Until the mid-20th century, there was relatively little in the way of human pollution. Once humans began to mass-produce synthetics in the 1940s, however, the story changed and our love affair with plastics took off. In 2020, according to Ian Tiseo, cumulative plastic production has reached 8.3 billion metric tons with no end to its consumption in sight.
The human race has become lazily reliant upon plastic in its myriad forms but this reliance comes with a high price tag, one that we need to examine closely in order to protect our environment and the animals living alongside our polluting species.
The Paradox of Plastic
Plastic absolutely has incredibly useful properties: it doesn’t break down easily, it’s cheap and it’s versatile so can be moulded and manipulated as required. Plastic plays a critical role in food quality and in the reduction of worldwide food waste. It is also vitally important within the medical world, where its cost and versatility make it perfect for one-time use sterile implements.
However, these same properties are also its downfall and our downfall too: plastic doesn’t simply disappear when we’re done with it. Most plastics are used once and then discarded into landfills and our oceans where they take hundreds of years to breakdown. Once it has eventually fragmented into macro and micro-plastics, it is ingested by living organisms. Plastic really never truly leaves us.
The problem is not plastic itself, rather how we interact with it. Consumers have failed to use these incredibly useful materials thoughtfully and with care. Instead, we have created a throw-away society where we use packaging once, often for a short time, and then dispose of it with very little thought for our environment or the animals living alongside us. Consider the lifespan of a takeaway coffee cup or a piece of plastic cutlery. Used once and discarded without thought.
For so long, we were told that as long as we recycled it would be ok. But that is simply not true. We need a serious change of mindset: we must change habits, say no to single-use products, re-use what we have and reduce our reliance on plastics.
Our Habits Impact the Animal World
Not only does our plastic habit impact our environment but it has a direct impact on animals too. Saving Earth Magazine has already published an excellent and thorough article by Sergio Izquierdo (Summer 2020) highlighting the serious issue of microplastics in the oceans. According to Izquierdo, 100,000 marine animals die each year from plastic ingestion and by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. A study published in Nature in 2019 found that the gut of every dead marine mammal around the UK that was examined contained microplastics.
It isn’t only marine life that is choking on our discarded plastic: birds also suffer as they mistake plastics for food, which causes them to starve as their stomachs fill with indigestible plastic. Birds have been found to use plastics for nest materials, mistaking it for leaves and twigs, which can then injure and trap chicks before they have even had a chance to fly. According to WWF, 90 percent of seabirds have plastic in their guts. Birds, like marine life, are absolutely vital to the maintenance of our ecosystem: they control pests that would otherwise decimate crops and they are pollinators of many plants and trees across the world yet we continue to perpetuate the destruction of their environment.
We have all seen the pictures of turtles with plastic bags hanging out of their mouths but when birds and marine animals ingest plastics they don’t necessarily suffocate and die immediately. If they swallow many smaller pieces over time, they slowly starve as they do not receive enough nutrients due to the plastics making them feel full. This often leaves them incapable of following their annual migratory paths and even incapable of breeding due to a lack of energy.
Land animals also suffer from our bad attitude as obviously not all plastic waste ends up in the oceans. Land animals, like marine animals, can also mistake our plastic waste for food. It can, of course, then cause intestinal blockages and lead to death. Animals can get their paws or even heads stuck in plastic and give themselves nasty injuries, and of course, some animals will eat birds and marine life that have ingested plastics, just as we humans find ourselves eating seafood that contains microplastics.
Is There A Solution?
There is an absolute urgency around creating new, non-petroleum based materials that are harmless to animals and our shared environment. We must avoid single-use plastics wherever we can and ‘the four Rs’ are imperative again: reject, reduce, reuse, recycle, and today its also possible to Dissolve!
These solutions can prevent us from further contaminating our world and the animals living on it but they do nothing to fix the already enormous problem we face: the plastic already in our oceans and in landfills is not going anywhere. We need both innovative solutions and total governmental and intergovernmental commitment to clean up our world.