Many plastics ultimately end up in the ocean and can be detrimental to all levels of life. Therefore, we should attempt to reduce our use of plastics in order to reduce the quantity that ends up in the ocean. Packaging is a large source of excessive plastic.
They’re everywhere. They hold the water we drink and the food we eat. They carry our groceries and our trash. They are found in our office supplies, our technological devices, our home decor, and our furniture. Because of their fast and cheap production, plastics have found their way into every crevice of contemporary life. Unsurprisingly, they have also found their way into every corner of the environment, especially our oceans. Plastics are not biodegradable, so they can affect the environment in which they have been left for many years. Since most plastics end up in the ocean when they are disposed, marine life takes on the brunt of the consequences plastics can bring.
On February 3, 2017 a goose-beaked whale was found stranded off of the coast of Norway. The whale, after being determined to be in critical shape, was euthanized. Upon examination, researchers found the whale to have 30 plastic bags in its stomach. Dr. Terje Lislevand, described the whale to have “very little blubber and was emaciated, suggesting the plastic had lead it to become malnourished” (Shavali). This is one of many instances where the negative consequences of using single use plastics have had a detrimental effect on the environment. Plastic pollution is not just affecting Norway but is a global problem. For example, Green Turtles in Australia are also ingesting plastic debris. In severe cases, this can also affect the turtle’s swimming ability. According to Libby Hall, manager of the Taronga Wildlife Hospital, Green Turtles can only reproduce after the age of 30, and only one in 1000 turtles survive to adulthood (Chettle). For this reason, every premature death in the Green Turtle population can seriously impact the species’ survival in the region.
Plastics do not just affect large animals like whales and turtles. Although plastics are not biodegradable, they ultimately break down into pieces less than 5mm in length called microplastics. However, their reduced size does not equate to a reduced impact. One of the most obvious challenges that microplastics pose is their difficulty of being contained and removed from the environment. Their presence in the water has shown to negatively impact organisms at lower trophic levels. Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter found that marine lugworms eat less, and therefore show a decrease in energy levels, in environments heavily contaminated with microplastics (University of Exeter). In addition, a study at Plymouth University demonstrated that when lugworms do consume microplastics, the chemicals the plastics contain can be detrimental to their health. It is no secret that a phenomenon in lower trophic levels can affect an entire ecosystem (University of Exeter). For example, a decrease in the population of lugworms due to the effects of microplastics will cause an increase in competition amongst their consumers. Not only that, but bioaccumulation of consumed substances is also a concern. Although the complete impact of microplastics is unknown, a great variety of organisms, including humans, could ultimately end up in microplastics’ line of fire.
A law proposed to impose a five cent fee on the use of disposable plastic and paper bags in New York has been delayed. The fee was approved by city council in 2016, but has now been delayed, to be reviewed and possible reformed before it is presented again in 2018 (Nir). For opposers of the fee, a concern is the financial burden shoppers will take on. An issue easily addressed by simply bringing one’s own bags. This eliminates the need to purchase a bag at check-out. Those who support the law see it as an opportunity to reduce the amount of plastic bags that end up in landfills and oceans.
Many states are becoming aware of about the detrimental impacts that plastic bags have on our environment and are looking for ways to reduce the use of plastic bags from retail outlets such as grocery stores. These states are faced the issue of finding strategies to reduce plastic usage, implement effective recycling programs, and enacting laws to prohibit the use of plastic bags. According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), “in August 2014, California became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores”. This bill also imposed a 10 cent fee on the use of other types of bags such as paper bags. Another state in the U.S. that has imposed a ban on the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags is Hawaii. These two states are the first to successfully implement a ban on plastic bags at checkout, however many more states are now proposing bills to be passed in concern with the regulation of plastic bags. Over the last two years, 23 states have proposed a total of 77 bills that will hopefully be enacted in legislation. The NCSL states that, “only three states—Arizona, Idaho, and Missouri—have enacted legislation this year, all of which preempt local governments from regulating the sale or use of plastic bags, including the imposition of any fees or taxes”. Apart from fees and bans, states are also looking for ways to enforce recycling programs and policies. For example, the states of California and Delaware have passed legislation that requires retail stores to adopt at-store recycling programs (NCSL). These recycling programs have a positive impact of the environment because it allows for customers to return their plastic bags in order for them to be recycled.
In conclusion, plastics have become readily available and are a large component of consumer waste. The disposal of plastics has dangerous environmental threats to both the land and various ecosystems such as the oceans. Various governments have slowly made changes in order to place a tax on the use of plastic bags, which has opened the public eyes to the environmental cost of using disposable plastic bags as opposed to reusable ones. This is a good start to the solution of plastic waste. To what extent does the prevalence of plastics have on the environment? The ocean cannot be the only ecosystem that is damaged by plastic pollution, so what other ecosystems are affected? When did the use of plastics become common and why? Can this problem be reversed and if yes, how? What other alternative sustainable materials could be used in place of their plastic counterparts?
Chettle, Nicole. “Sydney Harbour hidden plastic pollution is killing endangered turtles and marine life.” ABC News, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-12/sydney-harbour-hidden-plastics-threatening-endangered-turtles/8263368. Accessed 12 February 2017.
Nir, Sarah. “State Senate Takes Aim at Plastic Bag Fee in New York City.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/nyregion/plastic-bags-new-york.html?_r=0. Accessed 12 February 2017.
Shavali. “A whale is found dead with more than 30 PLASTIC BAGS in its stomach – and experts say it’s ‘not surprising’.” Dailymail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4185038/A-whale-30-PLASTIC-BAGS-stomach.html. Accessed 10 February 2017.
“State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation: Fees, Taxes and Bans | Recycling and Reuse.” National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx. Accessed 12 February 2017.
“The impact of microplastics on marine life.” University of Exeter, http://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/feature/microplastics/. Accessed 10 February 2017.