Plastics & their Impacts
Plastics have successfully dominated our everyday lives. From the outdated phone that has been stored deep inside your drawer to the one that has ruled your everyday life, the plastic cover on the computer, the quoting on your headphones, the sandals, clothes, shampoo bottles, biscuit rappers, and many more, plastics have proved to be an irreplaceable part of our daily lives. The world has transitioned in all these years from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age and now we are said to be the part of plastic age. Due to the properties that allow it to be cast, pressed or extruded into variety of shapes such as films, fibers, plates, tubes, bottles, boxes among many others have helped plastic saturate into the lives we live. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it appears impossible to imagine our lives without plastics.
Despite their positive attributes, plastics are considered to be the worst polluters of the 21st century. Although they are recyclable to some extent, they are continually being produced at an even larger scale, which has surpassed the rate of recycling. It suggests that we are adding more plastics in the environment more than ever. Only in last 10 years, we have produced more plastics than in the last century and a very nominal amount of 5-10% of that is recycled. While this has affected us in several dimensions, we will be discussing on major effects of plastics on our environment and human health.
The amount of plastic put out into our environment instead of recycling is high. There is currently close to 6 billion tons of plastics now in the ecosystem- around 60% of what is produced. The plastics are either left to decompose for hundred of years in a landfill, burnt or taken into recycling centers to be repurposed. Most are discarded in landfills and a small amount is addressed with thermal destruction (burnt). However, some approaches of getting rid of plastics are not scalable while most extremely harmful to humans directly.
The burning of plastics; a common practice in developing nations, leads to release of toxic fumes and chemicals into the environment causing air pollution and degradation of the quality of air we breathe in. In addition, we can see plastics being littered on the road every single day. It not only damages the aesthetics of the area but also act as a threat to animals that eat them. Plastics, in a natural setting breakdown through a phenomenon called photo degradation. This causes plastics to disintegrate to smaller pieces allowing for them get into our soil and water, ultimately reaching our food chain.
Hormone disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, BiosPhenol- A, and Dioxins from plastics can easily migrate to our bodies through the use of different plastic products like microwaved plastic containers, by eating marine animals, or breathing in the polluted air of plastic burning. They might lead to direct health hazards like headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulties to chronic diseases such as liver dysfunctions, skin diseases, cancer, reproductive, cardiovascular, genotoxic as well as gastrointestinal health issues.
The marine life is being equally hampered due to plastics pollution. Among the plastics that is dumped on the ocean annually, only 1 percent is assumed to float while the rest have sunk to the ocean floor. The floating plastics are ingested by sea birds and many even die from getting entangled in the floating patches. It is estimated that at least 60 percent of sea birds have ingested plastics. The plastics that drown, undergo decomposition and convert to smaller pieces as well. Over the course of time, this gets ingested by small fishes and through the process of marine food chain, it gets transferred from smaller fishes to bigger ones in even greater scale. If there are no interventions in place, by 2050, it is speculated that we will have more plastics in the oceans than fishes itself.
This issue has been getting much attention in the recent years. Last year, on 2018, the slogan for world environment day was “Beat Plastic Pollution.” This attracted many people’s attention and made them aware on consequences of overuse of plastics. Currently, several nations are banning single use plastic bags, increasing their efforts in waste segregation, and generating innovative ideas to get rid of this issue. In Nepal, several municipalities banned single use plastics in the past but they have not been very effective and there is a long way to go. From our end, the best we can do is reduce if not eliminate single use plastics, segregate our plastic waste, and repurpose other forms of plastics so that we can manage them easily at our disposal.