The Plague of Global Plastics

It seems an unstoppable ecological nightmare

We hear and read almost daily about the likely consequences of global warming and that various measures are being taken to stop it or at least to slow it down. However, it could be that global warming does not only produce ‘losers’, but that some regions could actually benefit from it,  be it by much reduced heating costs during winter, longer growth periods in the summer, prolonged open waterways and ports, fewer ice-related accidents, etc. But the ever-increasing amounts of plastics and their residues in our environment affect us all, from the tiniest organisms to the biggest in the sea, on land and in the soil.  And nothing appears to stop the ever-rising accumulation of plastics like polyvinylchlorides (PVC), polyethylenes (PE),  polypropylenes (PP), teflon, nylon and their additives.

Not only is it disturbing to see plastic bags caught in the branches of a tree or discarded plastic boxes along the wayside or plastic debris on our beaches, the problem is much more serious as what we see is just the “tip of the iceberg”. What clutters up the landscape are macro-plastics, the ones we notice, but so-called micro and nanoplastics as well as the chemical residues (that remain even after physical abrasion has led to the fragmentation of a plastic item) will still be around.  It is worrying enough that most plastics, having half-lives of hundreds of years, will not become degraded in one lifetime; but even more alarming should be that compounds, often added as hardeners like bisphenol A (BPA) and/or flame retardants like polybromides (BRFs), could make it up aquatic as well as terrestrial food pyramids and affect the health of individuals at the end of the food chain. The debate as to what are safe limits of the questionable compounds goes on, but there is evidence from a variety of species that plastic additives which get into the food chain can cause endocrine (= hormonal) and epigenetic disruptions, lead to fertility problems and possibly tumours, increase susceptibility to disease, affect longevity and adaptations to stressors. These invisible substances accumulate in mussels, fish, even whales, and in the form of fish meal, fed to poultry and pigs, may then be passed on to  humans.

However, not just thinking of humans, it has become abundantly clear that macro as well as micro and nanoplastics affect numerous species adversely and that the lower the molecular weight of a plastic, the greater its chance is that the polymer can be intracellularly digested by bacteria.  Floating plastic debris in the sea can be mistaken as jellyfish by especially turtles; it can accidentally snare individuals and impair their growth or kill them or it may unwittingly be ingested by fish and fill their stomach or clog up the digestive tract. Shocking photos have been published on the consequences of plastic debris-animal interactions in the sea as well as on land.  The pollution with plastics and their residues has no bounds, affects the world from pole to pole and has not even spared the deep sea or the remotest places on Earth. There are so called gyres in all major oceans that concentrate the floating plastics (there are more that would have already sunk) and the most infamous is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch twice the size of France and estimated to contain at least 100 million tonnes of plastics.

The tragedy is that we are all too hooked on plastics: they don’t break easily, are lighter than glass, wood and metal, are relatively easy to make, shape, mold, and transport and their production will not decrease. Will biodegradable plastics with less controversial additives ever be available or is that wishful thinking? The irony is that after the Englishman Alexander Parkes had invented the first plastic in 1862, the American John Hyatt patented ‘celluloid’ in 1869 to produce billard balls (thereby hoping to save elephants whose ivory used to be the source for billard balls until then). And what are the plastics saving now? Mainly money! And if it’s not already true, we are getting closer and closer to the pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous wish “I love plastic. I want to be plastic”.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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