What is Plastic Pollution?
Plastic pollution is a build-up of synthetic plastic products that negatively affect natural habitats for humans and wildlife. Plastic pollution is one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Plastic is nearly impossible to break down, winds up in landfills, and the ocean where it adversely affects marine life. Additionally, waste management cannot effectively recycle most plastic (even those with a recycling symbol), which means that most plastic waste ends up in landfills or the ocean.
Effects of Plastic Pollution
Here are a few ways that global plastic pollution adversely affects our environment:
1. Harmful to wildlife. Animals often ingest plastic items that they mistake for food, which can cause internal health problems. Many animals like birds, sea turtles, and other marine life become entangled in plastic products, making it difficult for them to live or escape predators. Learn about seven different ways to use less plastic.
2. Harmful to the health of all life forms. Most plastic is incinerated or dumped into landfills, where it leaks toxic chemicals into the soil. Annually, 154 million pounds of plastic is incinerated, releasing toxins into the air, leading to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, speeding up and intensifying the effects of climate change. Additionally, plastics can end up in our food and water supply, causing developmental, neurological, or reproductive disorders, which can be detrimental to animal and human health.
3. Provide transportation for invasive species. Floating plastic marine debris can negatively impact marine life and provide transportation for invasive species. As waste floats across the sea, it carries non-native bacteria and other organisms to new locations, where they can be particularly harmful.
Plastic Pollution Facts
Since 1950, plastic manufacturers have produced over eight billion pieces of plastic, most of which wind up in landfills or the ocean. Here are some key facts about plastic pollutants:
1. Microplastics are a significant issue. When plastic breaks down, it turns into smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics. These nearly microscopic plastic particles can mix in with sand or other sediments, leading to further pollution too small to be seen by the naked eye. Animals who dig through the sand or skim the ocean for food, like the albatross and other seabirds, are more prone to accidental plastic ingestion. Microplastics infiltrate our water and food sources, moving the harmful effects of plastic pollution up the food chain.
2. Plastic consumption is booming. In 2017, consumers purchased at least a million plastic water bottles every minute. Additionally, over 500 billion plastic bags are bought annually worldwide, though some countries and US states have instituted a ban on the use of single-use bags to combat plastic pollution.
3. Single-use plastics are prevalent. Plastic packaging, like food wrappers, accounts for nearly half the amount of plastic waste. For example, consumers use 500,000 plastic straws daily. Over 99 percent of plastics come from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, also known as petrochemicals. These plastic toxins seep into the ground and water, making it dangerous to throw away so many tons of plastic so often.
4. Biodegradable plastics also contribute to pollution. Biodegradable plastic is a synthetic compound that can decompose over time through living organisms, eventually breaking down into water, carbon dioxide, and leftover material called biomass. However, not all biodegradable plastic products break down at the same rate, and different factors can affect how quickly they can break down.
5. Plastic production has spiked since 1950. According to one study that analyzed global plastic production from 1950–2015, an estimated eight billion tons of plastic were produced over the 65-year period. Only nine percent of the plastic was recycled for reuse, and 79 percent ended up in landfills and other places.
6. Only 20 countries are responsible for most plastic waste. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the United States are some of the biggest contributors to plastic waste every year. A single American throws away 185 pounds of plastic annually, approximately half of which is single-use.
7. Nearly three-quarters of beach litter is plastic. Around 73 percent of litter found on beaches all over the world are plastic products and plastic debris. Plastic bottles, grocery bags, and other plastic items are often dumped into the world’s oceans—around eight million metric tons of plastic per year—eventually winding up on our shores.
8. Marine plastics hurt ocean life. Ocean plastic pollution has helped quadruple the number of dead zones found in our waters. Dead zones are areas in marine environments that suffer from low oxygen. These low oxygen levels can cause marine animals to suffocate, leading to their extinction and causing an ecological imbalance. Many marine mammals, fisheries, and seabirds also face significant harm or mortal injury from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris.
9. Plastic waste forms its islands. A 2001 study found nearly 335,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in the North Pacific Central Gyre—an extensive system of ocean currents found in the northern Pacific Ocean (between San Francisco, California, and Hawaii)—forming what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There are five plastic waste islands worldwide: the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre.
10. Fishing gear is a major plastic pollutant. Fishing gear like nets, lines, and traps make up 10 percent of plastic pollution, causing 640,000 tons of ocean plastic waste per year. According to one study, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 46,000 tons of mega plastics, more than 80 percent of which is fishing gear.