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Plastic pollution: causes, consequences and solutions

Plastic pollution is a problem already known to all, but it is surprising how every day more news reaches our ears of how serious the issue of plastics is becoming. Without a doubt, we could say that after climate change the issue of plastics in the environment is the most serious environmental problem of our time . So much so, that scientists no longer hesitate to call this geological age, the age of plastics.

For all this, at AgroCorrn we want to talk to you about plastic pollution: causes, consequences and solutions to this serious environmental problem.

  1. Brief history of plastics
  2. Causes of plastic pollution
  3. How it pollutes plastic
  4. Consequences of plastic pollution
  5. Solutions to plastic pollution

Brief history of plastics

The word plastic comes from the Greek plastikos which means moldable. This term refers to one of the main characteristics of this material. Plastics are organic materials , that is, they are made up of carbon atoms. Plastic is derived from natural raw materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt or oil. Due to its malleability and / or plasticity, it has become the preferred modern material of manufacture. Currently, we find plastic in almost all of our everyday objects (cars, mobiles, household appliances, office supplies, etc.). In addition, it is resistant and has a long life.

The history of plastics began with Alexander Parkes, when in 1855 he invented parkesin or celluloid, known especially for its use in the film industry. In addition, between 1838 and 1972, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) began to be manufactured, a plastic that we currently use mainly in the manufacture of pipes. Finally, in 1907, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, the first truly synthetic plastic. Later, and with the revolution in the chemical industry plastics began to be synthesized from the modification of the chemical characteristics of natural materials such as rubber, nitrocellulose, collagen or galalite and thus we have reached those that are commercialized today. .

Causes of plastic pollution

As we already know, plastics have become the main manufacturing material in our times. It is very easy and very cheap to produce, but that is causing our blue planet to be turning into a plastic planet. According to environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, they have calculated that 8,000 million tons of plastics have been generated since 1950 , a weight equivalent to 10,000 Eiffel Tower or 80 million blue whales. However, the most chilling fact is that only half of this plastic garbage has been generated in the last 13 years, which indicates that our garbage is growing exponentially. But, the question we must ask ourselves here is: why has all that plastic garbage made its way into the environment, even to remote areas where humans cannot live? Next, we will explain some of the causes:

  • Overconsumption of plastics : This is probably the main cause, given that today, it is not uncommon to see how most of the products we buy are made or contain plastic. Our food is wrapped in numerous plastics and we buy more plastic to take home, such as plastic bags. To this must be added single-use plastics, such as straws, ear buds, plastic bags and bottles, disposable cups, plates and cutlery. These plastic products are easy to make, easy to use, but very difficult to remove. The consumption of these plastics makes our garbage increase day after day.
  • Poor management of plastic waste : although recycling is good in itself, as it is a corrective and preventive measure for pollution, it is not enough to prevent plastics from ending up in the oceans, land or rivers. According to some reports, only 14% of all plastic garbage is recycled, so the remaining 86% is stored in landfills, burned (which contributes to the greenhouse effect) or directly dumped into the oceans and other natural spaces. It should also be added that not all plastics can be recycled, that is, they cannot be a raw material again. Unfortunately, some plastic mixtures are very complex and the technology to separate them is very expensive and scarce. Faced with this reality, many developed countries sell plastic garbage to less developed countries where they dispose of it, possibly throwing it into the sea or burying it underground.
  • Nurdles and microspheres : in many cases, plastics are not intentionally dumped into water, but they arrive indirectly, as is the case with some microplastics (plastics with a size between 1 and 5 mm in diameter). There are microplastics created this way on purpose, they are what are known as primary microplastics and which differ from secondary microplastics, which are those that come from the fragmentation of larger plastics. This is the case of the nurdlesor mermaid tears, small plastic balls that serve as raw material for the plastics industry. Lack of care when transporting and handling it can cause millions of these marbles to end up in the wild by mistake and, due to their small size and different colors, animals can consume them by mistaking them for food. The same is true of the microspheres that the cosmetic industry uses in exfoliating creams, toothpastes and other beauty products.
  • Inefficiency of water treatment plants: this section is closely linked to the previous one. In the case of water treatment plants, large plastics can be retained in some of the treatment phases, however, it is much more difficult to achieve this with microplastics. Many microplastics, such as synthetic textile fibers, nurdles, microspheres, films, secondary microplastics or even the biocarriers (devices that allow the anchoring of bacterial communities that purify wastewater) of the water treatment plants themselves, cannot be eliminated in them, since they are much smaller than the pores of the filters used in them. Consequently, these microplastics end up in rivers and seas, increasing the amount of plastics in the natural environment.
  • Lack of public and political awareness: the purchase of plastics, the lack of recycling, the dumping of garbage into nature and the lack of sustainable and environmental policies mean that we generate more plastic waste and these are not disposed of as they should be.
  • Other causes: There are other sources of plastics in the environment, such as agriculture or washing machines. In agriculture, sludge from water treatment plants is used as fertilizer, which can contain plastics. Currently, our clothes are mostly synthetic and during their washing in washing machines and other machines, many fibers break and escape through the drain systems. Finally, these fibers reach the water treatment plants where normally, and as we have explained before, they cannot be eliminated.

How it pollutes plastic

Plastics can contaminate the environment in various ways and means. First, the plastic waste generated by society can be recycled, stored in landfills, burned or dumped directly into the environment. Those that remain in landfills or in the natural environment little by little are degraded and transformed into microplastics that can be retained in the soil, be dispersed by the wind or reach rivers, lakes and seas by surface runoff or floods after strong rains. Also, there are plastics that end up directly in the sea by intentional or accidental spills, such as fishing nets or cargo losses, and by wastewater from ports, ships or fishing industries.

On the other hand, and as mentioned above, the plastic contamination of the environment is also due to the release of microplastics created as such on purpose. These can reach rivers and lakes by effluents from water treatment plants or by erosion of crop fields where water treatment sludge with microplastics has been applied. Microplastics can also be trapped in the soil and in river sediments or transported to the sea, contributing to the plastic pollution of the oceans .

Consequences of plastic pollution

The consequences of plastic pollution are diverse, but fundamentally affect living beings, including human beings, and the quality of soil, water and air.

  • Giant islands of plastics : Trash in the oceans has created huge islands of plastic in the great oceans of the Earth. Currently, there are 5 islands that have been formed where ocean currents converge. The largest island is the Pacific island, which is similar in size to Spain, France and Germany combined.
  • Loss of biodiversity : the ingestion of plastics by animals causes lacerations, internal injuries and even death. But aquatic organisms not only die from their ingestion, in other cases they die from being trapped, for example, in abandoned fishing nets, or suffer the malformation or amputation of limbs for the same reason. It can also affect the physiology of animals. In some sea turtles it has been observed that due to the plastics they have in their stomach and intestines, they float and, therefore, cannot sink to look for food and eventually die. In this way, the existence of plastics is leading to the extinction of species and the loss of biodiversity.
  • Public Health Threats : Like other animals, humans can also consume plastics due to bioaccumulation in the food chain. But humans and animals are not only exposed to the danger of plastics by their consumption. During the manufacture of plastics, compounds dangerous to human health are used such as Bisphenol A, phthalates, flame retardants, hardeners, paints and other substances, many of which are carcinogenic. These compounds are also released during the degradation of plastics, thus increasing the radius of contamination of these.
  • Contribution to the greenhouse effect : plastics are made of carbon and come from oil, so their burning, apart from other dangerous compounds, releases greenhouse gases.
  • Association with Hazardous Organic Pollutants – Plastics can absorb other pollutants previously found in the environment. Among these pollutants, the dangerous insecticides DDT and other organochlorines and organophosphates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, dioxins and heavy metals stand out. The danger of this is that once consumed, pollutants can move through the body and cause disease. In addition, these pollutants have the ability to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the food chain, so their effect can be magnified and reach other species, including humans.

Solutions to plastic pollution

As we can see, the consequences of plastic pollution are very serious and numerous, but fortunately, we still have time to reverse the situation. Despite what we may think, not everything is in the hands of politicians, although it is true that they have a great responsibility in this matter.

So much so, that for example the European Union will ban single-use plastics from 2021 , so we will have to say goodbye to straws, glasses, plates, cutlery and plastic swabs, among others. But other countries, such as Bangladesh or some countries in Africa, already banned the use of plastic bags years ago due to the damage they caused in the sewers when they were clogged and in livestock. On the other hand, France has declared itself free of Bisphenol A by banning its use in the manufacture of plastics.

But political work and governments must continue and the measures should include restrictions on the amount of plastic used, as well as the components used to manufacture it, they should demand more control and prevention measures from industries to prevent accidental spills. As in the case of nurdles , they should facilitate recycling and create more waste separation plants, while at the same time promoting research into techniques to recycle all types of plastics and create less polluting and biodegradable materials.

But the ordinary citizen can also stop plastic pollution through small gestures. Here we leave you a series of recommendations:

  • Bulk Products : Buy bulk products, recycle containers like mason jars, and avoid those that are excessively wrapped in plastic.
  • Reusable or fabric bags : when shopping, bring reusable fabric bags to avoid buying plastic bags. There are also cloth bags to put fruits and vegetables that avoid us having to take those small plastic bags that supermarkets offer. Here we tell you more Alternatives to replace plastic bags .
  • Ecological packaging : do not use plastic wrap to wrap the food. Currently, more environmentally friendly alternatives such as wrappers made of beeswax or silicone wrappers have been developed that can take various forms and are also reusable.
  • Avoid single-use plastics – such as plastic straws, glasses, and cutlery. A small gesture like asking a bar not to put your drink through a straw can save the planet tons of plastic every year.
  • Do not buy plastic bottles or lids : you can buy them made of glass that are recyclable and are also healthier, since the temperature of heating your food causes the plastic to weaken and release its components to your food and drink.
  • Buy clothes made of natural fabrics : such as cotton, linen or wool, since synthetic textile fibers are one of the most common microplastics in natural systems.
  • Recycle and reuse : and above all recycle and reuse what you no longer want. You can donate the clothes that you no longer wear, the toys that your children no longer use or reuse the plastic containers as flowerpots, for example. To do this, remember the 3Rs of ecology: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle .

Finally, remember that the problem of plastics is everyone’s problem and as such, the solution is also in your hands.

If you want to read more articles similar to Plastic pollution: causes, consequences and solutions , we recommend that you enter our Pollution category .

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Hello, I am a blogger specialized in environmental, health and scientific dissemination issues in general. The best way to define myself as a blogger is by reading my texts, so I encourage you to do so. Above all, if you are interested in staying up to date and reflecting on these issues, both on a practical and informative level.

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