Plastic pollution is one of the largest issues facing the world’s oceans. Plastic, which is not degradable and remains in the environment for long periods of time, is frequently disposed of improperly. As a result, oceans are littered with fragments of plastic, nets, packaging, bottles, and debris that poses a serious threat on marine wildlife. In order to protect aquatic animals and habitats, it is important to not only properly dispose of and recycle plastic, but to develop and use plastic alternatives as well. The following paper discusses the negative effects plastic pollution has on wildlife and the potential for biodegradable plastics and their waste management.
With over 280 million tons of plastic produced annually1, the world has become a plastic society. Durable and inexpensive, plastic is an ideal choice for consumers. However, plastic is a substance that cannot be degraded. There are various forms of synthetic plastic, including polyethylene, polyvinylchloride, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate, and polyurethane. Over one third of plastics produced are manufactured into cups, straws, and stirrers that people use every day.
To better understand plastic pollution, it is helpful to analyze the creation, lifespan, and disposal of a plastic bottle. In this process, plastic is produced by polymer chains of polyethylene terephthalate, which are melted and shaped into a plastic bottle. The bottle is then filled, packaged, shipped, and consumed. After consumption, the bottle is disposed of.If it is taken to a landfill, the bottle will take a thousand years to decompose and can poison water flow. If the bottle is disposed of in water, it will eventually reach the ocean and be drawn towards the vortex where plastic accumulates. If the bottle is recycled, it is transformed back into raw plastic and repurposed. Unfortunately, the bottle will most likely end up in the ocean, furthering marine plastic pollution.In the past century, there has been a growing concern over plastic pollution.
Plastics are long-lived and non-biodegradable, making them a major marine environmental issue. Ocean gyres in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, have become the final graveyard point for plastics.1As a result, ecosystems and marine wildlife are severely impacted. Therefore, it is necessary to deter the negative impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife by developing and using biodegradable plastics.ResultsPlastics are lightweight and durable, allowing them to travel far distances. According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year.2When plastics are improperly disposed of, such as along shorelines, the ocean carries the plastic into gyres. An ocean gyre is a large-scale circulation pattern, flowing clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern. Due to Ekman transport, the flow of water perpendicular to driving winds, water eventually spirals into the center of the gyre, where it accumulates plastic garbage.
These garbage patches coincide with regions of the ocean that have low nutrient levels and depleted wildlife. Thus, plastic in the oceans is posing a great risk to marine ecosystems.The greatness of plastic pollution in oceans has increased drastically in the past century. One of the main concerns related to this pollution is danger it poses to marine wildlife and biodiversity. Oftentimes, aquatic animals are injured by the entanglement or ingestion of plastic. Animals such as seabirds, turtles, or dolphins can become entangled in debris in oceans, risking injury or death. The debris includes fishing nets, balloon ribbons, and six-pack plastic rings. The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission reports that 136 marine species have been reported in entanglement incidents, including six species of sea turtles, 51 species of seabirds, and 32 species of marine mammals.
The ingestion of debris by animals can also lead to devastating effects on marine wildlife. Aquatic animals mistake plastic particles and debris for food. After ingestion, the plastic cannot be regurgitated. Instead, it becomes trapped in digestive tracts, reducing stomach capacity and causing internal injuries. According to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. ingestion incidents have been documented in six of seven species of sea turtles, 111 out of the world’s 312 species of seabirds, and 26 species of marine mammals.4In broader terms, 23% of marine mammals, 36% of seabirds, and 86% of sea turtle species have been negatively impacted by plastic debris.1Sea turtles appear to be one of the largest victims of plastic pollution. Sea turtles ingest fishing lines, six-pack rings, and plastic bags, which look like jelly-fish. For example, leatherback sea turtles have slowly declined in population in the past few decades. In the last 40 years, of the 371 autopsies conducted on leatherback turtles, 37.2 % of them had plastic in their gastrointestinal tracts.1In these autopsies, plastic was also found to block the passage of female eggs, affecting reproduction.In various studies conducted on birds, it was found that plastic ingested by birds could be an indicator of increased plastic in the oceans.
In a 1997 study conducted in the Pacific Ocean, Blight and Burger discovered that, of the 353 ingested items recovered from 11 species of seabirds, 29.2 % were industrial pellets and 70.5 % were broken pieces of everyday use plastics.1In 2009, the stomach contents of 67 fulmars were found to contain 36.8 pieces of plastic on average.1As a result, the study suggested an increase in the ingestion of plastics amongst birds.In addition to wildlife effects, plastic pollution can lead to habitat destruction. Debris in oceans can damage shorelines and fragile aquatic habitats. The garbage patches in oceans lead to opaqueness and block necessary sunlight. Another concern is that drifting debris can host entire communities of encrusting and attached organisms and transport them great distances.4As a result, these organisms can harm or compete with native species.Biodegradable alternatives to conventional plastics exist. These biodegradable polymers are able to undergo decomposition and degrade into carbon dioxide, methane, water, and biomass from the enzymatic action of naturally occurring microorganisms over a period of time.
Biodegradable plastics may be classified as compostable or degradable.Compostable plastic is plastic that is capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site as part of an available program, such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials.
In order for plastic to be classified as compostable, it must be biodegradable, lack toxic residue, and be indistinguishable in compost.Degradable plastic will undergo a significant change in its chemical structure under specific environmental conditions resulting in a loss of some properties.For something to be considered degradable plastic, the plastic does not have to be degraded by naturally occurring microorganisms.Biodegradable polymers include agricultural polymers, polyhydroxyalkanoates, polylactates, polycaprolactones, polyesteramides, polybutylene succinate adipate, and polybutylene adipate coteraphthalate.Following a pilot plant phase in the 1990s, biodegradable plastic production has reached a commercialized scale. A growing portion of these plastics now have renewable origins, rather than petrochemical origins.
Yet, the current production capacity for biodegradable plastics is 350,000 tons compared to 280 million tons of petrochemical plastics. Although biodegradable plastics offer environmental benefits, bioplastics have not yet gained widespread use because of high costs. Biodegradable plastics can be two to 10 times more expensive to produce than conventional plastics.Biodegradable plastics can be disposed of through recycling, incineration, landfill, and biological waste treatments. Bioplastics are difficult for existing recycling systems to recycle because of the lack of continuous supply of bioplastic.
Therefore, it is not economically reasonable for bioplastics to be recycled. Biodegradable plastics can be incinerated with energy recovery and is a good alternative after the plastic has been used. Bioplastics and biodegradable materials in landfills can lead to methane production. Although the methane can be used as an energy source, it is a potent greenhouse gas that poses a threat to our environment if released. Finally, biological waste treatments, such as composting or anaerobic digestion, can be used to degrade bioplastics.DiscussionPlastic is used every day across the globe. According to Professor Andrew Holmes, from the University of Melbourne, No-one in their daily life within a period of 10 minutes isn’t touching something that is made of plastic.
Plastic comprises clothes, phones, cars, and laptops. Yet, with the benefits plastic gives us, there are drawbacks and environmental issues.With the increase in plastic pollution in the past few decades, the impact on wildlife has been detrimental. The ocean is full of waste that is improperly disposed of, with an estimated 236,000 tons of plastic contaminating the ocean.
Consequently, marine animals become entangled in plastic materials, such as netting, ropes, six-pack rings, and fishing lines. The second biggest issue for these animals is ingestion of plastic. When ingested, these plastics can cause serious digestive tracts problems through perforation and leaching of toxic chemicals found in plastics.In order to protect marine wildlife, society must make changes on land. Individuals need to be made aware of the plastic pollution threatening aquatic animals and ecosystems. It would be beneficial for society to emphasize recycling and penalize those who do not, apply pressure to manufacturers to alter packaging methods, and implement a tax or ban on plastic-bag use. In addition, beach and river clean ups will prevent plastics from further contaminating the ocean.Plastics do not disappear and will remain in the environment until pollution is reduced.
Therefore, the world should hasten the transition to biodegradable plastics. These biodegradable polymers will play an important role in society in the future, especially in the packaging segment. Biodegradable plastics can be classified as compostable or degradable and are best disposed of by biological waste treatment. Although these bioplastics can be 10 times more expensive than conventional plastic, bioplastic polymers have the potential to reduce landfills, improve material recovery, and decrease plastic pollution. However, biodegradable plastics require stringent control of collection, separation, and compositing, making the process difficult and narrowly accepted. Therefore, to improve this process and assist bioplastics in reaching their full potential, color-coding the plastics by the nature of material would make the process simpler.
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