A Plastic World
2017, Middle School, Prose
The wind blows against the sail and the waves crash against the hull, but this time it’s different. Yachtsmen Ivan MacFadyen makes the journey that he has made yearly for the past decade. Years ago, if he had looked into the water he would have seen multitudes of tuna on his 3,000-nautical mile journey from Australia to Japan, but this time he saw only murky water. Over his entire 23,000-mile trip to the United States and back, he sees nothing – no fish, no dolphins … only 7,000 miles of plastic (Milman).
Plastic has been used in every aspect of our society since the end of World War II, but how did it come to consume our planet? Its initial creation led to the boom of commercial goods that infiltrated the market during the 1950’s. Plastic became industry’s golden child due to its durable and lightweight properties, which allowed it to be transported to and from places more efficiently than its heavy metal counterparts. In the early 1950’s, plastic could be found in everything from a military vehicle to a fizzy drink bottle (Freinkel)! Plastic’s cheap production cost led to a significant drop in consumer prices with large-scale production more feasible than in any time in history. With new uses being discovered day and night, it propelled industrialization in developing countries and marked the beginning of the modern era of plastic, with its effects ever so conspicuous in today’s plastic world.
Today, approximately 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year (National Geographic). The rise of plastic consumption gave way to the rise of plastic waste, essentially creating a modern era of plastic pollution. However, plastic pollution soon posed a larger problem than the typical trash pollution that had been previously dealt with. Plastic is composed of polymers, created through a unique chemical process that resembles that of adding links to a chain (Himoff). Plastic’s non-biodegradable structure separates it from other trash, as it is not degradable. Instead, plastic’s polymers decompose by the sun through photodegradation, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces, but never disappearing (Himoff). This process releases hazardous chemicals found in plastic into the water and the air. These tiny pieces formed by photodegradation, known as microplastic, become a problem when they are left floating on the ocean’s surface, where harmful substances can be absorbed, or animals can ingest these tiny plastic particles. The effects of marine plastic pollution have become increasingly apparent in the United States with recent discoveries exposing the detrimental health effects it has on both marine life and humans.
One chemical that receives little attention and is released during photodegradation is Bisphenol A, or BPA. This substance is used to mass-produce epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastics, which are used in food packaging, compact discs, bottle tops, and water supply pipes. BPA often leaches into our food and water through plastic pipes or plastic containers. A study done in 2003 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the urine samples of 93% of Americans ages 6 and up tested BPA positive (Calafat). This is especially troubling as, according to the National Institute of Health, BPA causes health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, liver failure, prostate cancer, birth defects, and brain damage, an effect that most are vulnerable to, but know little about. Recently, researchers have found a new place where high concentrations of BPA are located: the oceans (Hance). The process of biodegradation of polycarbonate plastics shocked Dr. Saido, a professor at Nihon University, as polycarbonate plastic is a hard plastic that is widely believed to not deteriorate for centuries (Hance). Another suspect for the release of BPA is epoxy resin, which is used to seal the hull of the ships. Saido’s discoveries revealed that the BPA that epoxy resin released acted as an endocrine disruptor to mollusks, amphibians, and crustaceans even in the smallest concentrations. Analyzing seawater samples from 200 oceans revealed that BPA had a “significant” concentration level, which ranged from 0.01 parts per million to 50 parts per million (American Chemical Society). It is a startling fact that brings a consequence that reverberates from the lower parts of the food chain, ultimately making its way to the food that lands on our plate.
BPA in our oceans poses a grave threat in which ignorance is not allowed. What’s even more frustrating, however, is the size of the sources of BPA leaching in the ocean. The major concentrations of polycarbonate plastics are found in giant garbage patches in the oceans formed by “gyres” or currents. The National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) has estimated that five of these garbage patches, “[constitute] 40% of the ocean and one-third of the planet’s surface” (Ocean Trash), while land only consists of 29% of Earth’s surface. The most notorious patch is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas and outnumbers plankton, the very base of the food chain, 6 to 1. Huge numbers of marine life are affected by these trash islands with, “1 million sea animals, 1 million sea birds, and 100,000 sea mammals dying annually” (Ocean Trash). A myriad of fish that are sold on the market and end up in our stomach ingest plastic particles found in these patches. A study led by the University of California-Davis and Hasanuddin University in Indonesia exposed the plastic found in a quarter of the fish sampled from local Californian and Indonesian markets whose fish are caught in close proximity to the garbage patches. Lead author Chelsea Rochman was shocked to discover that, “there isn’t a big difference in the amount of debris in the fish from each location,” although Indonesia is a third-world country (UC Davis). Exposure to plastic in our fish can carry harmful chemicals such as BPA and others into the human body, posing the same dangers to us as they do to marine life.
Plastic pollution is changing our oceans at a rate unseen in history. Since the 1970’s, the prevalence of over 400 manmade dead zones has exposed man’s impact on the health of our oceans. Ocean dead zones are areas of water that have lost the oxygen crucial to support marine life. This is often due to an increase in chemical nutrients from runoff, which in turn depletes aquatic oxygen levels (Nature Conservancy). Recently, industrial emissions and urban runoff have played an additional role in the expansion of the world’s second-largest dead zone in our backyard: the Gulf of Mexico. The most studied manmade dead zone is a result of toxic runoff from the Mississippi River and “sources of nitrogen from animal feed [and] sewage treatment plants” (Deep Green Resistance News Service). The Gulf of Mexico dead zone places additional stress on the already stressed Gulf seafood industry, which supplies 40% of the nation’s seafood. NOAA estimates that the dead zone costs the United States $82 million in the seafood and tourism industries annually (Nature Conservancy). However, despite all the negative impacts of dead zones, it is not impossible to get rid of this dilemma. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1990, the Black Sea dead zone was almost eliminated by 1999 (Black Sea Story). You may be wondering, “What do you want me to think about this?”
Fortunately, there have been monumental “wins” over the years to minimize the problems caused by poor local and federal oversight. In 2015, California became the first state to ban the use of plastic bags that so many seabirds get tangled in (Plastic Pollution Coalition). The US has even started to plan out a policy that will ban the sale of the dangerous microbeads that are used in day-to-day products (Trager). Over 500 organizations have joined in the Plastic Pollution Coalition to work towards a non-plastic lifestyle that will revolutionize the plastic-reliant society that we live in today. However, regardless of whether or not a larger body enforces regulations, it is hard for meaningful change to happen if we rely on our unpredictable leaders that change every four years. It is up to you to prevent the continuation of plastic pollution. If we do not take action and plastic build-up continues, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 (Harrington). An ocean shouldn’t be teeming with plastic, but with life.
We’ve all heard that every person can make a difference, but it does not stick because we believe it is not true. However, the idea that individuals cannot make a difference is far from the truth and is what got us into this mess in the first place. In a hyper-connected society, it is easy to raise awareness of the impacts and events in our near future if we are not to take action. Whether on social media, giving a presentation in class or sharing a paper online, we can take advantage of our connections to share our voice and our ideas. The tide of global plastic pollution cannot turn if you do not do your part. Buy reusable water bottles for your parents and ask grocery stores to sell reusable bags at the counter. So now, one question remains.
Will you join the wave of change?
Biello, David. “Like a Guest That Won’t Leave, BPA Lingers in the Human Body.” Scientific American. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017 <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bpa-lingers-in-human-body/>.
“Bisphenol A (BPA).” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 15 June 2017. <https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/sya-bpa/index.cfm>.
Calafat, Antonia M., Xiaoyun Ye, Lee-Yang Wong, John A. Reidy, and Larry L. Needham. “Exposure of the U.S. Population to Bisphenol A and 4-tertiary-Octylphenol: 2003–2004.” Environmental Health Perspectives. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 15 June 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2199288/>.
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Freinkel, Susan. “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World.” Scientific American. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017 <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-brief-history-of-plastic-world-conquest/>.
Hance, Jeremy. “BPA Not Just in Food and Water, but Contaminating the Ocean.” Conservation News. N.p., 28 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 June 2017. <https://news.mongabay.com/2010/03/bpa-not-just-in-food-and-water-but-contaminating-the-ocean/>.
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Harrington, Rebecca. “By 2050, the Oceans Could Have More Plastic than Fish.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 15 June 2017. <http://www.businessinsider.com/plastic-in-ocean-outweighs-fish-evidence-report-2017-1>.
Himoff, Andrea. “Ocean Trash: The World’s Largest Dumpster.” EVERYDAY EARTHINESS. N.p., 09 Sept. 2016. Web. 15 June 2017 <http://www.everydayearthiness.com/ocean-trash-the-worlds-largest-dumpster/>.
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Kerlin, Kat. “Plastic for Dinner: A Quarter of Fish Sold at Markets Contain Human-made Debris.” UC Davis. UC Davis, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 June 2017. <https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/plastic-dinner-quarter-fish-sold-markets-contain-human-made-debris/>.
Milman, Oliver. “Yachtsman Describes Horror at ‘dead’, Rubbish Strewn Pacific Ocean.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 June 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/21/yachtsman-describes-horror-at-dead-rubbish-strewn pacific-ocean>.
It started out with a video that my science teacher had shown us to convince us to stop using plastic water bottles. Over the course of the year, I took it upon myself to design a filter to reuse shower water for a school project. As I was researching, I found that a common contaminant that shower water contains is BPA. This discovery led to the realization that our oceans were a fragile ecosystem and that they supported life in a way that could not be exaggerated. The damage caused by plastic pollution acts like dominoes, affecting one thing to the next until there is nothing to be knocked over. It is a result of human carelessness and contributes to a problem that will take years to clean up despite our efforts. To fix this issue, we must assume responsibility for our errors. Because if we don’t, the consequences will be irreversible and make its way into your life one way or another.