Plastic pollution – more problematic than climate change

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Plastics are strong, durable, lightweight and cheap, which makes them suitable for manufacturing many products.  Their presence is word-wide;  the world uses between 50 billion and one trillion plastic bags each year, and plastic bags, like most plastics, take over 400 years to biodegrade.   The weight of all plastics consumed in the year 2015 will be approximately 300 million tons. This extensive use of plastics brings with it some severe problems for the environment.
The very long durability means plastic pollution is silent, omnipresent and growing. Further, there is increasing evidence that plastics are more toxic than previously thought. The first consideration is that plastics are long lasting and the second is that they are light weight and buoyant. The result is that a large quantity of plastics end up in our planet’s lakes, seas and oceans. A 2012 estimate determined there was approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.  Water-borne plastics tend to fragment into microscopic pieces that increase plastic’s propensity to absorb water-borne pollutants. This has the capability to poison marine animals and thus adversely affect a vital source of human food. It also damages seabirds who often mistake plastic trash floating on the ocean’s surface as prey; the ingested plastic obstructs and damages the bird’s digestive
system. The result is
malnutrition, starvation and death.
However, plastic pollution is not confined to the oceans. In urban areas, plastic waste clogs sewage systems. When dumped in landfills, plastic materials interact with water and form hazardous chemicals. Seepage into lakes and groundwater aquifers degrade water quality and result in water pollution. This also deteriorates soil fertility. When burned, plastics release toxic chemicals into the air. The bio-hazards of plastics are not restricted to marine life and seabirds; the harm to land-based
animals is also significant.
The solution to the plastics problem must begin with a recognition of its severity and universality.  Our society must find ways of reducing plastics in our environment. We can begin by using cloth or paper bags to reduce the annual usage of 50 billion plastic bags.  Recycling plastics only has a limited effect on the problem. More promising are technologies that convert plastics into other useful and
less harmful products. However, this research is just beginning and needs public support to be effective. Other options include demanding packaging be kept to a minimum and, where possible, be made of non-plastic materials.
If our society does not address the problem of plastic pollution, it will become more detrimental to our survival than the threat of climate change.