According to the United Nations (UN), up to eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans every year.
A sea turtle with a plastic cover.
Words: Patricio Añazco / Photos: Jairo Cabrera.
Bottles, carrier bags, six-pack rings, straws, disposable cutlery and polystyrene containers – plastic products like these are so ubiquitous that we hardly notice them, let alone think about the damage they do to the environment.
According to Plastic Oceans International, a non-profit organisation based in the USA, more than 380 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year, of which an estimated 50 % consists of single-use items such as straws, stirrers, coffee cups and shopping bags. Since only about 20 % of the world’s plastic is recycled each year, most plastic waste ends up in landfills.
And that’s not all: according to the United Nations (UN), an incredible eight million tonnes of this plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year, with an estimated one million seabirds and 100 000 marine animals dying every year when they get caught in or swallow plastic waste.
However, these alarming figures on plastic pollution do not mean that it is only a threat to animals, but also to humans. We are increasingly aware of how much plastic pollutes our environment. Recently, there has been a lot of coverage about how microplastics (tiny pieces between 5 millimetres and 100 nanometres in diameter) are filling the oceans and getting into the creatures that live in them. This means that microplastics from the sea enter the food chain and thus directly into the human body.
Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s. About 60 % of these plastics end up in landfills or in the natural environment. Once plastic enters the environment in macro or micro form, it becomes contaminated and accumulates in the food chain through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains and water supplies. This environmental plastic can easily leach toxic additives or concentrate toxins already in the environment, making them directly or indirectly bioavailable again to humans, notes the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, humans ingest between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastic particles per year. These numbers increased from 74,000 to 121,000 when the scientists included microplastic inhalation.
Microplastics are found in common foods such as fish, chicken, sea salt, honey and even beer. Anita Vandyke, a rocket science graduate and author of A Zero Waste Life, points out that microplastics from beauty products and synthetic fibres in clothing also end up in drinking water. Ingestion or inhalation of microplastics can cause a range of health problems, including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress and necrosis, according to CIEL.
What can you do to combat the growing problem of plastic pollution?
Say no. You should learn to refuse things you don’t need, whether you are spending a day in your usual place or a day outdoors. A free plastic straw, a plastic bag in a shop – these are all just giveaways to lure consumers everywhere. And we don’t analyse that every time we accept these items, we create a demand for more. So the next time someone offers you a plastic product, take a moment and ask yourself if you really need it. You will find that in many cases you simply don’t need it.
Buy products that have little or no plastic packaging. One simple measure is to choose products that have as little or no plastic packaging as possible. This helps reduce the demand for non-biodegradable plastic packaging (single-use plastics are the most common items that end up in landfills) and also helps you save money yourself.
Buy in bulk and exchange disposable items for reusable ones. Buying food and other goods in bulk is the best option. This saves money on travel and single-use plastic transport packaging. Bringing your own packaging to buy at the shop or to take from home to abroad will serve you well without adding plastic waste to the products. It’s a great way to cut down on waste and a simple discipline we can apply to our daily activities. It switches from single-use plastic items such as carrier bags, containers and cutlery to reusable items that avoid the use of disposables.
Reuse not only saves time and money in everyday life, but also helps to save energy and resources that would otherwise have been used to produce more disposable items. Reusable carrier bags and containers, glass jars for storing moist foods such as meat, fish, cold cuts and cheese. Cloth bags are very useful for transporting dry products such as flour, sugar, salt, grains and cereals. Glass bottles that can hold liquids such as oil, sauces, shampoo and liquid soap. Also, if you take your own crockery and cutlery with you instead of using disposable plastic cutlery when you eat out, you reduce the impact of the plastic generated by our daily activities.