As plastic continues to inundate our oceans, soil, and air, it is clear that plastic pollution has emerged as a global challenge, primarily due to its excessive usage. The fact that these plastics stay around for a long time is a big environmental problem. In this guide, we will explore the types, causes, and solutions to plastic pollution.
Causes of Plastic Pollution
The major reasons behind plastic pollution are as follows:
1. Single-use Plastics
These products are designed for short-term use but persist in the environment for hundreds of years, leading to accumulation in landfills and oceans.
For more details on landfills, go through these Interesting Landfills Facts and Stats.
Manufacturers prefer using plastic for packaging due to its lightweight nature, durability, and cost-efficiency. Plastic exponential production is around 350-400 million tons every year.
Over time, single-use plastics break down into smaller particles, known as microplastics, due to exposure to sunlight, and water. Here are some of the single-use plastics which are the major causes of plastic pollution.
- Plastic bags
- Plastic cutlery, cups, and plates
2. Plastic Production
Countries often produce plastics for trade and export, leading to the globalization of plastic pollution. In the absence of stringent regulations, some nations become dumping grounds for plastic waste.
Moreover, note that the top 5 most polluting countries contribute to around 60% of overall ocean plastic pollution. The US was ranked in the top 20 on this list.
Now, let’s take a look at the table for the continents and their corresponding ocean plastic emissions in percentages:
|Ocean Plastic Emissions
3. Pollution through Microplastics
Plastic pellets, used as raw materials in manufacturing, can escape into water bodies during production and transport, ultimately contributing to the microplastic burden on the environment.
4. Ghost Fishing
Abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear, often referred to as ghost gear, comprises a substantial portion of marine plastic debris. Nets, lines, and traps can persist in the ocean for years, continuing to capture marine life in a phenomenon known as ghost fishing.
5. Low Recycling Rates
Low recycling rates often arise from insufficient recycling infrastructure, and a lack of the necessary facilities for efficient sorting, processing, and recycling of diverse plastic materials. Recycling processes can be expensive, and the fluctuating prices of virgin plastic versus recycled materials influence the financial viability of recycling operations.
Only 10% of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated on a global scale has undergone the process of recycling.
If you are someone looking to incorporate recycling into your lifestyle, explore these Fun and Interesting Recycling Facts
6. Consumer Awareness
Inadequate knowledge and awareness among consumers contribute to improper disposal practices, and increased reliance on single-use plastics causing pollution. Lack of awareness about the environmental impact of plastic usage, failure to segregate waste properly at home, and contamination of recyclable plastic are a few factors contributing to the causes of plastic pollution.
Types of Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution can be categorized into the following types:
1. Nano Plastic
Nanoplastics represent the smallest category, with particle sizes measuring less than 100 nanometers. The mobility and reactivity of nanoplastics are high risks to human health, as they can accumulate in organs and tissues. These are mostly present in aquatic ecosystems and oceans affecting organisms at the base of the food web
These minuscule particles result from the breakdown of larger plastics manufactured for industries such as
- Food chains
- Wear and tear of tires
- Wastewater treatment plants
2. Micro Debris
Micro debris refers to plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters, often invisible to the human naked eye. Microdebris’s small size allows it to infiltrate ecosystems at various levels, impacting both marine and terrestrial environments.
Primary micro debris includes microbeads, microfibers, and micro fragments
- Micro fragments are the result of the breakdown of larger plastic items from photodegradation
- Microbeads, commonly found in personal care products like exfoliating scrubs
- Microfibers from synthetic textiles threaten aquatic life upon entering water bodies.
3. Macro Debris
Macro debris, ranging from 5 millimeters to several meters, is visible plastic waste that accumulates in water bodies, contributing to marine debris issues. Transported by ocean currents, it forms gyres—massive collections of floating plastic. This larger debris poses threats to marine life through ingestion, entanglement, and habitat destruction.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an important example of macro debris accumulation, where currents trap and concentrate on marine litter and plastic items for thousands of miles in the Pacific Ocean.
4. Meso Debris
Meso debris falls between micro and macro debris, ranging from 5 millimeters to 20 centimeters in size. This category includes items like fragments of broken plastic bottles, parts of larger packaging, and degraded pieces of plastic. Meso debris will break down into micro debris over time
Coastal areas often witness the accumulation of meso debris, affecting both marine and terrestrial environments.
Solutions to Plastic Pollution
In order to beat plastic pollution, you can follow these tips.
1. Avoid Bottled Water
Opting for reusable water bottles and investing in water filtration systems helps individuals break free from purchasing bottled water. Glass beverage bottles can be an option because they can be refilled by the manufacturer once they return. This simple change significantly reduces the consumption of single-use plastic beverage bottles, minimizing plastic waste. Stop buying water, refill it.
2. Avoid Food Containers
Packaging containers for food and beverages consume a lot of plastic in the form of takeout or delivery services. Just have a home-cooked meal plan, cook in larger quantities, and store them in reusable containers. In the food storage option, invest in reusable containers made from materials like glass, and stainless steel further taking this to a sustainable level.
3. Start Recycling
Recycling and reusing (DIY) create a purpose for old and unused plastic to home-made projects in innovative ways. Repurposing plastics at home diminishes the need for purchasing additional products. The energy required to produce virgin plastic is considerably higher than that needed for recycling.
Few DIY and Home-Made Project Ideas:
- Upcycled Planters
- Piggy banks
- Mosaic art
- Plastic Bottle Bird Feeders
Make a Bird Feeder from Plastic Bottle
4. Adopt Proper Disposal Methods
Proper plastic disposal is a critical aspect of waste management that significantly contributes to reducing plastic waste in landfills. The recycling symbol, along with a number inside it, indicates the type of plastic. The blue color is recognized as dry waste, categorized as plastic waste. Misplaced items in recycling bins, such as non-recyclable plastics or contaminated materials, impede the recycling process.
For a wholesome idea of effective waste segregation, check out Waste Segregation Complete Guide: Importance, Types and Sorting Bins
5. Go Green
Big changes start from home, where our daily choices shape the world we want to see. Taking a reusable bag such as a cloth bag is a simple yet impactful action as it’s more doesn’t allow more and more plastic bags to stack in our homes.
6. Ban Micro Beads
Stop using products with microbeads like exfoliating scrubs and body wash. Prefer products with natural minerals like silica.
Here are natural alternatives for exfoliating scrubs of microbeads
- Jojoba beads
- Milk and yogurt
- Ground Coffee
- Sugar and salts
- Crushed walnut shells
- Rice powder
7. Purchase in Bulk
Opt for buying in bulk rather than reducing to tiny packages. Shifting to bulk purchases reduces the demand for excessive packaging, minimizing the environmental impact of single-use plastics. All you need is to plan a little.
8. Use Natural Fibers
By utilizing natural fibers, industries, and consumers can reduce their reliance on plastic-based products. Synthetic fibers make up 92% of microplastic pollution in Arctic water samples. These are some eco-friendly alternatives to plastic synthetic wear.
Cross-Reference: THE INVISIBLE THREAT: MICROPLASTICS FROM YOUR CLOTHES
9. Compost Food
Composting food waste at home offers a sustainable alternative to using garbage bags. By diverting kitchen scraps, peels, and leftovers into a compost bin, consumers reduce landfill waste, cut down on the need for plastic bags, and contribute to nutrient-rich soil for plants.
10. Government Acts
As of February 2022, the USA has compiled many acts some of them which are being implemented below,
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Shifting the responsibility for managing post-consumer plastic waste to the producers
- Municipal Waste Recycling Program (MWRP): Municipal waste programs include recyclables, such as paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, and metal, into designated bins for collection.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): EPA supports research on the environmental impacts of plastics, promotes recycling initiatives, and collaborates with other agencies to address marine debris.
- APEC Marine Debris Management and Innovation Program: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation is an international forum that promotes economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region and addresses marine debris, including plastics, through research, innovation, and regional cooperation.
Recently EPA from the USA has drafted a policy for measures for plastic pollution.
Note: Many municipalities and local governments around the world have their waste recycling programs, which may go by different names or acronyms.
11. Take Advantage of Fishing Incentives
The NOAA Marine Debris Program is actively collaborating with fishermen to address the issue of marine debris, particularly focusing on fishing gear. This partnership involves providing fishermen with fishing gear at no cost, reducing the risk of entanglement for marine life.
As we’ve learned today about the types, causes, and solutions to address plastic pollution, it is crucial to recognize our collective responsibility in shaping a healthier future for our planet. One simple change we can make is to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles and containers, thus minimizing plastic waste. Additionally, we can start recycling plastics at home, and transform them into new products.