The Plastic Problem: Permanent or Preventable?

Updated: Aug 23

Each year, eighteen billion pounds of plastic debris are dumped into the ocean. As a one-liter bottle progresses through its millennia-long biodegradation phase, every mile of beach on Earth may come into contact with one of its tiny, microplastic pieces. There is even an island made of improperly disposed plastic looming in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of the state of Texas.

You may have heard some of these facts, figures, and estimates before, along with many others, on the internet, news, or through other media. You’ve also probably seen these stats before. Think about it: driving along the highway, hiking through the woods, selecting a spot to place down your beach towel. Plastic always seems to be everywhere, morphing into an omnipotent material rather than a convenient product. When will we turn our words against the reign of indestructible plastic into actions?

After hearing about all of these issues, maybe you do want to follow up on your thoughts and reduce your plastic usage. You might even pick up some stray plastic you find at the park or on the beach.

But why doesn’t everyone else feel the same?

The Problem.

The dilemma comes with denial. The human brain’s inability to accept that that island of plastic is real. It’s understandable. The fact that many of us aren’t directly harmed by the existence of billions of pounds of plastic in the ocean means that we aren’t inclined to take action. Why sacrifice modern day conveniences for a minuscule result, one that you can’t even see? Though this is true, one of the areas plastic pollution may be visible in is your health.

Besides ending the lives of millions of sea birds and fish each year and hurting our hearts with pictures of sea turtles being strangled, plastic could soon begin ending the lives of humans too. The main threat stems from the natural break-down process of plastic products. Instead of slowly breaking down into their chemical composites, plastics turn into smaller and smaller pieces until they are deemed a microplastic, a particle that is less than 5 millimeters in diameter. Thus, the process of biomagnification occurs.

What is Biomagnification?

Pretend you are a microplastic particle, about 1 millimeter in diameter. After being created from years of sun exposure, wind, rain, and salt water, you settle at the bottom of the vast ocean. Finally, a rest! Suddenly, you feel yourself being pulled from your spot in the mud. Everything goes dark. You’ve entered the body of a clam as it began to filter feed for plankton. It’s not as bad as you originally thought, just as comfy as the seafloor! After some days, you notice the quiet darkness has been disturbed. Interested, you crawl through the membrane of the cell you currently reside in to take a look. A small fish has appeared, hungry for a meal. Next thing you know, you’re inside of the fish. This transfer occurs over and over, until you end up inside a much larger fish, like a striped bass. As that fish is caught and cooked, you go with it, landing yourself on someone’s plate, slathered in butter. There you go, entering the human digestive system, where your health effects are still relatively unknown.

While this tale may seem like an exaggeration, the average person consumes about 70,000 microplastic pieces per year. Some pieces are capable of harboring harmful toxins that are released once in the human host. Smaller microplastics (less than 10 nanometers) are able to travel through the gut. Microplastic pollution isn’t just limited to marine ecosystems; traces of plastic have even been detected in the air. While we don’t know exactly the consequences of ingesting these substances, preliminary studies in fish have shown that microplastics harmed their behavior, including eating habits and overall activity.

The Never-Ending Cycle

From the time you began reading this article until now, a million plastic bottles have been purchased. Two million plastic bags have served their purpose and are now reaching the longest stage of their life cycle—the breakdown phase. Those plastic bottles will be joining them in approximately two days, or the average amount of time a single-use water bottle is used. If you have found any of these facts to be unsettling, disgusting, or even cruel, then you are a perfect candidate to assist the Ersatz Project. Join our mission to reduce the negative impact plastic pollution has on the environment by spreading our message! Help break the cycle of plastic longevity!