Plastics make human life more convenient, but they have also contributed to a “throwaway” society. In fact, plastics have a way of ending up in places they shouldn’t be, such as the ocean. In 2015, a Texas A & M student posted a video in which she and her counterparts were removing a part of a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle. However, this only brought attention to one part of the problem.
Plastics are Convenient, Cheap, and Harmful
Plastics are convenient, for humans anyway. Plastics are cheap to make, weigh very little, and are more durable than paper products. However, plastics are actually made from fossil fuels, and plastics put out greenhouse gases. Plastics account for between four and eight percent of yearly oil consumption; some experts believe that the popularity of plastics could actually push that number to nearly twenty percent of annual oil consumption.
Ethylene is the chief ingredient for making plastics. There is a refining process utilized to make the final plastic product which produces the equivalent of carbon dioxide emitted by 45 million vehicles per year. At the end of plastic’s lifespan, when it is typically incinerated, plastics emit up to 5.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Although plastics are so convenient to us humans, they can also prove to be immensely harmful to the public. Even with recycling as a way of repurposing plastics, low participation means most plastics will either end up in a landfill or in an incineration facility. Either way, plastics are harmful to the environment from the way they are produced to the way we attempt to dispose of them.
Frankly, plastics pollute the environment, and improper disposal of plastics leads to the situation like the Texas A & M student encountered – plastics can end up in waterways where they injure and sometimes kill marine wildlife. However, plastics breakdown is even more insidious than that! Plastics can break down into microplastics, and these small plastics particles can end up deep in the ocean. When this happens, the toxic chemicals that are produced by the plastic breaking down can poison animals that inadvertently eat the bits of plastic.
Alarming Effect of Microplastics
Perhaps the most alarming effect of microplastics drifting across and to the bottom of the ocean have to do with plankton, a chief food for many aquatic life. Plankton are eating microplastics, which affects photosynthesis. When photosynthesis decreases, so does the natural removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Not only can plastics affect marine wildlife and plankton, but they may also be slowly killing us humans, too.
Experts say getting plastics down to zero use is going to be a monumental movement. We humans are creatures of comfort. Anyone who has used a paper straw can tell a difference, and many humans are simply not comfortable making to swap. However, there are some ways to keep some plastics while helping to lower some of the emissions of greenhouse gasses during the production of plastics.
Using wind or solar power to extract the materials needed to make plastics could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by half. Reusing plastics already made could also help to reduce these same emissions. That means reusing plastic containers when storing food, reusing plastic bags at the grocery store, and finding ways to recycle plastic bags. Experts state that if people begin to reuse plastic bags and recycle rather than throw away plastic, the emission of carbon dioxide could be reduced by millions of metric tons each year.