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Why Is Plastic a Problem?

Plastic is a material that has transformed the way we live and made our lives easier in many ways. It is a necessary material for certain products we depend on, like medical products, solar panels, computers, etc. The problem with plastic really boils down to our extreme overuse of the material, especially single serve purposes. An estimated 9 billion tons (8.3 million metric tons) of plastic has been produced, worldwide, to date. Only 20% has been burned or recycled, leaving 7 billion tons in landfills and the environment.

Plastic drinking bottles heavily contribute to the plastic waste.

An estimated 8-10 million tons makes it into the ocean each year. To put that in perspective, it equates to five plastic bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world!

What happens when plastic makes it to the ocean?

There are a number of major issues caused by plastic when it reaches the ocean. National Geographic reports that 267 marine species are affected by plastic garbage. ScienceNewsforStudents goes into disturbing details, “Sea turtles and toothed whales gulp down plastic bags, mistaking them for squid. Sea birds scoop up floating plastic pellets, which can resemble fish eggs. Young albatross have been found dead from starvation, their stomachs full of plastic garbage. While feeding, adult seabirds skim floating trash with their beaks. Parent birds then regurgitate the plastic to feed their young. These plastic bits eventually can kill them.” Other marine life that accidentally consume plastic include zooplankton, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, fish, and marine worms. Due to biomagnification, which is the  increased concentration of a toxic chemical the higher an animal is on the food chain, the delicious predator fish, such as tuna, you are eating for dinner could have had a belly full of plastic!

Scientists found 47 pieces of plastic in the stomach of this triggerfish. It had been caught near the surface in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre.


What’s the big deal if organisms, including us, ingest plastic?

When marine animals ingest plastic, it can result in loss of nutrition, smaller and fewer eggs laid, drastic decrease in energy intake, and even death. There are microbead plastics many people aren’t aware of that are found in toothpaste and face wash that have been found to alter hormone levels in fish!

Another alarming issue is that plastics act like sponges and absorb other pollutants. Long banned chemicals, such as DDT and PCBs have been found in ocean plastics.

Plastic microbeads in face wash are often made of polypropylene or polyethylene.


Surprise! Plastics break down much faster in the ocean than previously estimated. But that’s not the good news that it appears to be.

When people say it breaks down, that doesn’t mean that it breaks down into nothing. Toxic compounds are released into the ocean, like styrene monomer, a suspected carcinogen, and bisphenol A (BPA), which has a wide range of negative health impacts including “chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity and resistance to chemotherapy. Exposure to BPA at a young age can cause genetic damage, and BPA has been linked to recurrent miscarriage in women.” Another commonly used and extremely toxic plastic is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or #3 plastic, and according to, can contain up to 55% plasticizing additives. On a side note, plastics can contain thousands of possible additives, and manufacturers are not required to disclose what their recipes are. Generally, with #3 plastic, the additives are phthalate chemicals. Phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system, and have been linked to numerous health conditions including cancers. Certain phthalates have been banned in Europe and the U.S. for use in certain products, such as toys. These chemicals from plastics are found throughout the ocean. A Japan-based research team collected samples in waters from the U.S., Europe, India, Japan, and elsewhere. All the water samples were found to contain derivatives of polystyrene.

What can I do about reducing plastic in the environment?

There are many different ways to reduce your plastic consumption!

Check out the waste page for suggestions.

Alicia Rittenberry

April 2018

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