Hasanah Syifa Ahyani

When we talk about plastics, the first thing that comes to mind is usually plastic bags or perhaps plastic straws, but if we take a moment to ponder, we can see that nowadays almost everything is made out of plastic.

Plastics has become an important part of our daily life. It is convenient, cheap and accessible and our life would be way harder if there were no plastics. However, because of all the benefits that plastics brings and how convenient it is, we tend to take it for granted. We should always be reminded that plastics itself is a big cause of pollution and environmental damage.

This article attempts to look at the major impact plastics have caused to our environment.

Firstly, our oceans are impacted the most by the dumping of plastic wastes. It is predicted that more than 10 million tonnes of plastics are dumped into our oceans per year. These plastics are a threat to the ocean’s marine life and ecosystem as a whole.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)

Garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean

The biggest example of human failure in properly administering plastic wastes can be seen in the Pacific Ocean which is the deepest and largest ocean on Earth, comprising around a third of the Earth’s surface.

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) is located in Pacific Ocean, first discovered in 1997. It is a collection of garbage patches where trash, fishing gear and marine debris lump together. The amount of trash in the GPGP covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, which is the equivalent of the size of Texas or five times the size of Malaysia.  The weight of plastics is estimated to be around 80,000 tonnes, which is equal to the weight of 500 Jumbo jets.

Although the garbage patch is in itself bad as it consists of trash floating on the ocean, this is only the tip of the iceberg; the plastics then would decompose and break into tiny plastics called “Microplastics”. And microplastics are hard to see with the naked eye but can be very harmful to marine life and humans as well.

Impacts on Marine

According to statistics, there are approximately 8 million metric tonnes of plastics that goes into our oceans every year. Among those 236,000 tonnes are microplastics or plastics that have been broken down into smaller pieces, even tinier than our small fingernail. These plastics pose a threat to marine life.

According to the UK government, 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million seabirds are killed by marine plastic pollution every year. These marine life die as a result of choking on plastic mistakenly seen as food.  According to the research, half of the sea turtles worldwide have consumed plastics because they mistakenly perceive plastics as their food. One of the harmful effects is that the plastics and the debris take so much place in the turtle’s stomach therefore it gets stuck inside, which results in sea turtles struggling to properly swallow. This can cause starvation which may lead to death.

Sea turtles also become the main victim of the “Ghost-Nets” in the ocean. The strayed plastic-nylon nets that are abandoned by fishermen continue to trap everything on their way including many marine creatures such as sea turtles, birds, dolphins, or even sharks, get trapped and entangled. And not only do the nets prevent them from moving freely but it also causes injuries to these animals.

Similarly, seabirds usually feed on the ocean surface and mistake plastics for food. Besides that, they would most likely swallow plastic debris from the water surface because the water itself contains plastic particles. In many cases, this has caused seabirds to die from suffocation. Many of them are found dead with stomachs full of plastic waste.

Also, scientists have predicted that 60 percent of all seabird species have consumed or have pieces of plastic in their bodies. Unfortunately, plastic consumption is not isolated to turtles and birds. A California grey whale was found dead on the Puget Sound shores in 2010. Its stomach contained a pair of pants and a golf ball, as well as more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves, according to the autopsy.

Additionally, plastic waste endangers and brings disease to coral reefs. Plastic wastes can foster the growth of bacterias that cause coral reefs to suffer from deadly outbreaks of disease. All of this shows that we cannot deny the evidence that other living creatures have suffered due to our failure to properly dispose of the plastic wastes.

Impacts on Human

From the harmful effects that plastics has had on water and marine life, these harms have negative consequences that can be felt by us. A recent study has discovered that microplastics have been found in our drinking water, from 159 water samples both bottled and tap water in 14 countries. Additionally, according to a study made in 2021, 386 marine fish species are known to have ingested plastic debris, including 210 species that are commercially important for human consumption.

As a result of dumping plastics irresponsibly, it is quite ironic that these plastics end up in our own body through what we eat and drink. This can be dangerous as plastics contain chemical toxins that are hazardous for humans and can cause serious health issues such as exposure to cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and impaired immune systems.

Impacts on Land

Just a small amount of the plastic we remove on a daily basis is recycled or incinerated in waste to energy plants. Many of it ends up in landfills, where it is left to decompose, eventually contaminating the soil and water beneath it.

As plastics is thrown away, it can react with rain water, forming hazardous chemicals. If these contaminants seep through underground, they do have the potential to mix and contaminate the water that we might use on a daily basis.

In addition, it reduces soil fertility. This is due to the fact that plastics can both obstruct the circulation of air in the soil as well as the mobility space of underground living beings that play a role in soil fertilisation. It is obvious that if left to remain, it would cause soil degradation and infertility. This could have consequences for crops where it could both be harder to grow and also be contaminated with microplastics which would later on be consumed by humans.

It is clear plastics have caused much damage and if we do not take steps in reducing plastic use, it will continue to bring disaster to our earth. It is our responsibility to start making changes. We can make simple changes through our habits. We should try to reduce the use of plastic in our daily routine and replace things that we usually rely the most on with something reusable for example, straws and cutlery.

Or the next time you want to take out foods from the restaurant, bring your food container. However, the most important thing that we can do is to spread the word to raise awareness to the community. Small steps can bring a huge difference for our future.***

(This article is written as part of Feature Writing series on environmental issues in collaboration with IIUM Eco Club)

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