Plastics are cheap, durable and versatile, and that has made them highly useful in product manufacturing and development. In the six decades since mass production first began, scientists estimate that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic  have entered the world’s business and consumer supply chains, mostly in the form of single-use items destined for disposal.
Plastics currently represent about 10 percent of the total waste generated by human activity across the planet . If all the plastics discarded each year were placed end-to-end, they could wrap around the Earth four times, and fully half of the 300 plus million metric tons of plastic that are currently being produced annually are used to make single-use containers, packaging or other instantly discard-able items .
As plastic pollution continues to accumulate, its negative effects on human health, animal health and the environment are accelerating. Plastic is made from compounds that can be toxic if released, which can happen when any degree of biodegradation takes place. Additional toxins in plastics come in the form of chemicals absorbed during production and processing—or from the environment when they are used or discarded—and still more are created as byproducts of manufacturing.
The toxins found in plastics include heavy metals like mercury, lead and chromium, pesticides, and a slew of exotic chemicals that can be hazardous to human beings and animals in even small exposures.
Causes and effects of plastic pollution
Because they are cheap and can be manufactured to precise specifications, plastics are the ideal material for single-use items. More than 150 million metric tons of plastic in the form of bottles, cups, straws, bags, utensils and various types of packaging are produced each year, and a significant portion of this cheap stuff ends up in landfills or is illegally dumped on the land or in waterways.
Of course, more durable consumer goods made from plastics will eventually outlive their usefulness as well, and they, too are destined to end up as garbage.
Unfortunately, plastics prefer long goodbyes—really long goodbyes. Discarded plastics decay slowly, and scientists estimate that it can take 500 years or longer for plastics to completely decompose even in optimal conditions .
But landfills are the opposite of optimal. Most hold massive quantities of garbage packed so tightly that air, light and water can barely penetrate, which slows the rate of plastic biodegradation down to a crawl.
Recycling is a popular solution to the problem of too much plastic. But only nine percent of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced has so far been recycled, while nearly 80 percent of it has already been consigned to landfills or discarded as litter . While rates of recycling of new materials are increasing, this vitally important practice has been slower to catch on globally than most people realize.
Plastic pollution is not just a nuisance or an eye-sore. The toxic elements it contains are released steadily as plastics degrade, no matter how slowly, and these chemicals pose a legitimate threat to the health of animals and human beings.
The negative effects of discarded plastics
- Land pollution
Heaping piles of plastic in landfills will outlive us all by centuries, while the plastic items that litter rural roadsides, urban streets, parks and forests and other public areas are a blight on the landscape.
- Groundwater pollution
Toxins leached by rainfall from decomposing plastic garbage can easily contaminate groundwater, if reserves are located directly beneath or adjacent to landfills (as many are).
- Air pollution
About 12 percent of the plastic waste that has already been produced has been incinerated, but this process can cause the release of chemical compounds that are hazardous to breathe .
- Health problems in humans and animals
Breathing air, drinking water or eating food contaminated by plastic chemicals has been linked to a number of debilitating health problems, including reproductive abnormalities, disruption of the endocrine system, neurological impairments, diabetes and cancer .
- Compromising the food chain
This is primarily a problem in the oceans, where hazardous plastic micropollutants can be absorbed by plankton and gradually passed up the food chain to fish and eventually to humans.
The collective weight of plastics dumped in the world’s landfills is expected to surpass the 12 billion metric ton mark by the year 2050 (double the current amount), which means all the above problems will be significantly magnified if we don’t start using and discarding far less plastic .
Facts about plastic pollution in the ocean
No one knows exactly how much discarded or dissolved plastic is floating in the world’s oceans. But we do know that millions of metric tons are being added to the total annually, and we know that the rate of pollution is rapidly accelerating.
One study estimates that by the year 2050, up to 100 million metric tons of plastic trash may reach the oceans by direct dumping or river transport on an annual basis . Believe it or not, if that projection proves accurate, the amount of accumulated plastic pollution in the oceans will be so voluminous that it will outweigh the total mass of fish that live there.
While any plastics that contaminate rivers could ultimately end up floating out at sea, recent research found that up to 90 percent of the plastic pollution that makes it to the oceans each year is coming from only 10 rivers, eight in Asia (the Yangtze River in China is the biggest contributor) and two in Africa .
These rivers flow through nations that do not process plastic waste consistently or effectively, and convincing these nations to clean up their act (both figuratively and literally) could go a long way toward stemming the tide of plastic pollution.
Problems with plastic in the ocean
While plastics break down slowly in landfills, the opposite is true when it floats at sea, as a 2009 study presented to the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society revealed. The combined effects of the salt water, bright sunshine and ocean breezes leads to swift plastic decomposition, turning the ocean into a toxic stew of chemicals that might disrupt reproductive activity in marine life, among its other deleterious effects.
Many organisms that live in the ocean absorb or consume plastic pollutants, including plankton that form the foundation of the ocean food chain. The rapid pace of plastic decay increases absorption rates, ultimately putting everything that swims in the sea at risk.
One major contributor to the problem are the plastic microbeads added to many cosmetics and personal care products, ostensibly to improve their appearance, texture and performance. Unfortunately, these microscopic particles are washed down the drain every time such products are used, and wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to filter them out . This leaves them free to pass into rivers and on out to sea, where they add yet more microscopic bulk to the plastic contamination that threatens our saltwater ecosystems.
Regardless of their source, the toxic chemical substances contained in plastic are dangerous to animal and human life.
Some of these chemicals can suppress or disrupt reproductive processes, and if they were to have that effect in marine environments the damage could be incalculable. Too much plastic pollution in the seas could cause fish, mammal and microorganism populations to plunge, at least in heavily polluted areas, and species that depend on those animals as a food source could be pushed to the edge of extinction as well.
Solutions to the global plastic pollution crisis
At an individual level, your capacity to reduce your consumption of plastic and your production of plastic waste is limited only by your motivation. Wherever there is plastic used there are alternatives, and it is up to you to take the time to discover them.
If you’re determined to cut down on your plastic use, avoiding single-use plastic items should be the first order of business. Convenience aside, you can get by without disposable plastic bags, cups, water bottles, straws and other items that do virtually nothing to improve the quality of your life.
Another important step is to stay on the lookout for hidden plastics. The microbeads found in shampoos, facial products, toothpastes and body washes are identified as “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” on the product labels, and you should specifically choose personal care products that do not contain these plastic pollutants .
Recycling of course must be expanded, and the chances are you aren’t doing all you could. Recycling receptacles are everywhere these days, and if your garbage collection company isn’t already allowing you to separate recyclables you should speak with them about their policies right away.
In general, involving yourself in campaigns to reduce or eliminate the use of plastics (especially single-use plastics) is a sterling example of responsible citizenship in action, whether the targets are stores, restaurants, neighborhood associations or municipal governments—or even the members of your own family.
As a society, we simply must make the reduction of plastic use and pollution a priority, among manufacturers, consumers, retailers and elected officials (bipartisanship is essential among the last group, this is a problem that affects everyone and it should not be politicized). Recycling programs should be launched everywhere it is feasible, and public relations campaigns designed to raise awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution—and to stress the urgency of recycling—must take center stage.
Technological solutions to plastic pollution are often proposed and discussed, and some show promise . But we cannot wait for techno-fixes to save us; the problem is too urgent and escalating too fast for that.
The clock is ticking
There is no magic solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Current trends in plastic use and disposal will lead us into disaster, unless we act individually, collectively and trans-globally to address this emergency.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and if people accept the challenge to gradually taper off plastic there may still be time to avert catastrophe. But the time to act is now, and we don’t have a moment to lose if we want to avoid being buried beneath Everest-sized mountains of plastic.