NEWS

The Unknown Side-Effects of Plastic Pollution

Many people haven’t even considered the worst effects of plastic pollution on the earth and all its inhabitants

The material plastic in its modern incarnation has only been widely used since the 1940s starting with the invention of Tupperware containers. Despite it only being a recent invention compared to all of human history, now it’s nearly impossible to spend a day without it.

As useful as plastic is, it can cause some serious problems for the environment if not disposed of correctly. Everyone has heard of the effects of plastic pollution on an ecological level; turtles getting their heads stuck in 6-pack plastic rings and seagulls choking on plastic bags. Landfill piles larger than Great Britain, and beaches with more trash than sand. This is all horrible, and is caused by millions of tons of plastic ending up in the ocean every year.

“Why is it that scuba divers are some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation? Because they’ve spent time in and around the ocean, and they’ve personally seen the beauty, the fragility, and even the degradation of our planet’s blue heart” ~Sylvia Earle, American Marine Biologist
As bad as all this sounds, it can get much worse, and some of the lesser-known effects of plastic pollution could prove to be far more dangerous for plants and animals. A fact about plastic that isn’t commonly known is that they emit trace amounts of greenhouse gasses when exposed to sunlight, and while it isn’t known how long the plastics will produce them, there are some plastics from the 1940s that are still producing to this day.

Plastic, like everything else, is just a long chain of molecules, and the radiation from the sun is strong enough to cause a slow breakdown of these molecules. This releases small amounts of methane and ethylene into the air through a process known as off-gassing, and as far as greenhouse gasses go, methane is one of the worst, as it is extremely effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Some might argue to just break the plastic down and eliminate the problem entirely, but as appealing as this sounds, it doesn’t quite work like that. As plastic is broken down, in this new state, it actually releases far more greenhouse gasses. When plastic is broken down to powdered form and disposed of, it is found that it releases nearly 500 times the amount of methane than it normally would.

The next logical argument would be to just keep the plastic in a dark place without access to sunlight, but even this is flawed. The sunlight only acts as a catalyst, so once the breakdown process begins, it can continue even without the assistance of sunlight. Over time it keeps breaking down until it eventually becomes invisible particles, and as this happens, more greenhouse gasses are released into the air.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the only unknown problem being caused by plastic today. According to a 2020 study from Northern Ireland, bacteria being formed on plastic as it decomposes are becoming increasingly resistant to modern antibiotics. 98% of these batteries were ampicillin-resistant, and 16% of them were resistant to minocycline, a much stronger antibiotic.

“Industrial pollution and discarding of plastic waste must be tackled for the sake of all life in the ocean” ~David Attenborough, Narrator for Planet Earth
Unluckily for us, plastic is a superb breeding ground for bacteria, so as more plastic is developed and left in the world, more resistant bacteria strands can form, making our medicine less effective. Similar to before, the problem gets worse as plastic breaks down. As plastic breaks down, it creates more surface area, meaning more places for bacteria to colonize and grow. This same study showed a correlation between the scent of the bacteria, and the scent of most food in the oceans, causing a higher likelihood that they will be ingested by marine life such as turtles, fish, and dolphins.

Ingesting plastic covered in antibacterial-resistant bacteria caused a whole host of problems for marine animals, but more than that, it also affects animals higher on the food chain — such as humans.

As plastic breaks down, the pieces get smaller and smaller, but also more numerable, and as it turns out, some of these smallest pieces and posed the biggest problems. Any piece of plastic smaller than a few micrometers is called a nanoparticle, and these microscopic materials can pass through biological barriers such as cell membranes. This means that they can be carried through the bloodstream of animals, accumulating in their organs. Some of the smaller nanoparticles have even been shown to be able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brains of certain animals.

“Plastic in all forms — straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc. — are all choking our plant. We must find ways to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastic products” ~Jerry Brown, Former Governor of California
In a 2017 Swedish study, researchers looked in depth at Daphnia Magna, a common zooplankton found in the ocean. This zooplankton could digest the larger nanoparticles, but the ones small enough to penetrate the blood-brain barrier were deadly for entirely different reasons. To understand the effects of nanoparticles higher on the food chain, zooplankton exposed to nanoparticles were fed to larger fish, and as a result, the fish who ate the exposed zooplankton were more sluggish, had increased weight loss, and explored less of their environment when compared to their control group.

This shows that plastic nanoparticles can move their way up the food chain, and if we aren’t careful, eventually have an impact on us. Plastic is found in every environment in the world, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. In some ways, it’s a good thing, because plastic has so many useful properties, but in other ways, it has such a negative impact that it makes us wonder if it’s even worth it. The less we use plastic, and the more we understand about it, the more we can protect ourselves and our world.

 

This article was originally published by Travis Horan, Medium.com

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