Why is plastic pollution a problem?

Plastic pollution - hundreds of plastic bottles lying on a beach

There’s been a lot of talk about plastic pollution of late. With Hollywood banning plastic straws, the issue has been splashed onto the front page, and brought to the attention of a much bigger audience. However, many people are still unaware of why exactly plastic is a problem. It doesn’t seem to hurt anyone…or does it?

The plastic pollution problem is simple: Plastic is virtually indestructible, and a lot of it is thrown out every year. How many products do you buy that come encased or wrapped in plastic? Shampoo? Soap? Vegetables? Condiments? Water? Milk? Meat? Coffee?

So, the first plastic pollution problem is that…

Plastic takes very long to biodegrade.

Hundreds of years, in fact. Plastic, when it was first invented, was considered rather a miracle because of that. Imagine a cheap, durable material that’ll last hundreds of years before rotting away. The possibilities were endless.

However, this meant that the plastic which was thrown away took forever to decompose. As the full potential of plastic was discovered, and it began to be used in single-use products (coffee mugs, water bottles, cutlery, packaging), huge quantities of waste plastic were generated.

Since plastic decomposes at a snail’s pace, the piles of waste on dumpsters grew. There’s only so much space on land, so we started dumping plastic waste into the sea. Whew. Problem solved…or not.

The second problem plastic creates is that…

Plastic kills animals and marine life.

Marine animals and shore-dwelling birds don’t understand the concept of plastic. They think it’s food. In fact, plastic looks, smells and even tastes like food to them. So they often end up eating it.

That causes two problems. First, since plastic pieces can have sharp edges, they can puncture the animal’s internal organs, and cause death. Secondly, as has been observed in shore birds, they eat so much plastic that there isn’t enough space in their stomach for actual food, and so they starve to death.

They get entangled in nets and ropes, which slowly tighten due to movement, or as the animal grows bigger. This results in a slow, painful death.

Although that’s a big enough issue in and of itself, it’s not all. Add to it the fact that…

The volume of plastic wasted each year is unbelievable.

This infographic by the BBC will give you a good idea of how severe the plastic pollution problem really is.

From the website: “Nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today.”

Over 8 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced to date – of which 6.3 billion tonnes is now waste. Of that sum, only 9% has been recycled. Another 12% has been incinerated, and a whopping 79% of all the plastic waste till date is lying in landfills, or in the natural environment.

Want some smaller figures to make that number more meaningful? Try this – 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 (of which 110 billion were made by Coca-Cola alone). This equates to a million plastic bottles per minute. Of this staggering sum, less than 50% was collected for recycling.

Is there a solution to the plastic pollution problem?

There is. However, like with most big-scale problems, it isn’t a simple, one-step solution. It’s a multi-tiered solution, in which the first step is awareness. People need to be aware of the problem. You and I know plastic hurts the environment, but does your neighbor know? Do your friends know? Does your aunt Maggie know?

Spread the word. Educate yourself, and then educate others.

Now, if companies stopped using plastic in packaging, that’d nip the problem in the bud. However, let’s not sit at home hoping that’ll happen. Companies have their profit to consider. We should do our part in trying – whether it’s by writing, creating petitions, or what have you – but remember that action outweighs words.

So, reduce your plastic use. Go out there, do your research. Find brands that don’t use plastic, find your nearest plastic recycling center, find alternatives to plastic products. Get reusable water bottles, reusable coffee mugs, reusable straws. Carry a cloth bag with you and don’t buy plastic bags at grocery stores. Switch from bodywash to soap bars, from wet wipes to handkerchiefs.

You’ll be amazed at the difference you make.

 

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