Plastic leakages in our environment create negative ecological, social and economic impacts. No doubt we are facing a major challenge with multiple facets
Plastic pollution is the most widespread problem affecting the marine environment. The most visible and disturbing impacts of marine plastics are the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of different marine species. Nearly 700 animal species have already been found to be affected by plastic pollution.
Marine plastics act like a magnet, attracting toxic substances they encounter in the water and accumulating them as they pass through the food chain to top predator species – including the fish we eat. European mollusc eaters consume up to 11,000 microplastics pieces per year.
Plastics also contain toxic substances that leach into the water when they degrade. Several of the chemicals used in the production of plastic materials are known to be carcinogenic and to interfere with the body’s endocrine system, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in both humans and wildlife.
Plastics are floating habitats for invasive species, bacteria and chemical contaminants that can be carried over long distances. For example, the 2011 tsunami in Japan led to the introduction of hundreds of invasive species into North America waters, threatening the equilibrium of marine ecosystems.
Plastic pollution raises the question of Equity and Environmental Justice. The long life of plastic waste affects intergenerational equity and the transboundary nature of plastics impacts communities far from their point of production or consumption.
As a petroleum product, plastic also contributes to global warming. It is estimated that around 4% of the world’s annual petroleum production is converted to plastics while a similar amount of petroleum is used to provide the energy for the manufacture of plastic, a similar level of consumption to that of the aviation industry. The carbon footprint of plastics is further exacerbated when plastic waste is incinerated, whilst the environmental impacts of oil extraction should also be considered.
The mismanagement of plastic waste is an expensive problem. In 2014, the environmental damage from plastic use in consumer goods was estimated to be at least of US $13 billion per year. By 2016, these estimated costs had risen to US $40 billion/year. Finding ways to control and reduce plastic pollution is in the interests of many sectors of the economy, as this can contribute to reduce the economic burdens on them.