Harmful Effects of Plastic on the Environment Essay

Pages: 10 (3242 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 7  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Transportation - Environmental Issues

Plastic Bags & the Environment

Plastics in the Environment: Problem and Solutions

Plastic pollution in the oceans and on dry land is a terrible plague that needs to be addressed through responsible environmental management. This is not a new concept, as plastic has been an eyesore and an ecological miscreant for many years. This paper delves into the ongoing problem of plastic's polluting effects on the environment, using research from scholarly and other reliable sources. The paper will also reference sources that present solutions to the problem of plastics within the planet's natural environment.

What is the problem and how long has it been going on? "…Plastic pollution is killing millions of birds, fish, whales, seals and sea turtles," according to marine scientists referenced in Bayard Webster's article in The New York Times Christmas Day, 1984. Indeed, twenty-five years ago journalists were publishing research articles documenting the damage that discarded plastic products were visiting on the environment.

Webster wrote that many animals die after becoming "entangled with discarded or broken plastic fish nets, straps, trawls, seines and snares." Animals also were dying in 1984 from eating pieces "or tiny spherules" of plastic that were -- and are -- being dumped into "all of the world's marine waters" (Webster, 1984). The article notes that 150 marine wildlife researchers from 10 nations met in 1984 at the University of Hawaii for the very "first international conference" on plastic pollution; their focus was specifically on the impact that nonbiodegradable plastic have on animals that live in, or depend on, the oceans. Part of the problem in particular during that period of awareness was the polluting of the ocean with plastic materials, in particular the fact that according to the National Academy of Sciences, each year commercial fishing fleets dump "more than 52 million pounds of plastic packaging material" into the oceans, along with 298 million pounds of "plastic fishing gear" (nets, buoys, and lines) (Webster 1994).

Fast forward to an article in 2008 in the journal Current Science, "What a Dump," a story about a boat made of 15,000 plastic bottles "wrapped in plastic nets" that sailed from California to Long Beach. The voyage was made to "raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a "huge dump of plastic debris floating in the Pacific Ocean" (Fraser, 2008, p. 6). A sailor named Charles Moore first discovered the patch of plastic trash in 1997, by while in a yacht race in Hawaii. His yacht plowed through the plastic flotsam (everything from Lego blocks to sneakers) for ten days, and as a result he took steps to publicize the patch.

Later it was discovered, according to Fraser's article, that there are two such patches of floating debris in the ocean; one is called the "Eastern Garbage Patch" and stretches over an area "twice the size of Texas" (between California and Hawaii); the other is called the "Western Garbage Patch" (near the coast of Japan) (Fraser, p. 7). It is estimated that 100 million tons of plastic swirl around in the two patches; 20% is said to have "fallen off ships" and the rest has washed into the sea by rain (through sewers and streams), Fraser explains on page 7.

How do plastics impact ocean life? One, entanglement: animals become tangled in "masses of plastic trash and are strangled to death" (fish, dolphins, whales, seabirds); two, ingestion: ocean animals eat plastic (thinking it is food), it lodges in their bodies "or perforates their organs and kills them"; three, digestion: plastic is "lipophilic" which means it absorbs only oil chemicals, "some of which can be poisonous" (Fraser, p. 7). The most common type of plastic found in the oceans is "nurdles" (little pellets known as "mermaid tears"), Fraser explains, noting, "Trillions are manufactured" each year; scientists have located nurdles in the ocean that contain "1 million times more pollution than the water around them" (Fraser, p. 7).

Plastics do not break down easily. "Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die every year after eating discarded plastic bags…turtles think the bags are jellyfish" which is their principal food source, according to the Washington Post (2007). In a feature called "Paper or Plastic" the Washington Post article explains that an estimated "4 billion plastic bags end up as litter each year"; tied end-to-end that number of plastic bags could circle the planet 63 times, according to the Post article. Plastic bags are made from an oil product, polyethylene; little pellets of polyethylene are headed to 340 degrees and stretch the pellets to "a long thin tube of cooling plastic" (Post). A hot bar is then dropped on that tube "at intervals, melting a line"; each melted line becomes the bottom on a bag and the top of another -- and sections are cut and "and a hole for the bag's handles is stamped in each piece" (Post).

Sea of Trash. An article in The New York Times (Hohn, 2008) reports that "remote oceanic islands…may have similar levels of debris to those adjacent to heavily industrialized coasts." Worse yet, Hohn continues, is a report from the Encyclopedia of Coastal Processes that asserts plastic pollution "…will incrementally increase through the 21st Century" simply because "the problems created are chronic and potentially global, rather than acute and local or regional…" (Hohn, 2008).

The peer-reviewed journal Marine Pollution Bulletin (Moore, et al. 2001) reports on a study in the North Pacific, measuring the "relative abundance and mass of neustonic plastic and zooplankton" by collecting neuston (microscopic particles that float in a film on the surface of water) samples at 11 "random sites." The reason for the study: to examine how significant the level of plastic particles in the open ocean is on "filter feeders" (baleen whales, among marine species) (Moore 120). The plankton abundance was "about five times higher than that of plastic," Moore reports, but the "mass of plastic was approximately six times that of plankton" (Moore 120). The upshot of the research was that the "large ratio" of plastic to plankton has "the potential to affect many types of biota" including birds and "filter feeders" that feed on the upper levels of the ocean.

The research included examining birds -- including those revealed to "contain small debris in their stomachs, a result of their mistaking plastic for food" (Moore 122). A pair of "filter-feeding salps" (small, gelatinous, barrel-shaped free-floating sea creatures) were examined by the researchers and found to have "plastic fragments and polypropylene / monofilament line firmly embedded in their tissues" (Moore 122).

In the peer-reviewed journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (Price, et al. 2009) a research project studying atolls, coral, and coastal ecosystems of the Chagos archipelago was conducted ten years after the same region had been researched in 1996. Most of the islands in the Chagos area were "devoid of human development structures," Price writes, and yet "solid waste, comprising plastics, metal and other debris including 'flip-flops' was recorded at every site" (Price 2009). In fact the plastic debris was "more abundant" in 1996 than in 2006 and yet "often in large quantities," Price explains.

Plastic in Landfills. Of course plastic isn't found just in the ocean and in fresh water lakes and rivers inland -- plastic is certainly in landfills in substantial amounts. In the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (Taylor, 1999) a breakdown of the kinds of plastic found in landfills is presented. The following are the various kinds of plastics found in landfills in 1995 (data courtesy of the EPA) and the number of tons dumped: plastic "packaging" (2,270 tons); "plastic wraps" (1,720 tons); "other plastic containers" (1,250 tons); "plastic bags and sacks" (1,170 tons); "plastic plates and cups" (790 tons); "plastic trash bags" (750 tons); "plastic soft drink bottles" (660 tons); and "plastic milk bottles" (640 tons). Of course the problem isn't just that the plastic is in landfills, but rather that it doesn't break down for hundreds of years.

The campaign against plastic at the grocery store. The blight of plastic bags from grocery stores and other retail stores is everywhere on the American landscape; bags can be seen stuck to barbed wire fences in the most remote rural areas in the country. That has led to the banning of plastic bags for use in shopping (grocery stories) in many communities and in addition some corporations are eliminating plastic bags. The Whole Foods supermarket chain stopped giving out plastic bags on Earth Day 2008 (April 22), according to an article in The New York Times (Angier, 2008). The reason given by Whole Foods is that it "can take more than 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in a landfill" and that "in the U.S. alone, about 100 billion plastic bags are thrown away each year" (Angier 2008).

The Times' article references the invention of plastic by Belgian-born chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland a hundred years ago and that "we have been emotional bobbleheads about plastics ever since" (Angier). Americans love plastic so much the U.S. In fact produced "6.5… [END OF PREVIEW]

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