We know that plastic pollution is a serious environmental issue. It’s affected us on a global scale with visible whether it’s washed up on the shoreline or overflowing our landfills.
The rapidly rising production of disposable or single-use plastic products has overwhelmed our ability to deal with them in many ways. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic,” says Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, Espen Barth Eide, at the 2022 UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5).
How does plastic harm the environment? People know that plastic is “bad” for the environment, but not all of us know why. This article unpacks the facts of plastic pollution, establishing exactly why it’s so harmful. On top of that, we’ll outline solutions that can help us turn this epidemic around. Not all hope is lost. We just need to understand the urgency for change.
What is plastic pollution?
By definition, plastic pollution is the accumulation of synthetic plastic products in the environment. It creates problems for wildlife and their habitats, also affecting human populations. Plastic pollution has been documented from Mount Everest to the bottom of the seabed.
The uncomfortable truth is that plastic is inherently useful as a material. Of course, this overlooks the caveat that it’s made from toxic compounds known to cause illness. It’s valued for its durability一a double-edged sword as it never really goes away (can degrade into microplastics which, although they can’t be seen, are toxic).
Whether it’s being mistaken for food by animals, clogging our drainage systems, or seeping into our soil, it’s a large-scale pollutant that’s captured our attention. So much so that the UN Environment Program (UNEP) has said they will convene a forum by the end of this year to share knowledge and best practices to tackle the problem on a global scale.
Why is plastic bad for the environment?
By understanding the effects of plastic on the environment, we can appreciate its true impact. The list of concerns continues to grow. Here are five of the most important to be aware of:
1. It impacts the food chain
Plastic comes in various sizes, breaking down into pieces you can’t see with the naked eye. This means that plastic affects even the tiniest organisms, including plankton, affecting the larger animals who depend on it.
When the start of the food chain is affected by pollution, it’s going to compound as it moves through the ecosystem. Unfortunately, this means that plastic is present in most meat we consume, especially fish, and even plants.
2. Water Pollution
Water conservation is a top priority for most countries, focusing on the careful use and preservation of the water supply. But it’s not just the volume of water required that we need to be concerned about. It’s the quality.
Thanks to leaking plastic and inadequate waste treatment, the world’s water supply is in great danger. Groundwater and reservoirs are susceptible to leaking environmental toxins feeding into your drinking water. Microplastics have also been found in drinking water.
3. A negative impact on human health
Scientists have found microplastics in over 100 marine species, many of which we consume daily. When we burn trash in our landfills, we breathe in fumes. If we wear clothes made from synthetic fabrics, we absorb plastic through our skin. As mentioned above, it is in our food, including transfer contamination through packaging.
The BPAs present in objects made from plastic seep into the products they house, metabolizing in the human liver to form Bisphenol A. Exposure to Bisphenol A affects brain and prostate function. It contributes to increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. All of which negatively impact our day-to-day health.
4. Debris kills our animals
While microplastics in the food chain are one concern, larger floating debris also affects our animals. We’ve all seen heart-wrenching videos of turtles with straws stuck up their noses, birds trapped in old packaging, and dolphins caught in fishing nets.
We can’t ignore the everyday items discarded en masse. Plastic pollution is the new predator on the block.
5. Plastic production relies on fossil fuels
While the product itself wreaks havoc on the environment, the production process isn’t innocent. 8% of the world’s oil production goes to manufacturing plastics. As production demand continues to grow, so will this percentage.
Producing and burning fossil fuels creates air pollution, another factor that affects our health. These toxic emissions also drive climate change, contributing enormously to global warming.
Solutions to reduce plastic pollution
Now that we’ve grasped the severity of plastic’s effect on our environment, we have to tackle how to reduce plastic pollution. Here are a few solutions to prioritize:
1. Shop consciously to send a message
Single-use plastic’s harms are not a secret to the biggest manufacturers of these products. Many leading brands are working to replace single-use plastic in their products and consumers are rewarding those that do. Making conscious choices to choose products that have circular packaging or no packaging at all can be difficult but reinforces the message that 84% of consumers are worried about plastic packaging waste.
Shopping consciously also makes choices about convenience more difficult. Ordering online often means protective packaging including many forms made from plastic foam, as well as “air-pillows” and bubble wrap. Choose your online partners carefully, supporting brands who have made an effort to package sustainably.
Eco-friendly alternatives should be a priority for brands and consumers alike. Products have to prioritize life-cycle thinking, evaluating their environmental impact from start to finish. That’s where Cruz Foam comes in, offering plastic foam alternatives that are 100% compostable. This and other circular protective packaging solutions are likely to increase in popularity in the coming years.
2. Recycle where possible
Some plastic is still difficult to avoid, but only 5 to 9% of all plastic is ever recycled. If you have to buy goods in plastic packaging, check the number at the bottom. Most beverage or liquid cleaner bottles will be #1 (PET), commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. If you have containers marked #2 (HDPE) or #5 (PP), you can also recycle them. If you’re unsure, get familiar with the recycling directory. The best choices are products that are in glass containers and are refillable, reusable (even for another purpose) or recyclable.
3. Stop buying bottled water
Twenty million plastic bottles make their way into the trash each year. If everyone carried a reusable bottle, this number would dip significantly. If you’re concerned about the quality of your local tap water, look for a model with a built-in filter or explore options for non-plastic water filters. Ironically, purchasing bottled water has a direct impact on polluting the global water supply.
4. Support change in our society
If the responsibility for single-use plastic products is shifted, manufacturers will feel a higher level of motivation to find circular and sustainable solutions. Likewise, the community needs to create waste management that supports more sustainable materials in its recycling and composting facilities. The existential threat of plastic waste and climate change leaves no one out, but this hasn’t stopped many businesses from continuing ‘business as usual.’ With the proper incentives, switching to circular solutions will be seen as a “carrot” of opportunity for a flourishing green economy - far more attractive than the “stick” of penalties. The shareholders of public companies already understand this and have increasingly asked for greater transparency of company operations to understand the potential risks and encourage a successful transition.
Plastic pollution is an epidemic. It’s a massive cause for concern. The effects of plastic pollution on the environment are evident, negatively affecting our ecosystem from every angle. But, not all hope is lost. Creative and even lucrative solutions continue to emerge for individuals, businesses, and communities. What’s crucial is a shift in mindset - a determination to be a conscious consumer. If everyone adopts this, better yet, demands it, we can make a change.