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They litter our coasts, seas, towns, cities, woodlands and forests. No matter how far you travel you are more than likely to find some plastic waste. As well as an ugly annoyance, they’re extremely damaging to the environment, keep reading to find out specifically, why plastics are bad for the environment, our wildlife and ourselves.
If you asked anybody: “Why are plastics bad for the environment?“, you’d likely get a response with something along the lines of: “Because they don’t decompose very easily“. The truth is, that’s not wrong. It’s probably the biggest concern of most environmentalists.
Depending on the type of plastic, for it to fully break down and disappear off the face of the earth it can take anywhere between 450 and 1000 years.
To put that in perspective, if humanity had been using plastics through the millennia, there’s a good chance we’d find waste from the time that William the Conqueror reigned over England.
Usually, you wouldn’t think that something being inexpensive was a bad thing, would you?
But, the problem is plastic is so cheap that it’s extremely hard to convince manufacturers to swap to an alternative biodegradable packaging. These alternatives can vary in costs, but to have biodegradable packaging can be 2-10 times more expensive than plastic.
Okay, so this sort of goes hand-in-hand with the last point about them being a lot cheaper. But as well as being cost-effective, plastics are very durable and strong. This is just another reason for manufacturers not wanting to move away from plastics.
Now obviously the law of thermodynamics dictates that nothing can actually be destroyed, it can only be broken down and restructured. Regardless, actually being able to dispose of the plastics is somewhat difficult.
One way most would have thought of to get rid of plastics after their use may be to burn them. Doing this, however, produces harmful pollutants that will only make our current emission nightmare that much worse. Different types of plastics will produce different kinds of emissions. Some like PVC for example, produce incredibly toxic dioxins that can kill humans who inhale it.
It may seem superficial, but like the argument against wind turbines; they are unsightly.
Just look at this beach:
Being absolutely littered with plastic waste, this beach gives a “do not visit” vibe to it.
Coal, crude oil and natural gas are the common products used to manufacture plastics. Currently, the public opinion towards non-renewables in the energy and transport sectors is mixed at best. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that the majority of the public would agree that this use of coal, oil and gases for plastic manufacturing is unnecessary.
Another reason why plastics are bad, completely the opposite of the previous point. They are sometimes so small that they can’t be seen without a microscope.
You may recall the UK government putting a ban on micro plastics within toiletries like toothpaste, body scrubs and lotions. The decision came as these microplastics were washed down the drains into aquatic ecosystems and posing a big risk to the wildlife there.
All you need to do is Google “plastic killing animals” to see the physical damage they do. You’ll notice the majority of the affected animals tend to be sea creatures like turtles, seals, and seabirds.
Being caught up and choked isn’t the only way they harm and kill wildlife. Another factor contributing to why plastics are bad is when they’re directly ingested by animals thinking that they’ve been lucky to find a tasty morsel.
Often times, things like plastic bags floating in the water can easily be mistaken as a wandering jellyfish. This is where animals like sea turtles, whales and dolphins in particular suffer. A great documentary called A Plastic Whale that was put on Sky this year investigated the death of a whale which was found with its stomach filled with plastic packaging.
This isn’t to say that only the larger marine fauna is suffering. Microplastics as small as a few micrometres are being consumed by planktonic organisms at the lowest levels of the food chain.
So in case, the damage being caused to the environment isn’t enough. Odds are whenever you enjoy a meal with seafood in it, there’s a good chance that you’re eating traces of plastics.
In fact, Plymouth University carried out a study which found that a third of UK caught fish contained plastic inside them.
Worryingly, the study also found that upon ingestion, the plastics are able to release chemical contaminants. Whether these contaminants pose a significant risk to our health is still not fully understood. Though it is thought that some of these reactions are attributable to causing rapid cell divisions within nearby cells which can lead to tumours and ultimately cancer.
We’ll try our best not to end on too much of a gloomy note, so without further ado…
There is! Hooray!
Okay, whilst things are looking quite dire at the moment and possibly for the future, there are some good takeaways from this. For instance, In 2016 it was reported that Sweden’s recycling programme has been so successful that it has to import rubbish to keep its recycling plants running. Every year, since 2011, less than 1% of their countries household waste is being sent to landfill.
Whatever, they’re doing, it should be something for the rest of the world to copy. Right?
Whilst the answer is yes, it should be noted that Sweden is an environmentally-conscious and wealthy country. This matters because it’s going to be much harder to replicate this success in other much poorer countries where recycling and the environment is a far cry from their top priority. To start, we need the wealthiest and most authoritative countries to copy this initiative and lead by example. Only when the smaller countries recognise this importance being prioritised by larger and wealthier ones will it inspire and encourage the need to follow.
Before we hope for mass change from whole countries, it’s probably best to start at an individual level. So, to make a positive impact on the fight against plastic here are some practical tips to get you started:
-ALWAYS re-use your carrier bags whenever you go shopping, or better yet, purchase a reusable (non-plastic) bag.
-Whenever possible buy a more degradable alternative. For instance, instead of plastic straws, choose paper ones.
-ALWAYS recycle your waste into the proper bins.
-Get involved with organised beach cleans, better yet, organise your own. Meetup is a great website for organising events with like-minded individuals.