Plastic’s Global Invasion

Written by Daniele Pieroni

There is not one material that is as ubiquitous as plastic in the realm of human development. When looking at its properties it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s a staple. By being both cheap in production and practical in application, this past century has cemented its rise. Its vast array of applications results in 320 million tons of plastic produced a year.

It’s everywhere, literally and figuratively. Not only does its availability in the market allow for it to persist, many policies fail to recognize the risk to begin with. The more of it we produce, the more of it we inevitably discharge into the environment. Plastic pollution has been increasing year after year, waste management and recycling programs can only go so far to address the issue. Canada only recycles around 9% of its discarded plastic.

The problem must be handled at the root. Researchers from Sweden, Germany and Norway believe we are at a critical point. With projections of even greater increases in global production by 2025. They believe that approaches to minimize the impact of plastic are to be adopted globally. Unfortunately, not every nation prioritizes dealing with plastic’s pervasive effects. Attitudes surrounding plastic revolve around its polluting role in populated areas; this actively ignores multiple aspects of the problem. Plastic’s destructive effects aren’t always visible to the naked eye. As mentioned earlier plastic is the most prevalent agent in daily littering, yet its contaminating effects aren’t limited to habitated areas.

Although countries may have robust waste management programs, isolated areas aren’t guaranteed to be free from pollution. Trashed items disrupt ecosystems and cause complications to plant and animal life; with plastic’s half-life being the primary culprit. It can take up to hundreds of years to decompose without our help. No degree of recycling counters the damages of neglected pollution. This isn’t limited to individuals’ actions outside of city parameters.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of plastic pollution extend far beyond neglected land masses. The ocean harbours much of the planet’s plastic. It infects the waters and complicates sea life’s essential patterns, making it harder to swim and breathe. In the last 60 years studies aimed at researching the oceans’ biodiversity have proven difficult due to the increase of plastic.

Continuous Plankton Recorders, or CPR for short, are devices meant to survey plankton. As they explore the ocean the CPRs filter the water through silk bands, analyzing what is left behind. Yet, this has been increasingly obstructed every year. The studies have gone on to examine the growth of large plastic deposits. CPRs will get entangled with anything ranging from abandoned nets to garbage let out at sea. Although this was an unexpected finding, CPRs’ tainted results don’t address the presence of microplastics, as they slip in between the silk bands placed on the torpedo-like tools. Through water abrasion, corrosion and overall exposure plastic breaks down: creating microplastics. Microplastics are small particles that are 5 millimeters or smaller.

Studies from Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Exeter reveal that the previously accepted number of microplastics may have been a gross underestimation. They arrived at this conclusion after taking samples from the Atlantic Ocean; what varied in their research model was the nets’ variety of mesh sizes. By utilizing a finer sampling net, the collection of microplastics was 10 ten times greater than samples collected with a customary net. Every sea is littered with microplastics, but knowing the exact amount has been challenging. Professor Pennie Lindeque, of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, believes that the concentration of microplastics may exceed the number of zooplankton in a cubed meter of water.

But it’s pervasiveness doesn’t stop at our land masses and oceans. Plastic has also been proven to be found in the human body. In one study, microplastics have even shown up in the placenta. Through Raman Microspectroscopy, a vibrational technique, researchers were able to analyze the composition of sampled placentas. But before they analyzed their samples, they made sure to minimize contact with plastic in general. Cotton garments were provided to the volunteers and tools were plastic free.

12 microplastics fragments were found in four of the subjects. This is the first study to detect inorganic pigmented substances in the human placenta. The placenta provides nutrients and oxygen to the fetus; anything in the placenta is in the child. Unfortunately, the science is unclear on just how we ingest the microplastics. The current hypothesis points to a multitude of ways. One explanation points to our diets and or a possible inhalation.

Plastic pollution is so problematic that babies are polluted before they can even take their first breath. Although plastic has advanced the manufacturing world and provided to humanity a level of development that could not have been achieved otherwise, evidence of irreversible damage from this material gives us reason to leave it in the past. The only path to a bright future seems to be one that is plastic free. In the meantime, recovering and recycling disposed plastic and seeking better material alternatives are the options we have.

References:
Canada, E. and C. C. (2021, July 12). Canada one-step closer to ZERO plastic waste by 2030. Canada.ca. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2020/10/canada-one-step-closer-to-zero-plastic-waste-by-2030.html.

Curtin, A. (2020, May 23). New study finds underestimation of microplastics in ocean-concentration far greater. Nation of Change. https://www.nationofchange.org/2020/05/23/new-study-finds-underestimation-of-microplastics-in-ocean-concentration-far-greater/.

O'Neill, M. (2021, July 10). Global plastic pollution may be nearing an irreversible tipping point. SciTechDaily. https://scitechdaily.com/global-plastic-pollution-may-be-nearing-an-irreversible-tipping-point/.

Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., Notarstefano, V., Carnevali, O., Papa, F., Rongioletti, M. C. A., Baiocco, F., Draghi, S., D'Amore, E., Rinaldo, D., Matta, M., & Giorgini, E. (2021). Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environment International, 146, 106274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.106274

Warren, M. (2019). Planet's ocean-plastics problem detailed in 60-year data set. Nature (London). https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-01252-0