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Consequences of Marine Pollution - Irmak Atılgan '23

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

Water, the lifeblood of the planet, makes up 70% of its surface with rivers, seas and oceans. However, the blood is being poisoned with plastic(BBC). 46,000 pieces of micro and macro plastics are in every square mile of ocean, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes in total all around the world(Condor). The production of plastic waste, which is finding its way into the food chain, is increasing by the day but operations like collecting the emitted plastic from waters and developing biodegradable alternatives to plastic are in progress to remedy the environmental damage.


The first problem is that plastic waste in the oceans is entering the food chain. Bodies of water are very rich habitats for numerous blessings of nature including seabirds, fishes, and seals. Consequently, when tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into bodies of water, they are accidentally or intentionally consumed by sea animals, which are later preyed on and digested by other sea animals higher in the food chain (BBC). For example, not only do newly hatched Shearwater seabirds mistake plastic for actual food, but the mother shearwaters also fall into this cycle and unknowingly feed their chicks with plastic by eating plastic themselves and spitting it into the chicks' mouths (BBC). As a result, chicks' throats and stomach linings are damaged, and their hormone levels are disrupted. Every year 260 pieces of tiny plastic, on average, are pumped from the stomachs of newly hatched shearwater chicks that are found in bad condition (BBC). Contrary to popular belief, animals like sea birds on the lower trophic levels are not the only beings who are living with microplastics in their systems. Due to the fact that species on higher trophic levels consume those on lower ones, microplastics travel up the food chain. A research paper published by the International Journal of Medical Sciences emphasizes that many plastics such as BPA, BPF, or DEHP, which can cause cancers around the body, infertility, and hormone imbalances, are commonly found in people's bodies (IJMS). The study also identified that the source of this plastic content was food. Beyond recognizing this very important issue, is stopping pollution once and for all actually enough to prevent the spread of plastic in the bodies of almost every organism on Earth?


The second problem is that plastic consumption is only growing. A 2022 study from the United Nations Environmental program proves how about a million plastic bottles are purchased each minute all around the world; the study also finds that annually 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed globally (UNEP). Additionally, it is crucial to remember that an incredibly small proportion of these plastic bags and bottles are being reused or are able to degrade in nature. A study from National Geographic shows that 40 percent of the plastic produced annually is meant for single use. Considering that only 1% of all plastic is biodegradable, annually thousands of tons of plastic are guaranteed to be in landfills and oceans for centuries to come (European Environment Agency). The owner of a relatively small warehouse which contained approximately 30 tons of plastic bottles in the outskirts of Makassar City, Indonesia, Marwan Hassan claims that, "It never reduces. In fact, the amount of plastic is increasing year on year, the amount we are shipping to Jakarta is increasing"(BBC). Accordingly, the poison on this planet’s plate is not only daunting but also ever-increasing.


Nevertheless, new practices are being organized all over the world to battle the entrance of microplastics into the food chain. One such practice is removing the existing plastic in the oceans. All around the world, systems like sea bins, trash wheels, or ocean cleanup barriers have been implemented to collect tons of plastic from bodies of water daily (BBC). In fact, the trash wheel system starting in Baltimore, Maryland called “Mr Trash Wheel'' is said to collect over 35 tons of plastic daily (BBC). Moreover, researchers are working on removing the plastic in marine animals in and in the ecosystem itself. For instance, a team of marine biologists led by Dr Jennifer Lavers has been traveling to Lorde Howe Island every year for about two decades to pump the stomachs of shearwater chicks in order to get them to vomit up all the plastic they swallowed (BBC). The team is usually able to pump 30-40 pieces of plastic out of each chick (BBC). So, what is supposed to happen when plastic is collected?


A 100% effective solution may be not using any plastic in the first place. This can be achieved by reusing and recycling the already emitted waste or shifting to biodegradable alternatives to plastic in daily practices. What is not commonly known is that there are numerous alternatives to plastic that serve the same function when manufactured correctly, and degrade in nature within a couple of years depending on the choice of material. A research article published in Research Journal of Engineering and Technology clarifies how of the five types of degradable plastic (​​biodegradable, compostable, hydro-biodegradable, photo-degradable, and bioerodable), biodegradable plastic has the longest decomposition time, which is 2-3 years (RJET). Many companies like Vegware, UrthPact, and Vevoware commonly use compostable plastic in their products which are designed to fully decompose within approximately 80 days (Vegware, Vevoware, UrthPact). Even though it is important to keep in mind that degradable plastic cannot decompose under conditions like above or below certain temperatures, or in the presence of light or water for some types of degradable plastics, the fact that these plastics are fully able to decompose and complete their decomposition in 2-3 years maximum may be a real and permanent solution to marine pollution (RJET).


In conclusion, plastic waste has spread to every part of the Earth from bodies of water, to the food chain and the amount of plastic that is spreading is in a continuous climb. However, slowly but surely, the emitted plastic is being collected from bodies of water and companies are shifting to degradable plastic options. It is key to note that while plastic collection methods are helping reduce marine pollution, they, unfortunately, do not have mass impact and are not sustainable as they do not offer a sustainable outsource for the collected plastic. All the plastic is being plucked from marine ecosystems only to be dumped into landfills to poison terrestrial ecosystems. The ultimate answer comes back to degradable plastics, which are currently in such small amounts all over the world. It is only the beginning of an era that will have everybody’s life revolve around the safety of the planet and yet the question still remains: what will happen to the plastic already in the waters?

Bibliography

“Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics - Challenges and Opportunities.” European Environment Agency, 6 Apr. 2021, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/biodegradable

-and-compostable-plastics.


CondorFerries. “100+ Plastic in the Ocean Statistics & Facts (2020-2021).” Condor Ferries, 2021,https://www.condorferries.co.uk/plastic-in-the-ocean-statistics#:~:text=There %20is%20now%205.25%20trillion,weighing%20up%20to%20269%2C000%20tonnes.

“Drowning in Plastic.” BBC One, BBC, 31 Oct. 2021,https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/

b0bmbn47.


Evo&Co. “Evoware.” RETHINK, https://rethink-plastic.com/home/productdetail/8.

Nandan, Abhishek. “Biodegradable Plastic – a Potential Substitute for Synthetic Polymers.” Academia.edu, 30 Nov. 2014,https://www.academia.edu/9573515/Biode

gradable_Plastic_A_Potential_Substitute_for_Synthetic_Polymers.


Parker, Laura. “Plastic Pollution Facts and Information.” Environment, National Geographic, 3 May 2021,https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/

plastic-pollution.


Plainvanilla. “Molded Bioplastic and Recycled Plastic Products.” UrthPact, 21 Dec. 2021, https://www.urthpact.com/.


“Products.” Vegware, https://www.vegware.com/uk-en/catalogue/.


“Visual Feature: Beat Plastic Pollution.” UNEP, 2022,https://www.unep.org/interactives/

beat-plastic-pollution/.


Wang, Yung-Li, et al. “Potent Impact of Plastic Nanomaterials and Micromaterials on the Food Chain and Human Health.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 3 Mar. 2020, https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/21/5/1727.


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