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So what's the problem?
If you look around you, you'll probably see plastic of some sort. You're probably wearing clothes that are partly made of plastic. If you have a phone in your pocket, that's mostly plastic. So is your computer. Much of your food and many drinks come in plastic containers — like bags or bottles. Most toys are plastic.
all the plastic humans make every year was weighed in elephants, how many
elephants would you need? Answer: 30 million!!! If all those elephants
stood in a line, it would stretch more than 5 times round our planet.
Plastic is everywhere… and I do mean everywhere! This is because people make it in large quantities because it is so useful in just about everything people do. That's why waste plastic is becoming a serious problem, especially around the world's coastlines and oceans. I've written this guide to show you what's going on and what you can do to help make things better.
What is plastic?
People make a lot of things out of plastic because it is cheap and versatile. Plastic things also last a long time. This can be very useful for people but it's one of the biggest problems for the environment. This is because of the second — and bad — property I said I'd tell you about. Most plastics last just about forever because no life form has yet evolved which can EAT plastic. Almost everything else made by humans gets broken down, either by microbes which can use waste as food or by natural decay of metals like steel. The sun or the pounding of waves on the seashores of the world does break up plastic into little bits but the little bits don't vanish… and that is one of the biggest problems with this human-made stuff. I'll show you why shortly.
What happens to waste plastic?That's easy, you say: it's recycled, and that is certainly true in some places for some types of plastic. But other plastics — and there are many — are not easily recycled. Some plastics get burned to make heat energy to power electricity generators.And some — probably most — end up on garbage tips or worse, just get thrown away, ending up in the soil (on farms), rivers, lakes and, in particular, the world's oceans.
Let's go to the seaside
I'll bet you love the seaside! I do, of course, but I don't love the plastic trash you find, brought in by winds and waves from anywhere and everywhere on the planet.
Unfortunately, the sea is where so much of the plastic people throw away ends up.
Trashing the oceans: the great Pacific garbage patch
Imagine you're sailing across the Pacific Ocean, way out of sight of land, right? So you don't expect your boat to be pushing through great rafts of floating plastic for mile after mile, do you? Welcome to the great Pacific garbage patch... and to a modern myth because there aren't "great rafts of floating plastic". The "garbage patch" certainly exists — and there are several others — but the plastic is mostly small bits the size of confetti or smaller. It floats in the surface layers of the ocean forming a sort of thin 'soup' (yuk!). This plastic garbage is caught in the best known of 5 giant rotating ocean currents called gyres. These floating patches of plastic debris have become worrying new ecosystems which scientists call the "Plastisphere".
What harm do floating plastics do?
Unfortunately, many marine animals mistake some types of plastic for food and eat them. Turtles often die because the plastic they eat blocks their digestive system so they starve. Marine mammals (like dolphins) often get trapped by plastic nets or ropes and either drown or starve to death: "ghost fishing". Great and rare sea birds like albatrosses also get tangled up in old fishing gear and die. Around 400,000 marine mammals die every year due to plastic pollution in oceans. The list of horrible facts about plastics goes on and on.
Plastics also poison the animals that eat them. Eventually, much of the floating ocean plastic sinks to the sea floor or ends up on beaches all around the world. People don't see the rubbish on the sea floor but the animals (filter feeders like worms) accidentally eat it.
Choking the food chain: microplastics and nurdles
This is the scary stuff. You don't notice it because it's very small (less than a small pea) but it gets everywhere. Microplastics form in the same way sand on beaches forms: by the endless crashing and pounding of the waves which can turn big rocks and stones into sand over time. This is called mechanical erosion and it affects anything that's on the world's coasts, including the gazillions of pieces of plastic waste that end up on every beach everywhere — even on the shores of large lakes. Because very few plastics can be broken down by biological or chemical means, it is only pounding waves bashing bits of plastic against rocks and twisting it about that can actually break plastic down into very small pieces — about the size of sand grains. On the land, ultraviolet rays from the sun also play a role in breaking down plastics into small pieces (photodegradation).
Another big source of microplastics is waste water from washing machines. Tiny fibres from clothes made of synthetic materials get broken off the clothing by the pounding action of the machine and end up in sewage outflows into rivers and seas. And then there are personal care products like scrubs and peels many of which contain plastic particles which also end up in the sea.
Nurdles are another type of tiny plastic that cause serious problems. They sound vaguely cute, like cartoon characters, but they are not imaginary. They are tiny beads — smaller than a soybean — which are the raw material of plastic production, ready to be moulded into anything from bags to toys. Accidents happen and many nurdles escape, typically from container ships carrying them around the world. And so nurdles are now a significant source of ocean and beach pollution and share all the unpleasant properties of other microplastics. Microplastics are made of all the main types of plastics used by people: polyethylene (polythene), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), PVC or polystyrene. They don't get removed by wastewater treatment plants and so — guess what?! — they end up in the ocean.
Plastic is here to stay: Nearly every piece of plastic ever made — and thrown away — still exists today because there is no organism that can break it down completely.
These tiny sea creatures (like worms, molluscs and crustaceans at the bottom of the food chain are very sensitive to toxic substances (like plasticisers) and these toxins then pass up the food chain… and humans are at the top of the chain! Scientists don't yet know much about the damage done by these 'invisible' microplastics but suspect that they will turn out to be serious. They already know that microplastics can 'suck up' and carry with them toxic chemicals (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs)). These man-made chemicals already pollute the oceans.
By 2012, the world's oceans contained 165 million tons of plastic pollution.
So humans have to do something to stop plastic pollution. Just a century ago, there was no plastic and no pollution problem. Now it's everywhere — in the ocean, on every coastline, on the sea floor and blowing in the wind to eventually wind up on city streets, parks, trees, fences and farmland.
What can you all do about it?
Obviously people aren't going to stop making plastics. They are just so useful in so many things. So first, you humans need to know that plastic is a big problem. Then you can start to do something about it. Here are some ideas for you to think about and then get active!
Did you know that
Meet SHRILK — just one example of Plastics 2.0
That's it, kids! I've shown you the problem with plastic and offered you some solutions. So now over to you. You've got to fix this because the problem is global and I'm sure you can if you all work together!
Think you know all about plastic? Test yourself with my Crossword puzzle!
Want to find out more? Click here for videos and other resources.Did you find my plastic guide useful? If you did, please tell your friends about it. Thank you and good luck with fixing the plastic problem!