Plastic is everywhere, and plastic pollution is happening on a global scale. It is estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year. This is enough to fill 15 plastic bags for every meter of coastline on the planet. As a result, plastic waste has been found across the globe in all marine environments. Effects have been seen in even the remotest areas far away from habitation.
Plastic is showing up in products you may not be aware of. There are micro-bead exfoliants in products such as toothpaste and facial scrub. These are flushed down the drain daily, not to mention entering our bodies. Polyester and acrylic fibers from our clothes can enter the ocean via our washing machines.
Recent studies found that the top contributors to plastic pollution were mid-income countries with growing economies and China is the largest. Although waste management is more effective in developed countries they are not off the hook. Plastic waste per person is high and not to mention that many of us still litter.
In some areas there is more plastic than plankton. The most commonly known site is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. This is a massive wind-driven circular current with floating garbage in it’s center. These rings actually contain large amounts of micro plastic. Micro plastic is a piece of plastic that is less than 5mm in size. When plastic products are broken up in the sea they produce micro-plastic.
We are what we eat and animals throughout the food chain are affected by plastic pollution. Nearly 700 marine species have encountered plastic debris, according to a recent study. Over 90% of seabirds are thought to have ingested plastic.
Plastic can actually become more toxic in the water. Many banned pollutants such as DDT, PCB’s and flame retardants still linger at sea. These pollutants are attracted to plastic and are absorbed into its surface. These pollutants are at significantly higher concentrations when ingested by marine life.
Plastic ends up on our plates also. Many of the popular fish species we eat (like mackerel, cod and flounder), have all been found with plastic. Shellfish are not out of the woods either. Micro-plastic have been found in both oysters and mussels. Table salt produced from seawater has also been found with traces of plastics. Scientists do not yet know the implications on human health.
In addition to the cost of cleaning litter, there are economic costs associated with plastic pollution. Plastic debris causes ship collisions (with litter) and the entanglement of propellers which costs the fishing communities globally.
We are learning more and more about the vast scale of plastic pollution. As awareness grows so does hope.
More research needs to be done on the exact impact on the health of humans and wildlife but governments are starting to take notice. The EU for example, is trying to reduce the use of plastic bags. Everyone needs to participate as this problem includes consumers, manufacturers, waste managers and regulators.
Consumers in Europe are already making the right choices. Cosmetics Europe which represents 4,000 personal care product manufacturers, has already been recommended to remove micro-beads from their products. The US is hopefully soon to follow on this path. Ocean friendly beauty products are becoming more popular also.
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