Understanding Pollution: How Fantastic is Plastic?

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Plastic, an invention that was only created a little over 150 years ago, has come to revolutionize our world.[i]  We use it to create everything from shopping bags to computers and cellphones.  Everything seems to be made from plastic these days, but like everything else there are always consequences.  Plastic is not a naturally occurring element.  There are dozens of different types of plastics, and all of them are made from different chemicals.[ii]  So, as is the case whenever I want to learn something new…I did.  Many of these chemicals have harmful effects to both humans and the environment.  There is also the fact that there is so much plastic with it being estimated that next year over 300 million tons of plastic will be created worldwide.[iii]

Plastic 1

In 2009 over 110 million tons of plastic were created worldwide which is more than double the amount that was created 60 years ago in the 1950s.[iv]  Where is all of that plastic going?  Well, sadly, in the United States only 6.5% of it is being recycled, and 7.7% of it is being burned, I’ll get to that in a minute, the rest is making its way into landfills and the oceans of the world.[v]  The problem with putting plastic into landfills, and dumping it into oceans is that plastic takes a long, long time to biodegrade, or naturally breakdown into its composing parts.  It is estimated that it takes up to 1000 years for plastic to naturally break down on its own.[vi]  I say estimated because we only invented plastic a little over a hundred and fifty years ago, in 1839.[vii]  That being the case, we actually haven’t seen plastic that breaks down on its own yet, and 1000 years is what scientists believe it will take to do so.  Throwing plastic into the oceans doesn’t work either, and it is believed that every piece of plastic thrown into the oceans over the last 50 years is still floating along somewhere.[viii]  In fact, there is so much plastic in the oceans that an island twice the size of the state of Texas is forming about 500 miles off the coast of California that is made up of 7 billion pounds of plastic.[ix] Needless to say, that’s a lot of plastic.  Having established that; what are the dangers of plastic?

Remember when I mentioned that 7.7% of plastic in the United States is burned, and that I’d get back to that?  I’m back to it.  Burning plastic is one of the most harmful things that you can do. The reason is that plastic is not naturally occurring, and there are thousands of chemicals that combine to create plastic.[x]  When you burn plastic you are releasing those chemicals into the air where they can have an impact on your health, and the health of others.[xi]  The most dangerous of these chemicals are called dioxins.  “Dioxins are a class of chemical contaminants that are formed during combustion processes such as waste incineration, forest fires, and backyard trash burning, as well as during some industrial processes…”[xii]  Short term exposure to dioxins can cause skin lesions, and affect your liver; while chronic exposure can lead to an impaired immune system, damage to the reproductive systems, and in children can affect their nervous system as it develops.[xiii]  Another dangerous thing about plastics is what is known as leaching.  Leaching is when chemicals that are in plastic leak, or leach, into the food or drinks that are encase.[xiv]  Most of the chemicals have an effects similar to estrogen, which is the main hormone for female development, but the male body produces it as well.[xv]  The most concerning of these chemicals is Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, which can disrupt breast development, and predispose women to breast cancer later in life.[xvi]

The effects that plastics have on the environment are equally severe.  Just as plastic leaches into our food and water so too does it leach into the ground, and the oceans into which we toss it.[xvii]  Though landfills will try to contain plastic leakage, often it is not enough and the chemicals from plastics will work their way into the ground, and into surface and underground water supplies.[xviii]  Remember that plastic can be made from thousands of different chemicals, and any of them, including dioxin, could find their way into your water or food supply. Plastic in the water also serves as a transportation system for different bacteria, and other invasive species which can wreak absolute havoc on ecosystems that have no defense mechanisms against those invaders.[xix] Other dangers of plastics are fairly well known.  Almost everyone has seen the pictures of birds being strangled by uncut plastic wrap, but not many know that plastic also wraps around and kills coral, and of the 500,000 albatross chicks that are born every year almost half of them die from eating plastic.[xx]

Plastic 2

Plastic was a great invention that truly has enormous potential.  It is sturdy, long lasting, and can be formed into many different shapes to serve different purposes.  It is a fascinating material.  The problem lies in the fact that we are not being responsible with it. Better and more efficient ways need to be found to dispose of plastic waste, before we have an island, not twice the size of Texas, but a continent the size of North America.  There are problems in this world, and plastic may seem to be a trivial one, but trivial problems have a habit of spiraling out of control until you have one big mess on your hands.  What can you do to help?  Well, for one recycle your plastic.  For all its downfalls it is a useful material.  For another, volunteer to clean up your neighborhood park, or adopt a road.  Little actions can have monumental effects if enough people attempt them.


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About the Author

Dom resizeDominick Principe is a graduate of Rowan University with dual Bachelor Degrees in Elementary Education and Writing Arts.  He is a prolific reader who devours any book put before him, and feels that life is one great long book without an end.  He fills his hours constantly exploring new information, and seeking to educate himself in the ways of the world.  He puts all of that knowledge and his passion for learning to good use teaching English as a second language to students of all ages.  When his nose isn’t buried in a book, or in class teaching, then he can generally be found typing away at his computer working on some random piece of writing that he was inspired to do.


[i] “The History of Plastic.” About.com Inventors. About.com. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://inventors.about.com/od/pstartinventions/a/plastics.htm&gt;.

[ii] “Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste.” WECF.EU. Women in Europe for a Common Future. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.wecf.eu/cms/download/2004-2005/homeburning_plastics.pdf&gt;.

[iii] “The Environmental Toll of Plastics.” — Environmental Health News. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/dangers-of-plastic&gt;.

[iv] “What Happens to All That Plastic? – State of the Planet.” State of the Planet What Happens to All That Plastic Comments. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/31/what-happens-to-all-that-plastic/&gt;.

[v] “What Happens to All That Plastic? – State of the Planet.” State of the Planet What Happens to All That Plastic Comments. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/31/what-happens-to-all-that-plastic/&gt;.

[vi] “What Happens to All That Plastic? – State of the Planet.” State of the Planet What Happens to All That Plastic Comments. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/31/what-happens-to-all-that-plastic/&gt;.

[vii] “The History of Plastic.” About.com Inventors. About.com. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://inventors.about.com/od/pstartinventions/a/plastics.htm&gt;.

[viii] “Impact of Plastic Waste on Oceans, Beaches and the EnvironmentShare.”Www.reuseit.com/. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.reuseit.com/facts-and-myths/impact-of-plastic-waste-on-oceans-beaches-and-the-environment.htm&gt;.

[ix] “Impact of Plastic Waste on Oceans, Beaches and the EnvironmentShare.”Www.reuseit.com/. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.reuseit.com/facts-and-myths/impact-of-plastic-waste-on-oceans-beaches-and-the-environment.htm&gt;.

[x] Landa, Dr. “More than 24,500 Chemicals Found in Bottled Water.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/01/13/more-than-24500-chemicals-found-in-bottled-water/&gt;.

[xi] “Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste.” WECF.EU. Women in Europe for a Common Future. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.wecf.eu/cms/download/2004-2005/homeburning_plastics.pdf&gt;.

[xii] “Dioxins.” Definition Page. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://toxics.usgs.gov/definitions/dioxins.html&gt;.

[xiii] “Dioxins and Their Effects on Human Health.” WHO. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/&gt;.

[xiv] “Study: Most Plastics Leach Hormone-Like Chemicals.” NPR. NPR. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/2011/03/02/134196209/study-most-plastics-leach-hormone-like-chemicals&gt;.

[xv] “Testosterone and Estrogen Balance in Men – HowStuffWorks.” HowStuffWorks. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://health.howstuffworks.com/sexual-health/male-reproductive-system/testosterone-and-estrogen-balance-in-men.htm&gt;.

[xvi] “Chemicals in Plastics.” Chemicals in Plastics. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.breastcancerfund.org/clear-science/environmental-breast-cancer-links/plastics/&gt;.

[xvii] “News & Issues.” Plastics in Depth. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.eurekarecycling.org/page.cfm?ContentID=126&gt;.

[xviii] “News & Issues.” Plastics in Depth. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.eurekarecycling.org/page.cfm?ContentID=126&gt;.

[xix] “The Environmental Toll of Plastics.” — Environmental Health News. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/dangers-of-plastic&gt;.

[xx] “Impact of Plastic Waste on Oceans, Beaches and the EnvironmentShare.”Www.reuseit.com/. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.reuseit.com/facts-and-myths/impact-of-plastic-waste-on-oceans-beaches-and-the-environment.htm&gt;.

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