Plastic pollution needs to be fixed to protect animals and humans alike


Edward Frankonis, Opinion Editor

Plastic is king; aside from blood, treasure, and tears it is the essential ingredient to life in the 21st century.

It makes the wonders of the “Information Era” function; it’s in our phones, pens, toothbrushes, buildings, computers, industrial machinery, medical tools, cars, airplanes, and cutting-edge weapons. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to buy half the materials around us so cheaply (if we could have them at all).

Yet what happens to all this plastic when we remove it from body and mind by discarding it? Well, since we’ve thrown it away, people often don’t care too much what transpires afterward. Yet given that not only is there no real method of properly disposing of this “Fifth Element” but that as a result unwanted plastic pollutes the very food we eat, we need to start caring.

Most plastic produced—and there is a lot of it—is not properly disposed of.

In the 1960’s the world produced 16.4 million tons of plastic per year; as of 2014 we are producing 343 million tons yearly, with current production rates expected to double by 2036 (especially as 3D printing machines and automated workers [read: robots] start to take off) and then quadruple by 2050.

That same year, 33.6 million tons of plastic (like bottles, wrapping materials, plastic kitchenware, etc) was thrown away by Americans-and under 10% of it was recycled. A further 15% was burned for energy consumption, bringing the grand total of plastic properly discarded to around 25%.

So where does the remaining 75% go? Well, 12.7 million tons globally goes into the ocean each year-that’s a garbage truck full of plastic trash driving into the ocean each minute.

Most of this plastic “breaks down” into microplastics—pieces of plastic about the same size as a sesame seed. These schools of microplastics are pushed and pulled by the many forces of the ocean, such as winds and currents, all over the world. As a result, these microplastics congregate into large swirling zones called “gyres”, or (in layman terms) “garbage patches”, which vary in shape and size.

Some of the more famous ones-like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”-are regularly studied by scientists the world over to understand the effects of said “garbage patches” on sea life.

Needless to say, the effects aren’t good for sea life, and due to the titanic amounts of plastic in the ocean it winds up not being good for us either.

Important parts of the ocean’s ecosystem, like bait fish (the lantern fish as an example) often mistake microplastics for food, and as larger fish consume them they accumulate enough plastic to potentially be harmful to humans (as we eat some of these larger fish, like salmon).

Besides poisoning and killing sea animals (we’ve all probably seen the deformed sea turtle with the plastic six-pack ring in it), it contaminates our food; researchers from Spain and Malaysia to the United States have found a strong plastic presence in the salt we consume.

Salt comes from the sea via dehydration, and in sea/table salts around the world high amounts of plastics were detected. In fact, consuming the recommended 2.3 grams of salt a day in the United States can lead to consuming up to 660 different particles of plastic. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that not only do 90% of Americans consume more salt than is healthy but that a roughly similar percentage (95%) of Americans had plastic (bisphenol A, in case you’re curious) in their urine in 2013.

Given that plastic is now in everything from the salt we eat to the alcohol we (21+ over, that is…) drink, this number probably hasn’t fallen at all.

Given that it takes hundreds of years (at least) for plastic to decompose, and that it is very durable in ocean waters, simply cleaning the beach once in a while isn’t going to fix the problem. And because recycling plastics is an extraordinarily labor-intensive process (the plastic gets separated from the rest of the gunk on it, then placed into its own plastic category before being shredded and melted down into “nurdles” or pellets that can be reused), nobody has been able to find an easier way to recycle the enormous amounts of plastic purchased, used and tossed out.

Although some recommend burning more plastic (as, because it is a fossil fuel, it has more energy potential than either coal or wood) for energy consumption, this doesn’t seem to strike at the root of the problem.

The easy-going nature of King Plastic propels us into an economy of waste; we routinely discard the vast majority of the plastics we use. So for the sake of the salt of the earth, please recycle all the plastic you use when possible, where possible. While only 10% of the bottles we throw away are actually recycled, a small chance of success is better than none when said bottles are simply thrown from the trash can into the ocean.