The benefits of plastic are undeniable. It is cheap, easy to produce, and lightweight. This is precisely what has led to the boom in plastic production in the last century. The growth in global plastic production was first realized in 1950. Since then, the production of plastic has increased nearly 200-fold to over 350 million tonnes in 2015.
Most of this plastic is single-use.
So, what is single-use plastic and why do we need to avoid it?
Single-use plastic or disposable plastic is only used once and thrown away. Items like plastic bags, straws, bottles, and most food packaging are all single-use plastics. The average ‘in-use’ lifespan of these items is between 3-6 months, and most of them are petroleum-based.
Petroleum-based plastics are difficult to recycle as they require new materials and chemicals to be added to them to do so. Therefore, worldwide, only 15% of the total amount of single-use plastics are recycled. An estimated 4 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, with just 1% of them making it to a recycling plant. Even to-go paper coffee cups are lined with plastic so that they can hold hot temperatures, which means, that in most cases, they cannot be recycled. They usually end up in landfills where they are either buried or find their way into the ocean.
Plastics in the ocean tend to break up into microplastics which are ingested by marine life. Buried microplastics make their way into our water supply and ultimately enter our bloodstream.
As of now, there are more microplastics in the ocean than stars in the galaxy. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year.
Negative Impacts of Single-Use Plastic on Marine Life
Ingestion: The ingestion of plastic has been documented for at least 200 marine species, including turtles, seals, whales, seabirds, and fish. The size of the ingested material ranges from very small plastic fibers to in extreme cases, rope and plastic sheeting. This ingestion can have harmful impacts on organism health, including a loss of appetite due to reduced stomach capacity, obstruction or perforation of the gut, gastric rupture, and metabolic disruption which can ultimately lead to death.
Entanglement: The entanglement of marine animals by plastic debris has been documented for at least 350 species to date. It most commonly involves entanglement in plastic rope and abandoned fishing gear.
Negative Impacts of Single-Use Plastic on the Environment and Wildlife
The most well-known example of vast plastic accumulation is that of the so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’(GPGP). This has formed in ocean basins in the North Pacific region and is the result of large plastic inputs into the ocean. The GPGP is estimated to span almost 1.6 million km2 of ocean and comprises of almost 2 trillion tonnes of plastic debris.
Due to its size and colour, birds and turtles often confuse the plastic for food, causing malnutrition. It is also proven to affect their behaviour, health, and existence. About 17% of the species affected by plastic are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list of threatened species.
Negative Impacts of Single-Use Plastic on Human Health
Microplastics are perfectly sized to be eaten by fish, which in turn, are consumed by humans. Although we don’t yet know how harmful eating fish that has consumed plastic is for human health, it seems wise to conclude that there will be consequences for this.
Negative Impacts of Single-Use Plastic on the Economy
A United Nations (UN) report stated that the approximate cost of environmental damage caused by plastic to marine ecosystems is 13 billion dollars. This figure is said to include beach cleanup operations and the loss incurred by fisheries.
Current trends suggest that by 2050, there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment. A figure that could single-handedly destroy our ecosystem!
And yet, there’s a silver lining. Single-use plastics are not as complicated as climate change. They’re not a problem that we don’t know how to solve, or don’t have a solution to. The solution is to consciously start avoiding them. We have to reduce the amount of plastic in our homes and communities. Start with your personal choices. Replace a plastic straw with a steel reusable one, or a plastic to-go cup with a reusable container. Small choices like these made by each individual will collectively make a huge difference to the environment. And finally, spread the word about the ill-effects of single-use plastic. Raising awareness about a problem is the best way to make people conscious about their usage, it and also helps to ensure a healthy future for our wildlife, our economy, and most importantly, ourselves!