Much of the comfort and convenience enjoyed from the mid-20th century onward has something to do with plastic. Packaging, sealants, insulation and numerous medical innovations are composed of plastic. In addition, plastic components make cars and other vehicles lighter thereby increasing fuel efficiency. The quality of life enjoyed by millions – perhaps billions – the world over relates directly to the availability of this synthetic material. There is a price for this, however. So how does plastic affect the environment?
Effects on Soil
With all of the recycling going on, casual observers might be surprised to learn how much plastic ends up in landfills. Over 85 percent does, in fact. This might not be so shocking a fact were it not for the problems it causes the earth’s crust. Requiring up to 1,000 years for decomposition, plastic spends the duration leaching contaminants into the soil and groundwater.
Phtalates and bisphenol A (BPA) are among the more common plastic chemical ingredients found in soil leachate. Each is harmful to living organisms when present in significant concentrations. One of the reasons so much plastic goes to landfills is that there are so many varieties with diverse chemical compositions. Recycling, therefore, becomes more challenging.
Effects on Oceans
How does plastic affect the environment among oceans? Commercial fishermen will routinely discard plastic nets, fishing lines, galley utensils and other harvesting equipment. In so doing, they inadvertently expose marine ecosystems to BPA. Some research indicates that BPA harmfully impacts the reproduction and fetal growth of certain undersea species.
Of course, other plastic products litter the seas, as well, including beverage bottles, Styrofoam cups and trash bags. These items are often eaten by sea turtles and birds that mistake them for food. Once ingested, the plastic can wreak havoc on the intestinal tracts of these creatures, blocking necessary nutrients and causing premature death. The vibrancy of marine biodiversity suffers from the abundance of plastic debris.
Effects on Freshwater Lakes, Rivers and Streams
According to a 2016 study of the Great Lakes region, a disturbing amount of micro-plastics—i.e. miniscule bits and shreds of plastic – is present in many rives and tributaries. These tiny shards come from decaying bottles and bags, polyester clothing, toothpastes and skin lotions, among other sources. As documented elsewhere, these micro-plastics are swallowed by fish, birds and mammals that live in or around freshwater bodies.
By themselves, these particles can damage the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems of the fauna. Yet micro-plastics also serve as efficient carriers of trace metals, pesticides and other chemical pollutants. This introduces other hazards into freshwater ecosystems already threatened by pollution.
Effects in the Atmosphere
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites reinforced plastic composites as complicit in the emission of toxic chemicals into the air. These pollutants include styrene, methyl methacrylate and methylene chloride. Reinforced plastics are found in ventilation ducts, countertops, kitchen sinks, shower stalls and recreational vehicles.
Production of these materials is plentiful and EPA seeks to mitigate the poisonous byproducts of this process through the installation of scrubbing technologies. How does plastic affect the environment? EPA points to various health issues (covered below) afflicting those living near production facilities, and to the fact that medical studies indict methylene chloride as a likely cause of cancer.
Effects on Wildlife
Land fauna, as well as sea creatures, suffer from plastic pollution. While the image might produce mirth, a raccoon or fox with the nose stuck in a jar is of serious concern. A hungry critter can suffer from suffocation, dehydration or starvation from such an accidental occurrence. Swallowing plastic may produce choking. Escaping that fate, an animal will nevertheless endure digestive tract damage from these indigestible materials. Plastic ring holders for soda cans can entangle, disable and sometimes strangle wild denizens that get caught up in them.
These same fasteners can impede the wing movement of birds, as can plastic trash bags. Of all the tragic examples, few match the deer buck that ensnared its antlers in twine used for hay bales. After sparring for dominance, the buck and its rival became bound at the antlers. Unable to free themselves and find sustenance, both deer soon died. This is an especially glaring answer to the inquiry, “How does plastic affect the environment?”
Effects on Climate Change
Granted, some plastics are derived from natural substances like plant-based raw materials. The vast majority of plastic products, nevertheless, are made from petroleum and/or natural gas. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) that come from crude oil refineries contain the basic molecular building blocks for a wide array of plastics. With plastic manufacturing continuing unabated, the release of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion is also unrestrained. As environmental activists seek alternatives to fossil fuels for energy production, the unbridled creation of plastic in like manner demands other options.
Effects on Human Health
Sometimes, the question “How does plastic affect the environment?” seems far removed from human civilization. The world, however, is small and interdependent. Pollution from plastic can degrade human health and wellness. When soil is damaged so too are crops for food.
When water is tainted with micro-plastics, treatment facilities are not necessarily sufficient to remove them from our usable supplies. Particulates from chemicals like methylene chloride impair the human respiratory system and cause headaches, fatigue and skin irritation. These are very real effects directly related to the plethora of plastic production and circulation.
How does plastic affect the environment? Perhaps plastic does its job too well. It is a ubiquitous material and – as noted above – has a noble history of utility. Still, its current source of production and the casual way people discard it makes it environmentally hazardous. Research, development and utilization of alternate materials like milk protein and starch-based polymers promises improvement in the future. In the mean time, reverting to glass bottles and paper bags no longer seems quite so retrograde.