Plastic pollution problem: A new battlefront for humanity

Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, but even within this short time it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering to product design, engineering and retailing.

Along with the ever rising world population,the amount of garbage that people produce has also skyrocketed. Fat paced lifestyles require easily disposable products, such as soda cans, bottles of water, baby diapers and plastic bags.However, the accumulation of these products has led to increasing amounts of plastic pollution around the world. As plastic is composed of major toxic pollutants, it has the potential to cause immense levels of harm to the environment in the form of air, water and land pollution.

Put simply, plastic pollution is the result of plastic accumulated in an area and has begun to negatively impact the natural environment and create problems for plants, wildlife and even human population. Often this includes killing plant life and posing dangers to local animals. Plastic is an incredibly useful material, but it is also made from toxic compounds known to cause subtle yet widespread illnesses. Additionally, the very selling point of it being durable is what makes it non-biodegradable.

In July 2017, a paper published in the journal Science Advances by industrial ecologist Dr Roland Geyer of the University of California in Santa Barbara along with his colleagues calculated the total volume of all plastic ever produced at 8.3bn tonnes.Of this, some 6.3bn tonnes are now waste.

Natural biodegradation time for plastic wastage is estimated from a 500-year to 1,000-year lifespan. According to some plastics experts, all these figures are just another way of saying “a really, really long time.”

China is a major polluter,contributing 8.82 tons of plastic wastage that ends up in the earth’s seas annually. Nevertheless, it is hardly the lone offender. The contribution of other offending countries are Indonesia (3.22 tons), the Philippines (1.88 tons), Vietnam (1.83 tons), Sri Lanka (1.59 tons), Thailand (1.03 tons), Egypt (0.97 tons), Malaysia (0.94 tons), Nigeria (0.85 tons) , Bangladesh (0.79 tons), and South Africa (0.63 tons).

A report released in 2016 revealed that the amount of plastic rubbish in the world’s oceans will outweigh fish by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to tackle this growing menace. Unlike other materials, plastic never truly decomposes; it simply breaks into smaller bits that will remain in the oceans forever as a sort of microscopic plastic soup.

Researchers warned eight million tonnes of plastics currently find their way into the ocean every year – the equivalent of one truckload every minute.And available research estimates that there are more than 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today.

According to a recent study, the top 10 river systems as well as the seas they feed and the continents where they’re located contribute to ocean plastic:

Yangtze River, Yellow Sea, Asia
Indus River (Pakistan), Arabian Sea, Asia
Yellow River, Yellow Sea, Asia
Hai River, Yellow Sea, Asia
Nile, Mediterranean Sea, Africa
Ganges, Bay of Bengal, Asia
Pearl River, South China Sea, Asia
Amur River, Sea of Okhotsk, Asia
Niger River, Gulf of Guinea, Africa
Mekong River, South China Sea, Asia

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large patch of plastic waste floating in Pacific Ocean is one such example of this plastic pollution, comprising a vast region of the North Pacific. Estimated to be double the size of Texas, the second largest state of United States of America, the area contains more than 3 million tons of plastic.

The hazardous affect of plastic waste is multi-faceted and includes a high probability of stray animals eating plastic wastes due to improper disposal systems, which may lead to fatal consequences. During the rainy season, the plastic rubbish that has fallen on the road gets washed away into the nearby water reservoirs, canals, drains and sewerage system, leading to their choking up and overflowing. Also, the water quality gets spoiled due to the addition of these synthetic waste materials.When dumped in landfills, plastic materials interact with water and form hazardous chemicals. If these compounds seep down towards groundwater aquifers, they degrade the water quality and subsequently to groundwater pollution. Drinking water from these sources can cause various health problems, even causing risk of deaths. Plastic pollution in marine water bodies leads to innumerable deaths of aquatic animals, and this also affects the aquatic plants. Blockage due to plastic accumulation may form breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other harmful insects, which might cause numerous diseases in humans.

The quality of drinking water on our planet is deteriorating as plastic releases some toxic chemicals such as Styrene Trimer, Bisphenol A, and a by-product of Polystyrene. These products are worsening the drinking water situation with every passing day. Bisphenol A is a harmful chemical that damages the reproductive system of animals and humans.

Bio-accumulation of plastic inside animals is one of the most recent outcomes of plastic pollution and when humans consume meat of such animals it is hazardous for their health. Also the ocean has been impacted by plastic pollution in many ways, making the consumption of seafood to also be injurious to health. The plastic pollution in our oceans is so serious that the majority of fish have been in contact with plastics. The micro-plastics — the tiny broken down pieces of plastics that are too small to even pick up by hand are ingested by plankton — the smallest organisms in the ocean at the very bottom of the food chain. Plankton is food for small fish and some of the bigger fish even. The big fish eat the little fish, in turn ingesting the plastic that was in the smaller fish’s system. We eat the big fishes and are thus also victims of this disrupted ecosystem.

Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another; increasing the land litter. Burning plastic leads to contamination of the atmosphere, due to the release of poisonous chemicals, leading to air pollution. Recycling requires laborers, who are at the risk of developing skin and respiratory problems due to inhalation of toxic chemicals.

Beach pollution is rising and getting more noticed lately, unfortunately. We are seeing more because there is so much trash in the oceans the vastness can no longer absorb them. Practically every wave brings a few pieces onto the beach. The oceans are begging us to literally take it out, by throwing-it up! There is no room left in the oceans and so the plastic makes its way back to us. When we travel to beach destinations it is now common sight to see washed up plastic cup lids, bottles, straws and bags.

The menace and debacle of plastic pollution is getting larger and larger with the passage of time and it is slowly taking over the nature and environment that we are residing in. Major steps are required to acknowledge this problem and educate masses for safe, healthy and better future. We need to manage and exterminate this threat on priority basis.

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