Plastic: Consequences and Solutions
Learn about the negative effects of plastic and how to mitigate this issue.
Plastic has become a staple in countless different aspects of our daily lives. With plastic in bottles holding our water, bags for groceries, and even our computer screens, it is difficult to grasp the full scope of plastic in the world. While it can be commended as a reliable and effective material, plastic has caused its fair share of problems. This is strongly evidenced by the burgeoning plastic pollution crisis we're facing. Plastic that is improperly disposed of not only defaces public places but also builds up pollution that harms wildlife. Of particular focus in this crisis is pollution in our oceans and waterways. As a result, multiple states, including California, have instantiated legislation that attempts to encourage more responsible manufacturing of plastic and ultimately minimize overall plastic consumption.
A study out of Nature reports that upward of 12 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually from “land-based activities” including industrial use, packaging, and waste production (Haward, 2018). There are huge masses of plastic in the ocean, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic products, when used for their marketed purposes, pose very little risk to humans and other animals. However, plastic that is dumped and left for wildlife to find can have very detrimental effects. For example, animals can choke on plastic products, either by mistakenly ingesting them or becoming entangled. Plastic pollution can have more gradual effects on animals, as well, particularly for marine life. Marine animals are continually exposed to large amounts of plastic, mostly minuscule plastic compounds known as microplastics. More continuous and subtle exposure to plastic offers a slew of health problems: the Plastic Pollution Coalition states that such exposure to microplastics (such as by consumption of contaminated seafood or drinking water) are associated with negative health consequences, including inflammation and oxidative stress, which are themselves linked to more chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders. We can also consider the industrial production of plastic which may contribute to the release of harmful substances into the air and waterways.
Some states have drafted policy changes to enforce more responsible plastic production. This includes AB 1080 + SB 54 proposed by California. This bill, if enacted, would require that all plastic utensils imported into California had to be biodegradable by 2032, and waste products from the manufacturing process would have to be cut down by 75% (Californians Against Waste, 2019). Legislation that has been enacted has focused on discouraging excessive plastic use. Proposition 67 in California, enacted in March 2020, adds a ten cent fee to all plastic bags in grocery stores or other retailers--revenue from the sale of plastic bags would be allocated to the World Wildlife Fund (OPC, 2020). Lastly, states have put larger efforts in place to manage waterway pollution, and have invested heavily in cleanup efforts; for example, in 2018, the Ocean Protection Council approved a $1.7 million plan known as the Newport Bay Water Wheel, focused on reducing waste on Newport Beach by 80% (OPC, 2020).
Plastic has become so universal in our lives that we’re not necessarily privy to the potential dangers it may carry. The hazardous disposal and manufacturing of plastic may pose serious problems to both the health of the world around us, as well as to our own health and wellbeing. As a result, we must be mindful of the ways in which we use plastic, as well as how that use impacts others. The demand for plastic may never change, which inevitably shapes the dynamic of the consumption and manufacturing processes so established and familiar in the world.
Californians Against Waste: https://www.cawrecycles.org/sb-54-ab-1080-bill-page
California Ocean Protection Council: https://www.opc.ca.gov/programs-summary/marine-pollution/plastics/
Nature (Haward): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03104-3
Haward, M. Plastic pollution of the world’s seas and oceans as a contemporary challenge in ocean governance. Nat Commun 9, 667 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03104-3
Plastic Pollution Coalition: https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2019/2/20/report-plastic-threatens-human-health-at-a-global-scale