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The Plastic Disease

Think about straws, takeaway utensils and the cup the large milkshake you had last night came in. Aside from being fast food essentials, you may wonder how else these objects relate to each other. The answer: they are all made of plastic. Eight million metric tons of plastic end up in oceans every year! Plastic has become the world’s greatest enemy, and its power to destroy only seems to be getting stronger. This week we take a look at why plastic has started to get a rather bad rep amongst environmentalists and assess the damage it has done thus far.

A 'plastic' is classified as any group of synthetic or natural organic materials. It is a polymer; a long chain of smaller molecules called monomers that make a complex compound. As plastic is made up of a combination of various elements from crude oil, it is one of the most cheaply made materials hence its extensive use in a range of industries. Different kinds of plastics have varying uses. For instance, polyethylene terephthalate (known more commonly as PETE or PET) is mostly used for soft drink packaging, mouthwash and detergent bottles; polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is used in toys and cling film production; and polystyrene is used to make the infamous red party cups. Plastic is accessible, versatile and lightweight enough for everyday use. So what exactly is the problem?

The problem is that plastic is being overproduced and dumped into oceans and rivers. Human activity is responsible for 80% of marine pollution where 60-95% of it constitutes of plastic waste. Amongst many disadvantages, like the ugly sight its pollution creates for instance, the primary problem with plastic is its lengthy decomposition process. Plastic is estimated to take a minimum of 50 years to break down fully (this varies depending to the type of plastic). To make matters worst, nowadays plastics contain more additives (i.e. antioxidants) that fortify their already strong bonds. This means that they will need even more time to ‘naturally’ decompose. The estimated decomposition rates for most plastic debris goes as follows: 50 years for styrofoam cups, 400 years for beverage holders, 450 years for disposable diapers and a whopping 600 years for fishing lines.

What can nature do for us? A process called biodegradation is the natural breakdown process of organic matter. This means anything man-made (like plastic) cannot be broken by the microbes in soil because natural organisms are unable to recognise plastic as ‘food’ to break down thus lacks the necessary elements to remove it naturally. This is why plastic is classified as a ‘non-biodegradable’ substance. Plastic actually photodegrades. Photodegradation is the use of light to break it down matierals. Sadly, even with the eventual degradation of plastics, we still face a larger problem: microplastics and leaching.

Microplastics are microscopic fragments of plastic that are thinner than the width of a strand of human hair. They are a result of slow degradation of plastic and National Geographic claims that once plastic fragments are in open oceans, then it is virtually impossible to retrieve them. Microplastics essentially become a permanent fixture to our oceanic ecosystem. Additionally as plastics break down, they begin to ‘ooze’ or give off harmful chemicals into the environment they inhabit. This is known as leaching. Since different plastics are created for various uses, it means that they each present a unique set of dangers to marine life and in turn, human beings. The dangers they introduce range from developmental defects to hormonal changes to allergies and even some cancer-causing stimuli.

Microplastics and leaching also pose a long term effect on our bodies and ecosystems. However, plastic doesn’t need to fragment before its damage is done. As reported by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, approximately 100 000 marine animals are killed by plastic annually. It is now becoming a common occurence that sea birds, like that of Laysan Albatrosses that exist along shorelines, typically have pieces of plastic in their stomach that remains intact as the animals decompose. One third of their chicks die from the blockage that plastic creates in their bodies. Coral, which (fun fact) happen to be animals of the sea, can be suffocated by plastic bags and die off as well. Seabeds are eventually damaged as 70% of plastic waste in the open water later sinks to the bottom.

So what’s the cure? As hopeless as our diagnosis seems, it’s not too late to rehabilitate our infested planet. The best way to fight against plastic is simple. Reduce, reuse and recycle: the three r’s. With the production of plastic having significantly gone up in the last few years, it would majorly benefit us to slow down the process which can be aided by finding ways to reuse plastic items we previously used. Scientists are looking into creating a more environmentally friendly plastic that would decompose faster and leave no residue. However, they are faced with the reality that may possibly ‘encourage’ littering if the plastic is indeed planet-friendly, which is not the message that enviornmentally conscious bodies are aiming to promote.

This week, we at BWiS challenge you to take note of how many plastic items you have in your disposal at home. You may be surprised that you, one person amongst billions, have been suffering from an increasingly common dire case of terminal plastic disease!

By Lela Pea, Editor

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