The Great Importance of Combating the Plastic Pollution of the World

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Introduction

Plastics are composed of repeating units known as monomers that bind with one another forming chains known as polymers. The production of plastics has many implications on the environment. They are composed of petroleum products which require fossil fuels (Eagle, Hamman & Low, 2016). Types of plastics that account for 30% of production are polycarbonate, polyurethane, polystyrene, and PVC. Polycarbonate is used in electronics, polyurethane in furniture, polystyrene in packaging food, and PVC in construction (Rochman, 2013).

Annually, approximately 280 million tons are produced to manufacture products for human use. The most common manufactured plastics are single-use. Unlike other types of plastics, single-use plastics can only be used once before being disposed of. Other examples of manufactured plastics are cars, containers, toys, plastic bags and dishware. Many advantages of plastic include being low-cost, lightweight, good insulation, and durable. (Sigler, 2014).

One of the major types of anthropogenic debris present in the marine environment is plastic pollution (Eriksen et al., 2013). The accumulating plastic debris in the environment is referred to as plastic pollution (Cózar, 2014). The production of plastic has grown a lot over the years and is expected to grow even more in the future (Debroas, Mone & Halle, 2017).

Plastic’s advantageous characteristics, however, also make it harmful for the environment. In nature, plastic does not biodegrade due to the chemical bonding between the molecules that make it up and therefore it is challenging to eliminate (Sigler, 2014). Instead, plastics fragment into smaller pieces, known as micro plastics, due to chemical degradation, marine life grazing, UV weakening, and wave mechanics (Sebille et al., 2015). These small, non-biodegradable, and floating plastic fragments end up ocean gyres through illegal sea dumping, beaches, rivers and maritime activities (Eriksen et al., 2013; Sigler, 2014).

The seas are in constant motion due to winds that blow over them which form surface currents that cover the ocean. Vortices also referred to as eddies, contain large amounts of energy that fill the ocean. These vortices can alter and disrupt the path of the water as well as the plastic it contains. On a larger scale, however, the path the water follows is self-organized (Sebille, 2015). The currents spin clockwise which results in conjunction and retention of plastic to accumulate (Efferth & Paul, 2017).

Ocean gyres are formed by rotating currents which are caused by Ekman currents that are driven by surface winds and Earth rotating, and the Coriolis effect (Eriksen & Paul, 2013; Sigler, 2014). The accumulation of plastic in these gyres form ocean garbage patches (Ryan, 2014). There are five ocean gyres: The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre (Sigler, 2014).

Anthropogenic plastic pollution is a contributing factor of ocean garbage patches which result in many negative consequences to the environment, as a result immediate action is required to prevent such effects.

Human Activity

Humans engage in many activities, in the past and currently, that are contributing to the overwhelming amount of plastic pollution. One of the major activities that contributed to plastic pollution in the past was the inclusion of microbeads in personal care products. Many personal care companies used microbeads since they acted as exfoliants and cleansers in toothpaste, facewash, and shower gel (Dauveragne, 2018).

Currently, one of the major activities contributing to plastic pollution is using single-use products. The most common single-use products include straws, plastic bags, water bottles, and cup lids. For example, many individuals are working more than they did in the past and as a result, they have less time to cook at home, therefore, they purchase pre-packaged foods. The amount of plastics used in eating out once is excessive from the plastic bags carrying the food to the plastic utensils used to eat. On average, many individuals are eating out for the majority of the week (Sigler, 2014).

Other activities contributing to plastic pollution are driving cars since the manufacturing process of cars includes plastic, fishing as many nets and ropes are lost in the waters, and not correctly recycling plastic products (Sigler, 2014).

Consequences of Plastic Waste/Pollution

Plastic pollution impacts marine life by the absorption of natural pollutants onto plastics (Eriksen et al., 2013). It also introduces invasive species to new environments (Sigler, 2014). Plastics act as a layer for pathogens which allows for rapid spreading of many diseases. They also act as a layer for invasive species causing destruction and disturbance of undamaged environments (Efferth & Paul, 2017). Often plastics include additives which may cause health implications (Kumar, 2018). Plastics release ecotoxins which can lead to carcinogenesis. In addition, plastics disrupt hormone agents resulting in a reduction in the fertility of males and breast cancer (Efferth & Paul, 2017).

Plastic pollution also impacts a significant portion of marine life through ingestion and entanglement. Marine life often mistakes plastic debris as food which leads to many health issues and in some cases death (Efferth & Paul, 2017). Approximately 267 species have been discovered to have ingested plastics (Eagle, Hamman & Low, 2016).

For example, marine life may ingest micro plastics as they look similar to phytoplankton. Ingestion often results in delayed growth, reduction in stomach size, internal injuries, and blockage of intestines. Entanglement, on the other hand, results in drowning, strangling, and reduction in the efficiency of feeding. Some of the species impacted by plastic debris are sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), sea birds (Procellariiformes), fish, and humans (Sigler, 2014). The overall food chain is impacted as the organisms that ingest plastics act as a food source for other organisms (Efferth & Paul, 2017).

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The ingestion of plastics by sea turtles is one of the main reasons for causing stress and unnatural death. The plastics ingested include plastic bags, fishing lines, Styrofoam, nets, and ropes. Sea turtles’ diet consists mainly of jellyfish which look similar to floating plastic bags and this results in the inability to distinguish the two (Sigler, 2014). Ingestion of plastic results in blockage of their respiratory and digestive systems (Efferth & Paul, 2017). Due to this reason, sea turtles have been placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) critically endangered list as their population over the last few decades has declined. Loggerheads (Caretta caretta) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas) have similar implications as sea turtles (Sigler, 2014).

Many seabirds’ diets consist of zooplankton which resembles the shape, size, and colour of plastics. As a result, often these birds are unable to differentiate between the two, and they ingest micro plastics. These plastics are then passed onto their chicks as parent birds regurgitate what they have ingested to feed. Like the sea turtles, ingested plastic can result in blockage and damage to the respiratory and digestive systems which impacts the ability to forage (Efferth & Paul, 2017; Sigler, 2014).

Like seabirds, the diet of many fish consists of phytoplankton which resembles plastics. Therefore, many of these fish unknowingly consume of micro plastics. Unlike the other species, little research is conducted regarding the consequences on fish however it is known that they consume plastics (Sigler, 2014).

Humans ingest plastics indirectly by consuming organisms that have ingested them previously (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016). The impact of ingested plastic results in a range of serious health issues. Some of the health issues include the disruption of the endocrine system, diabetes, obesity, and abnormalities in reproduction (Kumar, 2018).

Due to many of the serious health implications discussed above, there is a possibility that ingestion and entanglement of plastics can result in the extinction of species.

Actions Needed

There are many ways humans can attempt to change, minimize, stop and reverse the impacts of plastic pollution. On the individual level, possible strategies include electing to refrain from using products made of plastic and recycling. Possible strategies on the societal level include creating plastics that are biodegradable and legislation that bans or put greater taxes on plastics (Efferth & Paul, 2017). Humans would need to improve their practices for education, waste management, identifying the source, and monitoring (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016).

The impacts of plastic pollution can be targeted using technologies. One technology currently in place tracks plastic through tags and transmitters using drones to collect plastics. The collected plastics can be used to turn them back into their original form of oil. This technology allows researchers to collect data to determine the origin and where plastics ended up. Another technology exists for the plastics present in the ocean garbage patches. It is a drone that collects plastics by using the currents of the oceans (Sigler, 2014).

There is also a new method created for recycling plastics referred to as thermal degradation. The plastics that are collected using the technologies discussed above can be recycled through this new method where plastics composed of petroleum are heated and transformed into fuel. The transformation occurs without producing any smoke as an oxygen-free reactor is used (Sigler, 2014). By collecting and recycling plastics, it prevents them from ending up in the ocean garbage patches and reduces the size of existing ocean garbage patches.

Currently, there are many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world that are encouraging efficient practices regarding waste management and monitoring marine waste. All these NGO’s have common goals which are to encourage understanding and education regarding marine waste (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016). One of the many NGOs that focuses particularly on ocean garbage patches known as the 5 Gyres Institution is based in Los Angeles, California. This NGO’s goal, through public engagement and research, is to increase the awareness and create potential solutions regarding the accumulation of plastics in the subtropical ocean gyres. The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) is another NGO that is based in the United Kingdom. This NGO makes suggestions to the United Nation’s (UN) system in regard to protecting the marine environment. The GESAMP creates standards concerning ecology. An additional NGO is the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) which is based in Washington, DC and has many regional offices across the United States. This NGO is led by Ocean Conservancy that brings together volunteers from all parts of the world to help clean marine and aquatic environments (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016).

Canadian Efforts. In Canada, there are also many initiatives to combat the plastic pollution crisis. In 1999, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the category of toxins included microbeads. With this classification, measures to reduce the release of microbeads could be established. In 2015, Canada has begun the process to ban the use of microbeads in personal care products (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016). Another Canadian initiative is the partnership of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Vancouver Aquarium. Through this partnership, the aquarium organizes the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC). This event encourages Canadians to learn about the implications of plastic pollution and provides the opportunity to help clean the shorelines (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016).

Despite the many efforts by Canadians, there are still more initiatives are required. Currently, there are many macro plastic waste management efforts in place as Canadian citizens are encouraged to recycle. However, less emphasis is placed on micro plastics. Although there is legislation that prevents the use of microbeads in products, through natural processes macro plastics breakdown into micro plastics. Canada can also reduce plastic pollution implications by educating the youth.

By teaching youth about the implications of their habits better practices can be encouraged. In Nova Scotia, an Oceans 11 course has been introduced in many high schools but it is not counted as a prerequisite for post-secondary education. Due to this reason, many students do not take the course (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016). Each province should introduce topics about plastic pollution in the earlier years of education where students do not have the option of whether they learn about it or not. The implications of plastic pollution are too severe to not teach the youth about them.

Conclusion

Plastic pollution is a world-wide anthropogenic issue that demands immediate attention. Plastic has many benefits to humans resulting in excessive use. However, the consequences of plastics far exceed the benefits (Sigler, 2014). Plastics through ingestion and entanglement impact marine life by causing serious health complications and in severe cases death (Efferth & Paul, 2017). Organisms that are in the lower levels of the food chain ingest plastics which causes health implications for humans as well (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016; Kumar, 2018). There are many initiatives to combat plastic pollution in Canada and worldwide but there is still a need for more.

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