Plastic is everywhere. Most of the products that we buy are made of or packaged in petroleum plastic, a material that is made to last forever, but used to throw away. The draw of plastic rather than conventional materials (e.g., glass, metal, wood, and paper) over the past decade is obvious- plastic is light weight, extremely durable, malleable, easily processed, and inexpensive. Although it is convenient to package products in expendable products in the short term, it is harmful to the environment and Earth’s ecosystems in the long run.
It has been estimated that only 5% of plastics are effectively recycled. Remaining plastic waste dominates landfills and pollutes our environment. Discarded plastic falls from garbage trucks, spills out of trashcans, or is tossed haphazardly. Plastic that accumulates on land can enter storm drains or rivers, where it then flows out to the sea and never really goes away. In a recent study conducted by the nonprofit group NY/NJ Baykeeper, it was estimated that there are at least 165 million plastic particles in New York Harbor alone at any given time. There are 256,000 particles per square kilometer floating in estuaries from the Tappan Zee Bridge, along the lower Hudson River, and south to Sandy Hook Bay, NJ. According to the study, the average amount of plastic per square kilometer sampled in New York waters was twice that of New Jersey waters.
Worldwide, it has been estimated there are well over 5 trillion pieces of garbage floating in the world’s oceans right now. According to a report released in January 2016 by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the world’s oceans by 2050.
Plastic in our world’s waterways is incredibly problematic. When any form of plastic enters the ocean and floats on or under the surface, it photo-degrades. Sunlight and waves cause the pieces of plastic to break into smaller and smaller bits. Because plastic is designed to last, it never really goes away. It degrades at an extremely slow rate, breaking into smaller pieces, but it does not leave the ocean. In the NY/NJ Baykeeper study, researchers found that 85% of the particles they counted were micro-plastics (5 millimeters or smaller, roughly the size of a grain of rice). 38% of their sample was foam, or polystyrene.
Fish mistake these micro-plastics for plankton or other food. These plastic bits alsobsorb toxins commonly found in polluted waters, like PCBs, pesticides and flame retardants. Multiple studies have shown evidence that these plastic particles remain in organisms’ tissues. When other organisms eat these smaller organisms who consume the micro-plastics, the plastic material can move up the food chain. This has potential health implications for humans as well.
When the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it did not include plastic pollution. In December 2015, US Congress and President Barack Obama passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act that bans the use of synthetic microbeads in cosmetic products (e.g., facial scrubs and toothpastes) as of July 2017. These microbeads wash down drains and cannot be filtered out by many wastewater treatment plants. Although this is a good first step to fixing this global problem, much more needs to be done to keep plastic out of the water.
Environmentalists are pushing for a country-wide ban on single-use plastic (e.g., foam cups, plastic bottles, plastic bags) as the next step. In September 2015, New York City’s ban on plastic-foam food containers was overturned because a State Supreme Court justice ruled it “arbitrary and capricious.” Yet, local governments such as Rahway, N.J., have long banned plastic-foam containers.
You can do your part by limiting the amount of plastic you use in your daily life. To start, bring reusable bags when you shop, carry a reusable water bottle and coffee mug around with you, and use reusable dishware (even bring your own to-go container to restaurants!). These efforts, which may seem small, will make a great difference.
Featured image provided by the New York Times article on this subject.