“Industrial pollution and the discarding of plastic waste must be tackled for the sake of all life in the ocean.”
David Attenborough, natural historian and broadcaster
Plastic Pollution: Causes, Effects & Solutions
Plastic pollution can be defined as the accumulation of plastic particles and objects in the environment. The amount of plastic we produce in our nowadays society and also the level of pollution from plastic items is shocking.
Plastic pollution has significant adverse effects on humans, animals, plants as well as on the whole environmental system. The causes, effects and solutions to the problem are examined in the following.
Extent of Plastic Pollution
The first items made of synthetic plastic were produced in 1907. The first rapid growth period of plastic started around 1950. From there, until 2015, annual plastic production increased almost 200-fold to 381 million tons.
Causes for Plastic Pollution
- Plastic is inexpensive
- Incorrect disposal
- Disposal problems
- Sea accidents
- Overpopulation and population growth
- Slow decomposition
- Consumption behavior
One major cause of plastic pollution that plastic is simply used in an excessive manner in our nowadays society. There are not many products left that are free from plastic. Plastic often comes in the form of packaging, but is also contained in many other products for our daily lives.
Even in our clothes, plastic comes in the form of polyester which is widely used in the fashion industry. Moreover, also our drinking water is often sold in plastic bottles. Plastic displays a convenient way for companies to produce and sell products to the customer. However, this leads to an overuse of plastic.
Plastic is inexpensive
Plastic is also quite inexpensive compared to other materials. When it is produced on a large scale, plastic is by far the cheapest material for packaging or other purposes.
Therefore, since industries usually settle down for the cheapest ways in order to maximize profits, many products of our daily life contain plastics.
In many countries, especially in developing countries, the incorrect or even illegal disposal of plastic is a great problem. People and also industries often do not care too much about the adverse consequences if plastic is not disposed of properly.
Industries may just dispose of their waste in nearby rivers or lakes and thus polluting these water systems with plastic items.
In order to get rid of the plastic trash, it has either be burnt or disposed of into landfills. Both methods have pros and cons. Burning plastic results in the emission of many toxic substances. It also contributes to global warming since large amounts of CO2 are released into the air through the combustion process.
The disposal of plastic on landfills also poses risks to the environment since through rain, the soil can be contaminated by harmful substances in the plastic which may eventually reach our groundwater.
Fishing can also contribute to the plastic pollution issue. Fishing material like fishing nets is often lost during fishing operations. This means that the plastic items just remain in the sea, with all the adverse implied consequences.
Moreover, since fishing nets often remain in the water for quite a long time, they can release toxins that may hurt fishes and other sea organisms.
Sea accidents can be another cause of plastic pollution. In case of ship accidents, ships often lose their cargo. This cargo often consists of many plastic items. These items are lost to the sea if the ship sinks, releasing the plastic items into the sea and thus leading to serious plastic pollution.
Overpopulation and population growth
Overpopulation is a great cause of plastic pollution. Since the number of people on our planet increases consistently, also the amount of trash increases. Since quite a big fraction of this trash is made from plastic, population growth also implies an increase in the plastic pollution problem.
Making things worse, the problem is likely to become even more serious in the future. There are many people in third world countries who now aspire lifestyles similar to that in the Western world. This means that they will adjust their consumption levels accordingly, which also implies an increase in plastic pollution.
Plastic is quite harmful to the environment since it takes a quite long time to decompose. This means, in order to get rid of plastic, it takes plenty of time.
It may take hundreds or even thousands of years for contaminated water systems to experience relief from plastic contamination.
Since plastic items last that long, the slow decomposition rate is another significant reason for the plastic pollution issue.
Our consumption behavior also plays a significant role in the process of plastic contamination. Since industries want to satisfy their customers, we contribute to the plastic pollution issue when we consume products made of plastic.
Since people usually want to buy stuff that is cheap, plastic items are frequently bought instead of things made of sustainable materials. Therefore, our consumption behavior heavily contributes to plastic pollution.
Convenience is another factor when it comes to plastic pollution. Many people in our nowadays society work a lot and therefore do not have the time or do not want to think about the problems that come with their consumption behavior.
When they come home from work, they often just pick up food in plastic wrappings since it is more convenient compared to cooking at home after a long workday.
However, this behavior is likely to lead to plastic pollution since many items from fast food restaurants are made of plastic which are just used one time and are disposed of in the trash can after that.
Effects of Plastic Pollution
- Water pollution
- Groundwater pollution
- Air pollution
- Soil pollution
- Land pollution
- Effects on the food chain
- Effects on humans
- Effects on animals
- Effects on plants
- Effects on aquatic life
- Effects on birds
- Effects on tourism
- Effects on locals
- Global warming
- Social costs
- Economic effects
A major adverse effect of plastic pollution is water pollution. Many plastic items are illegally disposed of in our rivers and lakes and eventually end up in our oceans. Right now, large areas of the oceans‘ surface are covered with plastic items and also microplastics.
When sea animals like fishes or turtles consume these plastic particles, they are likely to become sick or even die. Moreover, humans consume these fishes, which in turn results in contamination of humans with plastic particles through the food cycle. Hence, plastic contamination leads to water pollution and to many implied adverse effects.
Groundwater pollution is another adverse effect of plastic pollution. Since large amounts of plastic waste are disposed of illegally in forests or other areas, harmful components of the plastic trash reach the soil.
Since these harmful compounds are washed through the soil into our groundwater due to rainfalls, our groundwater is likely to become contaminated.
The pollution with plastics is also likely to lead to air pollution. In order to get rid of the plastic garbage, it is often burned. However, in the combustion process, many harmful and also toxic substances are released into the air.
Moreover, also greenhouse gases like CO2 are emitted. Thus, plastic pollution also contributes to significant air pollution.
Plastic contamination can also lead to soil pollution. Since part of the plastic is not burnt but stored in landfills, harmful substances are likely to reach the soil if the landfills are not set up properly.
This is a serious problem which can often be observed, especially in developing countries. Hence, plastic pollution can lead to adverse effects on the soil.
Plastic pollution can also contribute to land pollution since it also contributes to the degradation of the land surface. The issue of land pollution from plastic is especially severe in areas where people are less educated and do not care too much about environmental standards.
In these areas, people often just dispose of their plastic trash in their backyards. Thus, plastic pollution can also lead to land pollution.
Effects on the food chain
Plastic can also have several adverse effects on the food chain. Since many animals, especially sea animals like fishes, consume small particles of plastic, they get contaminated by the harmful compounds of these plastics. In turn, when we eat these fishes, we also get contaminated.
Effects on humans
There are many adverse effects of plastic pollution on the human species. First of all, plastic pollution may lead to severe health effects since we are likely to consume microplastics in our daily food and drinks.
Second, plastic pollution may also lower our life quality. People usually do not want to live in areas where plastic trash lies on the streets.
People who live nearby plastic combustion plants may also be affected by the emission of harmful gases. There may also be odor nuisance from these combustion plants.
Effects on animals
Animals heavily suffer from plastic pollution and the implicit consequences since they are not able to protect or adjust appropriately. Especially in areas where people illegally dump their plastic waste in forests, animals living in these forests are likely to get contaminated when the plastic trash slowly decomposes over time and harmful substances are released on nearby plants.
Effects on plants
Plants may also be affected in an adverse way. Plants usually require stable conditions in order to grow and replicate efficiently.
However, if the surrounding area is contaminated by plastic waste, this waste may release toxic compounds which in turn may harm the growth behavior of plants.
Effects on aquatic life
Plastic waste has enormous adverse effects on aquatic life. This is true for rivers and lakes, but even more severe for our oceans. Right now, large areas of the ocean surface are covered with plastics. These plastics release toxic substances into the water.
Moreover, fishes and other sea animals frequently eat small plastic particles. By doing so, they are likely to get contaminated and may suffer from severe health conditions are even die because of that.
Effects on birds
Birds are also significantly affected by plastic pollution. Since many birds consume fishes and large amounts of fishes are contaminated with plastic compounds, birds also indirectly consume these plastic particles. Thus, birds also get contaminated and may also suffer from the adverse effects of plastic waste.
Effects on tourism
Plastic pollution can also have severe adverse effects on tourism. Since people usually like clean beaches where they can recharge and relax from their demanding jobs, they are likely stop visiting countries which are polluted too much. Thus, plastic contamination can lead tourists to switch to other countries for vacation purposes.
This behavior will significantly harm the local economy of countries that rely on tourism as their most important income source. Many countries understand that their greatest asset is their nature and so they often protect it accordingly.
Effects on locals
Plastic pollution can also have severe adverse effects on locals. Since many locals still rely on fishing as main income source, the pollution of the sea with plastic can harm them significantly since areas with a high level of pollution are likely to become less frequented by fishes and so the amount of fishes caught by locals is likely to decrease.
Global warming can be another effect caused by plastic pollution. Since in order to get rid of the plastic trash, it is often burned, harmful substances are released in the air due to the combustion process. These substances include greenhouse gases like CO2 which in turn contributes to the global warming issue.
There are significant social costs associated with plastic pollution. Especially people in poor countries are adversely affected by the effects of plastic since their beaches are often polluted. The pollution source may be thousands of miles away, but through winds and other forces, it will end up at these beaches.
This may lead to a reduction of tourism in these regions and therefore to a loss of livelihood for many people relying on tourism as single income source. In turn, this may force people to leave their homes and thus may exacerbate the migration problem.
Apart from the adverse environmental and social effects, plastic pollution also implies severe economic effects. Since we have to get rid of the enormous amounts of plastic somehow, we have to spend a lot of money on combustion and also on cleanup actions.
The air pollution and the resulting contribution to global warming as well as the implied negative effects will also be quite costly in future periods.
Solutions to the Plastic Pollution Problem
- Reuse and recycle
- Buy secondhand
- Reduce consumption
- Avoid plastic packaging
- Switch to organic food stores
- Avoid bottled water
- Avoid coffee-to-go cups
- Government regulations
- Higher taxes on plastics
- Change the mind of industries
- Support companies which avoid plastic
- Create awareness and convince others
Reuse and recycle
An important measure to fight plastic is to reuse and recycle on a regular basis. In our nowadays society, people always want to have the newest electronics, the latest clothes and so on. However, this behavior leads to an enormous waste of resources and also contributes to the plastic pollution problem.
Instead of replacing items that are old but still functional with newer versions, we should keep our old devices as long as they are working. If we urgently need the newest ones due to technological necessity, we should at least make sure that these items are given to family or friends.
If nobody is interested in these items, we should dispose of them in a proper way so they can be recycled.
You can also contribute to mitigate the plastic problem if you start to buy secondhand items instead of new ones. This behavior leads to a reduction of resource demand and therefore also to a reduction in plastic waste. For example, many clothes are made of polyester which can be seen as some kind of plastic.
If we buy new clothes and dispose of old ones, we significantly contribute to the plastic contamination issue. Hence, buying secondhand can make quite a lot of sense in order to fight plastic waste.
Information sharing on newest research findings
It is crucial that countries all over the world share their newest findings and insights on measures for how to protect people from the effects of natural disasters.
Since developed countries usually have larger budgets for research, they should supply developing countries with insights that help these countries to take action against natural disasters.
Cleanups are an additional strategy in order to mitigate the plastic contamination issue. Cleanups are especially important in oceans where large surface areas are already covered by plastic items. By cleaning up these regions, the sea is released from the harmful effects of plastic compounds.
People may also gather in their communities and make plastic collection events. This may include picking up plastic trash in forests and dispose of it in a proper way. Through this measure, the plastic pollution problem can be mitigated to a certain extent.
Reducing consumption is another important measure against the production of plastic waste. Since the industrial revolution period, our consumption levels skyrocketed. Products are now cheaper than ever since we are able to use machines to produce large quantities which lower the unit price for each item.
However, since consumption is such cheap nowadays, it also leads to excessive consumption behavior. Since many items are made of plastic, an increase in consumption also implies an increase in plastic.
Thus, a reduction in consumption would make a significant positive impact on the plastic waste issue.
Avoid plastic packaging
Many food items are wrapped in plastic packaging. This is especially true for large grocery stores. Thus, it is quite hard to avoid plastic packaging when you go shopping in these kinds of supermarkets.
But even in these stores, there may be some items that are not wrapped in plastic. Replacing items that have plastic wrappings with items that are wrapped in paper could also mitigate the plastic problem to a certain extent.
Switch to organic food stores
Since many conventional grocery stores rely on plastic packaging, buying from organic food stores may be a good alternative since they often use packaging material which can be recycled in a more environmentally-friendly way than plastic.
Avoid bottled water
In our daily lives, the amount of drinking water we consume is enormous. Drinking water is often bought in plastic bottles. However, in many regions, the tap water is quite clean and people could switch to tap water instead of buying bottled water. This would contribute to a reduction in plastic waste.
Avoid coffee-to-go cups
Coffee-to-go cups are another big source of plastic pollution. In our nowadays society, especially in the business world, people often just pick up a coffee when they are on their way to the next meeting.
However, this implies the use of a vast number of plastic cups every year. It is estimated that we use a shocking number of 500 billion cups made of plastic every year.
This number shows that we have to take efforts in order to reduce the production of plastic waste from plastic cups.
Governments are in control to set stricter regulations on the use of plastic. An important and quite effective measure would be the prohibition of plastic cups and other plastic items that are only used one time.
By doing so, a large fraction of our plastic garbage could be avoided and therefore the plastic pollution problem could be mitigated.
Higher taxes on plastics
Plastic items could also be subject to higher taxes. By increasing taxes on plastic items, it may become more expensive for industries to produce and use plastic packaging.
This may also translate into higher prices for customers. In turn, this could lead to a reduction in consumption of articles made from plastic and hence could mitigate the plastic trash issue.
Change the mind of industries
Another measure to mitigate the plastic problem is to convince industries that they have a social responsibility to save our environment. Politicians have to actively contact CEOs and discuss the adverse effects so they become aware of the extent of the negative effects of plastic on our planet.
Support companies which avoid plastic
You can also contribute to a mitigation of the plastic pollution problem if you support companies that are known to avoid plastic and to rely on sustainable sources instead.
In this way, the market will eventually become convinced that people no longer want to consume plastic and will adjust their product range accordingly.
Education is another important way to get rid of the plastic pollution issue. We have to teach children at a young age how important it is to avoid or reduce our consumption of plastic items.
Children are likely to also convince their parents which may in turn also change their consumption behavior. When children turn into grownups, they are more likely to pay attention to their consumption behavior. Thus, education is key in order to mitigate the plastic production problem.
Create awareness and convince others
Making our contribution is important! However, it is equally important to raise awareness on the topic of plastic pollution and how it adversely affects our planet.
We can have a huge impact on our daily life if we take the opportunity to also convince others to change their behavior. By doing so, we can multiply our positive impact on the environment.
Plastic pollution is a serious problem in our nowadays society. Many of our consumer products are wrapped in plastic, leading to an enormous amount of plastic waste each year. In order to mitigate this problem, we have to change our consumption behavior in a way that we significantly reduce plastic waste.
We can make our contribution on a daily basis. If we all pay attention to the problem and make our contribution, plastic pollution and its adverse consequences could be mitigated in an effective manner.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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