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Plastic Pollution's Impact On Environment, Wildlife & Human Health

Learn how plastic pollution disrupts ecosystems and threatens biodiversity. Explore solutions and how you can do your part to combat this global crisis.
Swimming turtle with its head entangled in a plastic

Did you know that we dump up to 12 million metric tons of plastic each year into the oceans? Every year, this amounts to around 26 billion pounds or the equivalent of more than 100,000 blue whales. According to, ocean plastic will outweigh all ocean fish by 2050. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, a sperm whale that washed up at the Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia in December 2018 had 115 cups, 25 bags, four bottles, and two slippers in its stomach. More than a thousand pieces of plastic were counted in the whale's stomach, and the total weight of plastic was 6 kilos.

The bulk of plastic pollution in the ocean is the product of littering by humans. Plastic pollution can disrupt ecosystems' ability to adapt to climate change by altering habitats and natural processes. It can also contribute to global warming since nearly all plastics are manufactured from chemicals derived from the manufacturing of greenhouse-gas-emitting fuels.

Food wrappers, plastic straws, plastic bags, and plastic bottles are a few examples of plastic pollution, also called single-use plastic. Single-use plastics are a glaring example of the problems we face today. Instead of investing in quality goods that will last, we often prioritize convenience over durability and consideration of long-term impacts. Our reliance on these plastics means we are accumulating waste at a staggering rate.

The importance of addressing plastic pollution is one of the most pressing issues of our time, not only because it is impacting our environment and our wildlife, but it is also affecting humans. In this article, we will go over the consequences of plastic pollution and some things we can do to lessen or eliminate the production of harmful plastics.

The scale of plastic pollution

According to Our World in Data, in 1950, the world produced only 2 million tons per year. By 2019, the world had produced 9.5 billion tons of plastic — more than one ton for everyone alive today. This is a problem because of their non-biodegradable nature. Plastics are synthetic polymers made from petroleum byproducts. To manufacture plastic, monomers obtained from petroleum are mixed, a process called polymerization. Plastics are not biodegradable because microorganisms cannot digest or degrade these polymeric compounds.

As a result, they accumulate in landfills and oceans and simply never go away. The US Department of the Interior says plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. The consequences are far-reaching, affecting everything from the oceans to the land.

Environmental consequences of plastic pollution

Plastic may degrade into microplastics, which alter soil's physical structure and reduce its ability to hold water. This can have an impact on plant development by inhibiting root growth and nutrient absorption. Plastic additives can also leak into the soil, affecting food systems and human health.

Additionally, when plastic leaches toxic chemicals into the soil, it can contaminate groundwater and other water supplies. This can harm the ecosystem and the animals that consume the water. Microplastics can also damage water treatment facilities by clogging pores and wearing down treatment units, reducing process efficiency and increasing the chance of treated water failing to meet safety requirements.

According to Clean Water Action, marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species. Plastic packaging flows through a wasteful linear system that threatens biodiversity by polluting natural habitats, endangering wildlife, and contributing to climate change.

Plastic's impact on wildlife

Plastic pollution impacts wildlife in a number of ways. For example, wildlife can become trapped or entangled in plastic, preventing them from hunting for food or making them more vulnerable to prey. Additionally, animals might mistake plastic for food and eat it, which can harm the animal by becoming lodged in their gut. Plastic bags are harmful because they can suffocate animals entangled in them.

Ocean Blue Project says that plastic waste in the oceans kills 1 million sea birds every year. It can also affect reproduction as well. The Scientific American reports that organisms that ingest plastics can experience hormone disruption and reproductive issues that affect their overall health. Plastics can also cause hormonal problems that lead to growth and reproductive complications in a wide variety of wildlife, which can reduce their numbers and affect the overall ecosystem.

Two swans in the water fighting over plastic litter, mistaken as food

Case studies and notable incidents

According to Chemical and Engineering News, the wreck of the X-Press Pearl unleashed a record 1,680 metric tons of plastic pellets on Sri Lanka's coast in 2021. The ship was transporting polymers, including 1,680 tons of plastic pellets, about 70 billion of them, each about 5 mm wide. These pellets, called nurdles, are raw materials that are melted and molded to make many plastic products.

Thousands of dead animals, including turtles, lionfish, and dolphins, were beached on the coastlines in the aftermath of the X-Press Pearl disaster. The chemical and polymer release's long-term environmental and health consequences remain unknown.

However, there is some good news. As reported by the EPA, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) division, known as the Investment Recovery Center (IRC), is responsible for the diversion of unwanted or surplus materials. Last year, the IRC undertook a massive substation cleanup effort that resulted in the recycling of 128 tons of materials that would have otherwise gone to a landfill. Overall, the IRC recovered over 2,000 tons of waste in FY17.

Human health implications

Microplastics can move through the food chain through a process called "trophic transfer." This occurs when animals carry microplastics in their bodies and are eaten by another animal, which ingests them. Once eaten by aquatic animals, they can potentially become part of the human food chain.

As a result, once inside the body, they can also leach polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers, a weakened immune system, and reproductive problems.

Conveyor with shredded plastic in a plastic recycling plant

Global initiatives and regulations

The United Nations has announced that 175 nations worldwide agree to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by 2024, prompting a major step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, use, and disposal. Governments worldwide are introducing single-use plastic product bans to reduce or eliminate plastic pollution. For example, the UK has banned the supply of single-use plastic plates, cutlery, balloon sticks, and polystyrene cups and containers supplied to restaurants, cafes, and takeaways in England. Zimbabwe banned plastic packaging and bottles as early as 2010. With the cooperation of so many nations over the world, this is a huge and important step to eliminating plastic pollution for good.

Three parties bear this responsibility: the governments that can make and enforce rules, companies that produce or use plastics, and consumers. Each party has its responsibility. Instead of tackling this problem together, everyone tends to point the finger at others. It's hard to pinpoint who can make the most difference. Companies tend to place the responsibility on consumers, who are supposed to behave responsibly and leave nothing in the environment. Governments, in turn, are reluctant to develop new regulations, let alone enforce them. And consumers like to point to the government and the companies, while they can already do a lot themselves.

Since everyone produces plastic pollution, it will take a concerted effort between all parties to make a difference. Therefore, cooperation from corporations, governments, and consumers will be the only way to move forward in the fight against plastic pollution.

Diverse people cleaning up the beach and collecting the waste on the coast line

What you can do to help

At a personal level, here are seven things you can implement today to help reduce plastic pollution:

1. Reduce your personal use of single-use plastics

No matter where you are, the easiest way to get started is by reducing your own use of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and other plastic items used once and then discarded.

The best way to accomplish this is to a) refuse any unnecessary single-use plastics (e.g., straws, plastic bags, takeout utensils, takeout containers), and b) purchase and carry reusable versions of those products, such as reusable grocery bags, produce bags, bottles, utensils, coffee cups, and dry cleaning garment bags. Additionally, declining single-use plastic goods lets businesses know that you want them to provide eco-friendly alternatives. If more people decline single-use plastics, businesses will instead purchase biodegradable products.

2. Support legislation that aims to reduce plastic pollution

In addition to managing our own plastic pollution, it's also important to support legislation to curb plastic manufacturing, enhance garbage management, and hold plastic companies accountable for the waste they cause. You may support local, national, and worldwide legislation that provides vital solutions to minimize plastic pollution in various ways. Hubert has a list of states and links to legislation about using plastic bags for each state. The 2021 Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a comprehensive federal bill aimed at addressing the plastic pollution crisis, is one such effort in the United States. There are several state-level initiatives to introduce extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation that holds plastic producers and distributors accountable for their products and packaging at the end of life.

Internationally, hundreds of groups and corporations have successfully collaborated with United Nations member states to adopt a global plastics treaty mentioned earlier that would establish worldwide norms and regulations to decrease plastic pollution. And legislation that restricts, charges, or bans needless single-use plastic goods like plastic bags, takeout containers, and bottles has been successfully implemented in many areas across the world, so you can encourage and support the adoption of similar laws in your city as well.

3. Recycle the right way

Recycling can greatly impact plastic pollution as long as it's done properly. You can locate a recycling location near you at Earth911. It's essential to understand how to recycle properly, so here are a few tips:

  • Only put the right materials in your recycling container, such as paper, cardboard, metal cans, and plastic bottles and jugs
  • Make sure your recyclables are empty, clean, and dry
  • Never put your recyclables in containers or bags
  • Recycle plastic bags separately
  • Flatten cardboard
  • Keep food and liquid out of your recycling
  • Don't throw dirty cardboard and paper in with clean recycling
  • Don't recycle glossy paper
  • Identify which types of plastic your recycling facility will accept
  • Set up designated recycling containers at home, work, and school

4. Organize or participate in a beach or river cleanup

Participate in or organize a beach or waterway cleanup to help remove plastics from the ocean and prevent them from entering in the first place. This is one of the most immediate and gratifying methods to combat plastic waste in the ocean. You may just go to the beach or waterway on your own or with friends or family, or you can participate in a local organization's river cleanup.

5. Avoid products containing microbeads

As discussed earlier, tiny plastic particles known as "microbeads" have become an increasing cause of ocean plastic pollution. Microbeads may be found in various face scrubs, toothpaste, and body washes, and they easily reach our seas and streams via sewer systems, affecting hundreds of marine species. Look for "polyethylene" and "polypropylene" on the ingredient lists of your cosmetic items to avoid products containing plastic microbeads.

Another suggestion is to change how you do laundry. Clothing gets an extra dose of wear and tear when it's going through the washer and dryer, and microfibers from all types of materials are generated by washers and dryers. However, the microplastics from polyester and other synthetic materials are the most concerning. Dryers generate about 40 times more microfibers than washing machines, with a single household dryer releasing up to 120 million microfibers into the air every year.

You can help reduce the amount of microplastics released by your washer and dryer by:

  • Ensuring you have quality filters that catch microplastics
  • Air-drying your clothing
  • Using less water with every load
  • Avoiding the delicate wash setting, which uses more water than the normal cycle
  • Washing your clothing less often
  • Buy used clothes because new clothing sheds more microfibers than clothes that have been previously washed and worn

6. Be an advocate for cleaning up plastic pollution

Keep current on plastic pollution concerns and help raise awareness of the issue. Educate your friends and family about how they can help, or arrange a screening party for one of the numerous movies about plastic pollution, such as A Plastic Ocean, Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic, or Plasticized.

7. Support non-profits aimed at addressing plastic pollution

Oceanic Society, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation, and National River Cleanup are among the non-profit groups striving to decrease and eliminate ocean plastic waste in a variety of methods. These organizations rely on donations from individuals like you to keep their vital work going.

These ideas only represent a few things you can do to help reduce plastic pollution. For more information, you can reference Recycle Across America for even more tips about recycling, reducing, and reusing.

Young woman recycling plastic garbage

Future outlook and challenges

The end goal of reducing plastic pollution is finding a biodegradable alternative. Bioplastics have arisen as an interesting invention in plastic recycling, providing environmentally friendly alternatives to typical petroleum-based plastics. These biodegradable or compostable polymers are made from renewable materials like cornstarch, sugarcane, or algae. Bioplastic technology improvements have recently resulted in enhanced durability, usefulness, and lower production costs. Some businesses are even creating bioplastics that can be recycled alongside traditional plastics, allowing for a more seamless shift to more sustainable plastic materials. Education is one of the best tools we have in the fight against plastic pollution.

Environmental education, particularly nature-based environmental education connected to ecosystem preservation in elementary and secondary schools, is a first step toward resolving the planet's environmental issues. In addition to raising awareness, it also educates the future consumers of tomorrow about the importance of understanding the life cycle of the products they consume.

As the environmental consequences of plastic become increasingly apparent, regulation and consumer behaviors have started to change. The impact of plastic pollution on the marine environment has been in the spotlight, posing reputational risks for companies and investors.

As regulations shift countries toward circular economy models, there are opportunities for future investments to address plastic pollution and other related impacts. Potential solutions exist at each stage of the circular economy: design, reuse, repair, and recycling.

However, solutions cannot be assessed in isolation and must be considered in the context of the entire life of plastic products, from production to use to recycling. Collaboration across the chain from production to recycling is required to develop permanent solutions.

Plastic pollution is ravaging our planet. Its effects on the environment, wildlife, and humans are numerous, and our immediate action is needed to ensure a safe and healthy planet for our children in the future. Together, we can not only halt the damage being done by plastic pollution but also create a safe and clean environment for future generations.

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