Plastic Waste: Environmental and Health Impacts

The amount of plastic waste and the ways of its elimination are being a great concern for all countries today. Though the plastics production has recently decreased, the issue of plastic waste is unlikely to be solved soon. All countries, especially developing ones, experience environmental issues more severe than it can be realized. Nations constantly overproduce, using too much of resources and energy, and consequently, wasting too much. Hawken rightly emphasizes that “the environment can absorb waste … but its capacity to receive waste is constrained … and the capacity to accept highly toxic waste is practically nonexistent”.  People use plastics because of its most valuable property – durability and a wide range of applications. For example, plastics are used in the production of pens, computers, rotors for wind turbines, medical appliances, and this is a non-exhaustive list. Advantages of plastic goods are obvious, but the damage they bring is much bigger, first of all, because of their uncontrolled and unwise usage.

Nowadays, according to Hawken, “industrial degradation is no longer a regional problem … [, and] pollution is no longer restricted to huge industrial centers”. Environment pollution affects every village, town, and continent. Businesses like nothing else must make a positive impact on the society, economy, and environment because they appear to be the biggest polluters. The most widespread delusion is that people can clean everything, but thinking this way is quite ignorant. Humans know how to create waste, but they do not know how to deal with it and what should be done to change the very perception of the existing problem.

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Today, many researchers, journalists, and policymakers raise deep concerns about the issue of plastic waste. Plastic materials have already contaminated not only streets of overcrowded cities, but also forests, rivers, seas, and even the virgin areas of Arctic and Antarctic. It will take hundreds or even thousands of years for plastics to disintegrate, and during that time it will bring harm not only to the ecosystem but also to human beings, flora, and fauna. The most valuable properties of plastics such as low cost, durability, and light weight make its disposal problematic. The major environmental threat is that plastic goods are usually thrown away after the use instead of being reused or recycled.    

Scientists voice concern about the need for action because human activities have a destructive impact on the world. Recent studies show that “the humble plastic bag and plastic drink container play a far greater role in changing the planet than has been realized” as Zalasiewicz states. For example, fish sees plastics as food and eats it; birds and other animals do likewise, and such consumption can lead to clogging their stomachs. According to the research, about 180 animal species are reported to ingest plastic debris. Furthermore, many animals become trapped in plastic closures, bottles or bags. The Earth is step by step being covered in plastics which is already at sea and ocean beds, high in the mountains, and on the remotest islands, it is everywhere.

  Plastics might also have the impact on human health. It is proved that chemicals used for plastics production are easily absorbed by a human organism and might interfere with the process of hormones secretion. In fact, people are exposed to chemicals from plastic goods every day through water, air, food, and dust. Studies show that some of the chemicals contained in plastics have the influence on the development and reproduction of animals, and these substances might cause reproduction abnormalities in humans. The exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), which can easily be found in plastic bottles and the lining of beverage cans, might increase the rate of diabetes and heart diseases. In 2010, according to the Annual Review of Public Health, bisphenol A has endocrine-disrupting properties, and such adverse health effects as aggressive behavior and reduced male fertility are also possible.

It is just beyond comprehension that approximately 300 million tons of plastics are manufactured every year and about 80% of plastics are disposed of in landfills. The rest is either incinerated or recycled, but the incineration is not the way out because it results in the release of dangerous, often carcinogenic air pollutants along with carbon dioxide and dioxins. In fact, recycling of plastics covers only a few per cent of the whole waste disposal. Such amount is too miserable compared to the potential scope. It is much easier for everyone to throw something away, bury, or incinerate garbage than to sort the waste and spend money for its recycling.      

Waste management is important in preventing plastic waste becoming harmful. Waste management contains approaches such as zero waste programs or recycling collection schemes. The common aim of all waste management programs is reducing amounts of waste and recycling of what has left. Usually, zero waste programs are successfully combined with composting waste collection schemes, which include the collection of separated waste. The motto of waste management can be introduced as “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.”

Recycling is one of the most effective actions for waste reduction and elimination currently available. The most important idea is that people should and need to recycle as much as possible. Today, recycling initiatives and programs face difficulties connected with the level of authorities’ engagement and appropriate funding. The major challenge in plastic waste elimination is effective recycling of mixed plastic waste. The recycling of plastic garbage depends on the type of plastics and the place of its production. Plastic materials can be recycled in many ways; it depends on the product type, package design, and polymer type. The advantage of mixed plastic waste recycling is the ability to reuse and recycle a larger portion of garbage and cover a wider range of materials. 

Other challenges include difficulties and expensiveness associated with the collection and transportation of plastics. Besides that, plastic goods can also be highly contaminated, which makes recycled plastics less useable (especially if it is used in the food industry). Therefore,  all  spheres should reduce the amount of plastic produced and significantly increase the amount recycled. Today, there are many opportunities in the recycling industry; for example, technological advances can greatly decrease the recycling costs by productivity improvement. In this perspective, it is important to introduce and implement sound collection schemes and think about the transportation of waste.  

During a few decades, many scientists, social activists, and political figures have been trying to solve the issue of the disposal of hazardous waste, and plastic waste in particular. It is proved that excessive exposure to plastics might be the cause of adverse health effects such as male infertility, diabetes, heart diseases, and, besides that, aggressive behavior. Animals also suffer from plastic garbage: birds and fish often ingest plastic debris, which leads to clogs in their stomachs or other animals get stuck in plastic bags and bottles. The Earth is sinking in plastics – it is everywhere. In order to minimize the amount of plastic waste on the global scale, all states should join their efforts and turn to sustainable economic growth. It means they should introduce eco-friendly initiatives and by all means encourage recycling. The way of sustainable growth is difficult and businesses as well as governments will have to spend much money on it. Not everyone and not every business will refuse from rapid growth and millions of profits for the good of environment and wildlife. This process will definitely be hampered by those who are interested, but it is worth it.

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Mar 23, 2020 in Informative
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