Here is the real-life impact of plastic on the environment
After a half-century of incorporating plastic into virtually all aspects of human life, the planet is now choking on it both literally and figuratively. There was more plastic made in the first 10 years of the 21st century than in all of the century prior; and much of that production has already made its way to recycling centers, landfills, and ecosystems around the planet.
Stacker used a variety of scientific sources, such as the United Nations Environment Program (2019) report on Plastics and Shallow Water Coral Reefs, to compile a list of 25 facts on the real-life impact of plastic on the environment. Although the story largely focuses on marine environments (which have been studied more extensively), plastic impacts the world’s lakes, rivers, soil, and air, and even poses danger to human health.
Every bit of plastic ever manufactured is still in existence today, and is likely to outlast all of us. Whether it’s leaching into soil structures and waterways, flaking off into nanoparticles that cause behavioral disorders in fish, or killing the largest creatures in the ocean, plastic has permeated every corner of the globe. Scientists in the last decade have exerted extensive energy documenting the effects of plastic on organisms and ecosystems while urging the world to curb consumption before we destroy some of our most precious resources, perhaps most urgently the world’s oceans.
Keep reading to learn about what lies beneath a beach’s surface, discover why corals eat plastic, and find out the biggest source of plastic pollution in the ocean.
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Coastal countries annually produce more than 600 billion pounds of plastic waste
A 2015 study published in Science Magazine estimated that 192 coastal countries in 2010 generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste. To figure out these numbers, researchers had to connect population density and economic status with global solid waste data. Countries with the highest volume of uncaptured waste correlated directly with waste management systems and population size.
Up to 28 billion pounds of that waste find the ocean
Of those 275 million metric tons of plastic waste, up to an estimated 28 billion pounds of plastic entered the ocean. The 2015 study represents the first report of its kind since scientists first began to discuss oceanic plastic pollution in the 1970s.
Plastic pollution hurts the ocean, lakes, rivers, soil, dust, and air
Commercial production of polyethylene, polyolefins, and polypropylene made plastic mainstream in the 1950s. The high durability of plastic products popularized them among consumers but cost us dearly in environmental degradation. Consumption is the most common risk plastic poses to organisms in nature, according to a February 2019 study by researchers at the University of Queensland and the University of Exeter. Plastic has been found in larvae and adult fish, cetaceans, sea turtles, birds, zooplankton, and marine animals. There is yet to be a study done on ingestion by humans, reptiles, or terrestrial mammals.
Over 11 billion plastic items entangle Pacific coral reefs
Coral reefs are essential to protecting coastlines and offering habitats for fish and other sea life. Plastic pollution poses significant dangers to reefs, including light deprivation, and significant oxygen depletion.
640 tons of discarded plastic fishing gear annually land in the ocean
A 2019 Greenpeace report suggests fishing gear represents the biggest source of ocean pollution. In recent decades, fishing gear increasingly is made from plastic, from fishing lines and nets to buckets and traps. The UN’s report puts fishing gear behind land-based river and land runoff and direct dumping among top plastic pollution sources.
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One piece of clothing can generate over 1,900 fibers per wash
By studying fibers found in wastewater from a standard domestic washing machine, scientists in a 2011 report surmised that many of the microplastic fibers discovered in bodies of water may come from sewage byproduct from clothes washing. The report, published in Environmental Science & Technology Magazine, went on to predict microplastic pollution will worsen as global populations grow and people continue wearing and using synthetic fabrics.
Two-thirds of beach debris may be buried beneath the surface
Remote islands situated near high concentrations of ocean trash serve as vital sinks, or mitigators of toxins and pollutants, for that waste, according to a 2017 research paper by Jennifer L. Lavers and Alexander L. Bond published in the National Academy of Sciences. The density of debris found on the uninhabited Henderson Island represented the highest amount found anywhere on Earth—with 68% within the Pacific island’s sediment.
Sea water exacerbates plastic toxicity and density
The toxicity and density of microscopic plastics that end up in ocean water can be exacerbated by organic materials. When these materials, like salt, attach to contaminants, they form an “ecocorona” and can increase the risk for animals in these ecosystems.
At least 10% of species will eat ocean plastic
Ocean plastic pollution hurts more than 800 species
The leading negative effects of plastic pollution on marine and coastal life is through consumption, getting tangled in debris, and alteration of habitat. Mitigating these issues is a priority among the international community of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, scientists, charities, and many in the private sector.
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