The Permanence of Plastic

by Meghna Pamula, age 14
The Permanence of Plastic Meghna is a high school freshman from California. She enjoys writing fiction and non-fiction prose. She received Scholastic Gold Keys and Gold Medal for her works. In addition to writing, Meghna loves visual arts, reading, music, and community service.

“It is unlikely that anybody would like to live in a world in which there are no birds chirping and no fish swimming. We do not stop to notice the lizards, trees, and snails that are around us every day, but once we lose them, it will be glaringly obvious. This bleak picture is not one from a dystopian novel; it is our very realistic future.”

It is unlikely that anybody would like to live in a world in which there are no birds chirping and no fish swimming. We do not stop to notice the lizards, trees, and snails that are around us every day, but once we lose them, it will be glaringly obvious. This bleak picture is not one from a dystopian novel; it is our very realistic future. A world devoid of all life besides humans is quite alarmingly exactly where human civilization is headed. The risk of extinction for most animal species only increases with time, because of our careless ways. While oceans make up 71% of Earth’s surface, they are in critical condition (Oceanic Institute). Plagued by an unconcealed yet ignored monster — trash, our oceans are declining in purity. Already there are enormous islands of garbage in the middle of our oceans, and we are not far from a total trash takeover destroying all ocean life. With a yearly rate of eight million tons being dumped into oceans, plastic pollution is no doubt an enemy to marine life (National Geographic).

Though garbage exists in some form in nearly every stretch of sea, there are five major locations on Earth where trash gathers and gets trapped in a cycle that prevents it from moving elsewhere. These locations, called ocean gyres, are also described as “trash vortexes” because they trap marine debris and never allow it to flow out to shore. Ocean gyres form because of the Coriolis Effect, which causes systems of circulating currents in the ocean. Trash is sucked into these currents. Any litter on beaches or trash flushed down toilets is very likely to end up in a trash vortex because these vortexes suck in all debris, especially miniscule materials. These large, dense “black holes” of trash are extremely harmful to every species of marine life.

Much of the garbage in these trash vortexes is plastic litter. Ever since plastic has come into existence, there have been people who improperly dispose of it. Since its invention in 1907, plastic has changed our lives and has become an integral part of our daily use because of its durability and cost effectiveness. However, it is also true that while we continue to enjoy the power and benefits of plastic, we have not carried out the responsibility that comes with this power, namely, proper disposal of this non-biodegradable material. Lack of awareness of the harmful impacts of improper plastic disposal and careless human nature are two key factors that plague our oceans, which are now clouded with plastic that has been collecting in them for over a century. Usually, the debris is simply tossed out onto the ground rather than being placed in a garbage bin or recycling bin. This human disregard for the environment causes a ripple effect in which the plastic floats out into the ocean and stays there forever. Because plastic is not biodegradable, it simply breaks into smaller pieces as its exposure to sunlight increases, meaning it will never truly disappear from the ocean. Plastic fragments can become as small as sesame seeds, at which point they become microplastics. Microplastics are not just the result of littered plastic; they can also get into the ocean in other ways, such as being washed out of synthetic clothing. Marcus Eriksen, a co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to reducing plastic pollution, describes marine microplastics as a “plastic smog throughout the world’s oceans” (Marine Plastic Bulletin).

Another enemy to marine life is the microbead. Beauty companies emit sizable amounts of microplastics into the ocean through exfoliating scrubs. The miniscule beads in these scrubs are made of plastic, and when washed down the drain, they have the same effect on ocean life that disintegrating microplastics have. Many animals mistake microbeads for fish eggs and choke when they try to swallow them. Like microbeads, other plastic items bear close resemblance to prey for many ocean creatures. For example, after balloons get torn apart, they look very similar to jellyfish. Similarly, plastic bags can resemble kelp. Both balloons and plastic bags often strangle animals or cause them to choke. Another reason many animals eat plastic is because it smells like food. This most commonly affects seabirds, which eat krill. Krill consume algae, which, as they decompose, emit a sulfuric odor known as dimethyl sulfide (National Geographic). This smell allows seabirds to find krill. Lots of algae collect on floating plastic, so when seabirds catch a whiff of the sulfuric odor, they feed on that plastic, thinking it is krill. For this reason, over 90% of seabirds have plastic fragments in their stomachs (Plastic Oceans).

There are numerous species that are affected by plastic pollution in the ocean and the associated statistics are alarming. In fact, about one hundred thousand marine animals and one million seabirds are found dead from plastic or plastic entanglement each year! (Ocean Crusaders). Additionally, there are two hundred areas on Earth, called dead zones, that are so polluted that life can no longer exist there. Not all of these areas are underwater, however. Dead zones exist on land, and pristine environments are slowly becoming polluted as well. During my recent visit to Yellowstone National Park, one of the most pure and untouched places in the world, I witnessed a coyote at a distance attempting to eat a plastic water bottle. It seemed as though the coyote was trying to get to the water that remained in the bottle, but once it managed to get the lid off and all the water spilled out, it kept chewing on the bottle, perhaps thinking it was something edible. This went on for about twenty minutes as the onlookers were gazing at the scene with concern, wondering what the animal would do. From the relentless pursuit of the animal, it was clear that it could have choked to death had it not finally dropped the bottle in fear when a woman gingerly walked her way towards the animal to scare it away for its own safety. This incident represents just one example of how harmful human carelessness can be to other living creatures that are going about their ways of life in pristine wilderness. It also indicates that plastic pollution is everywhere, even plaguing the most untainted places on the planet.

Plastic in oceans has unexpected results, including those that display themselves on land. Increased plastic in oceans results in decreased ecosystem stability. The effects of plastic material in the ocean are also seen on land, as an unstable underwater ecosystem will have effects on food chains in oceans as well as on land. There are also more discernable effects, such as the fact that the sheer amount of plastic in oceans is extremely threatening to marine life. According to the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by the year 2050, there will be more plastic mass in the world’s oceans than that of fish. This will be a turning point, because it is likely that the rate of environmental destruction will accelerate greatly after the fact. There will be a decline in biodiversity so animals that help humans progress in various ways will start to die out. For example, sea lions, seals, and narwhals all help scientists track climate change. Plastic in the ocean is a considerable threat to these species, so their numbers would dwindle greatly. With the loss of these creatures and others, it would become extremely difficult to track climate change, making it more prevalent in every region of the world. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would increase, which would harm the earth in numerous ways such as by causing longer droughts and wildfires.

 

As more and more plastic is dumped into the ocean, our lives on land will become more polluted as well, because plastic pollution hurts humans as well as marine life. Plastic litter floating in ocean water absorbs toxic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyl and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, which have both been proven to cause cancer. Plastic in oceans will also alter the food chain, and the impacts of this can be drastic to humans. The food chain is arranged in “ripples,” meaning those that are immediately affected do not suffer as much as the later affected species, which are humans in this case. For example, if one species of amphibians goes extinct because of excess plastic pollution in their habitat, their predators, largemouth bass, will be affected. Humans, who feed on the bass, will be impacted even more negatively. This is just one possible food chain. Many food chains come together to make a food web, and the harmful effects to humans are vastly amplified at this point.

The fact that there will be more plastic mass in the world’s oceans than fish mass is dangerous in a more transparent way — the plastic could kill almost all of the fish. Although it is true that there are far more marine species than fish living in our oceans, fish do make up a large amount of ocean life. Additionally, rather than comforting ourselves with the fact that fish are not the only living beings in the ocean, we humans would be in a much better position collectively if we try to initiate efforts to reduce plastic in the ocean. This mission is extremely challenging, however, because much of the plastics in the ocean cannot be effectively removed since the materials have broken into microplastics and escape the grasp of nets. This is why many efforts to remove plastic from oceans do not make a significant difference.

Although efforts to remove plastic are not remarkably effective, the dilemma of plastic in the oceans can be combatted. The best way to do so is to prevent plastic from entering oceans, sewage systems, rivers, lakes, etc. The most effective ways to prevent plastic from ending up in oceans involve people making minor changes, such as recycling or terminating their use of single-use plastics. Avoiding microbead products is effective, as microbead concentration in oceans is increasing rapidly. This can be done by exfoliating with a towel if necessary or by using natural exfoliants such as baking soda or oatmeal. Not purchasing bottled water is another fantastic way to decrease a person’s own plastic consumption and eventually contribute less to overall emission. An unknown contributor to plastic in the oceans is anything that is wrapped individually. Buying in bulk means far less plastic that could end up in the water, and this is also cheaper. Finally, supporting plastic bans and organizations addressing plastic pollution can help greatly. In my hometown, one very effective change has been made to try to lower our town’s plastic output. Grocery stores now charge customers at the checkout line for plastic bags that they request to hold their items in. This has had a great impact, as many people now bring their own reusable bags, such as tote bags, when shopping. Community effort, such as spreading the word about potential detrimental impact, is an essential part of ending plastic pollution in our oceans. Efforts to reduce one’s personal plastic output into the oceans are not particularly difficult, yet they are almost never done. People need to become aware of the fact that every single individual’s actions are meaningful. Placing more recycling bins around neighborhoods and encouraging and educating people about recycling can make a massive difference.

Plastic in the ocean is an issue that will begin to affect us in even more negative ways unless we actively work against it now by reducing our own plastic outputs. Once in the ocean, plastic makes a permanent home for itself there. Humans owe it to flora and fauna to help restore Earth’s balance, which our plastic pollution has distorted. Additionally, all species, including humans, are affected by the broad range of negative impacts caused by plastic pollution in oceans. With the earth’s current population at 7.6 billion and a projected growth of 29% by 2050, at which point it will reach 9.8 billion, the amount of plastic consumption and output into the oceans will only increase exponentially if we humans do not recognize and fight this issue (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Let us take action to make a significant difference that can preserve our planet’s splendor and beauty. Let us join together to make efforts to stop dumping plastic into our oceans. As David Attenborough, naturalist and broadcaster says, “There is no away — because plastic is so permanent and so indestructible. When you cast it into the ocean, it doesn’t go away” (Plastic Oceans). We are at a point where the oceans are in a critical condition; they can be saved or lost forever. The carelessness of our ways will come back to haunt us when our ocean life is lost, but our garbage remains.

 

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