Plastic production has grown exponentially in recent decades. According to the latest report from Plastics Europe (a European organization which represents plastic manufacturers), in 2015 alone 150 times more plastic was produced than in 1955.
China is currently the biggest manufacturer of plastics, followed by Europe, the US and the rest of Asia. Focusing only in Europe, two thirds of plastic demand comes from only five countries: Germany, Italy, France, the UK and Spain. Moreover, plastics satisfy the needs of different markets of which agriculture, electronics, transport, building and packaging are the most significant. Of all of them, packaging is by far the most demanded application (doubling the demand of the building industry and quadrupling the transport industry).
So what’s the problem? It is that plastics have not only accumulated in our houses and landfills but also on beaches (even the most remote ones), marine wildlife guts and most probably: human beings.
1# – Impacts on marine wildlife
Plastics have become a threat to wildlife due to their high abundance and persistence, which are much higher than other marine litter items made of metal, paper or glass. Nowadays, of all affected animals from marine litter, 92% of all cases are related to plastics only. This is either being trapped in discarded or lost fishing nets or eating plastic fragments by mistake. This problem is especially serious when a large proportion of the population of a certain species is affected. This is the case of declining species, with very small populations which are also geographically limited.
*Next, I am only mentioning turtles and seabirds, because they are the two wildlife groups that have been most widely researched to date.
According to a few studies published between 2014/15, leatherback and green turtles are the ones that show a higher risk of eating marine litter mistaking it with their food. However, a recent paper shows that all seven species of turtle have ingested or become entangled in marine litter with serious effects on their health. We had the chance to interviewing Sarah Nelms, the author of the paper “Plastic and marine turtles: a review and call for research”, you can read it here.
Furthermore, 90% of all known species of seabirds have ingested plastics and scientists estimate that, if we don’t make any changes, this will increase up to 99% by 2050.
January 2016; sperm whales stranded in the North Sea
The coasts of the UK, the Netherlands, France, Denmark and Germany got up to 30 stranded sperm whales in only a few days. Now we know that thirteen of them had their stomachs full of all types of plastics; from a 13 meters long fishing net to some chunks of a car. According to the researchers, the death of these sperm whales wasn’t directly related to the ingestion of plastics but thanks to the stranding, we have now found what we would have never imagined these cetaceans would have in their guts.
However, this doesn’t mean that plastics are not harming the sperm whales, in fact, it’s been shown that plastics can have negative effects in their digestive systems along with producing the false feeling of being full which can lead to starvation and death. Other example of a cetacean species that were stranded in the Scottish coasts over three years ago is the long-finned pilot whale. They showed high levels of toxins, which are related to plastics. This was also linked to the high levels of stress, reason that could cause the disorientation.
2# – Impacts on beaches and oceans
BEACHES, MORE PLASTICS THAN TOURISTS?
In the last post “All that rubbish has an owner – Marine Conservation Society report 2015” we shared some statistics from the Great British Clean Up carried out last year by one of the biggest marine conservation societies in the UK. Plastics and polystyrene fragments of up to 50 cm were, by far, the items most recorded. Read more here.
OCEANS, PLASTIC SOUP
Plastic pollution is found in the five oceans, this is due to the durability and buoyancy of plastics which make their way through the oceans more easily as microplastics. After six years of expeditions around the five ocean gyres, Australian coast, Bay of Bengal and Mediterranean Sea, the 5 Gyres Institute stated that more than 5 million plastic fragments, equal to 250,000 tons, are drifting in the oceans at the present time. In fact, they found plastics in every oceanic region they sampled, regardless of size and origin.
THE MEDITERRANEAN CASE, ANOTHER GREAT PLASTIC HOTSPOT
However, plastics not only accumulate in the oceans. According to a study carried out by Cadiz University, the amount of plastics drifting in the Mediterranean Sea can be compared to those accumulated in the gyres. They reported a mean of at least one plastic item per each 4 m2 and microplastics in every water sample. This very high density of plastics per square-meter is due a number of factors: high density of people living and/or spending the summer in the Mediterranean coasts, the Mediterranean sea as a maritime route and the fact that plastics are enclosed in the sea due to low water circulation.
OCEAN FLOOR, THE UNKNOWN
Although it is estimated that most plastics tend to accumulate in the gyres and beaches, another possible place where they can end up is the seabed. In general, marine debris that sinks, tends to accumulate in areas of low circulation and large accumulation of sediment. The presence and abundance of marine debris on the seabed has been less studied than at the surface because of the high cost and difficulty of sampling.
3# – Potential effects on human health
A large number of chemicals that are used in the manufacture of plastics are known to be toxic. This is a fact and I have bad news; some of these toxins, which also are related to loss of fertility and other reproductive problems, have been found in the human body. Several studies indicate that the population group which found a higher concentration are children and youth.
Although the toxicological consequences are currently under research, some of the effects have already been described:
- Low sperm quality
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Type 2 diabetes
- Abnormalities in liver enzyme
These effects can be caused by low chronic doses or acute ones, however the routes they take into the human body and the effects on us are still unknown.
And this, my friends,
is the problem with plastic.
REFERENCES (in order of appearance)
- Plastics Europe (2015) – The Facts. An analysis of European latest plastics production, demand and waste data.
- Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2016) – The New Plastics Economy.
- Gall & Thompson (2015) – The impact of debris on marine life
- Schuyler et al (2014) – Global Analysis of Anthropogenic Debris Ingestion by Sea Turtles
- Sarah Nelms et. al (2015) – Plastic and marine turtles: a review and call for research
- Chris Wilcox (2015) –Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing
- Eriksen et al (2014) – Plastic pollution in the oceans
- Cozar (2015) – Plastic Accumulation in the Mediterranean Sea
- Barnes (2009) – Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments
- Thompson et al (2009) – Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends