Often, convenience obscures foresight.
A few decades ago, it would have been challenging to think about living life without plastics, specifically single-use plastics. While the original intention for the invention of plastics may be noble, its inventors did not have the foresight that could have allowed them to look ahead and see the adverse side effects of their creations.
Today, microplastics have emerged as the leading cause of sea pollution, harming marine life.
Plastics in daily life
Single-use plastics trace their roots to the work of Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson in Northwich, England who accidentally discovered polyethylene in 1933. It took a few decades before plastic found widespread use, but after that, it seemed that there was no turning back.
The single-use plastic bag became ubiquitous when it was introduced in 1979 in the American market, supported by big grocery chains. Following suit, smaller establishments took their cues from their larger contemporaries. It certainly helped that plastic bags were cheaper to produce.
What counts as single-use plastic?
Single-use plastics have become an indispensable part of modern life, such that you might not be aware that you are using these. Among the most widely used single-use plastics are plastic utensils, straws, shopping bags, water bottles, coffee cup lids, and takeout containers.
But apart from these, the United Nations has identified the most commonly found single-use plastics in the environment. These include cigarette butts, plastic bottles and their caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, lids, straws, stirrers, and takeout containers.
What’s the deal with single-use plastics?
The same quality that has made plastics useful has also made it a substantial problem: The material does not biodegrade.
Unlike natural materials that biodegrade or break down, plastics can only be broken down into smaller pieces which are called microplastics. It will take thousands of years for plastics to fully decompose. But before decomposition, plastics can wreak havoc on the environment.
For one, plastics can fill up landfills and its chemical contents can leach into the soil and waters. These chemicals can wind their way into the bodies of animals humans consume as food. Upon human consumption, these chemicals can do further damage to the different organs, including the lungs and nervous systems.
Annually, an estimated eight million tons of plastics find their way to the seas and oceans where these can pose significant harm on marine life.
Single-use plastics and marine animals
Unlike humans, marine creatures cannot distinguish between single-use plastics and their typical food.
Turtles, for example, often mistake plastic bags as jellyfish. When ingested, plastic bags or balloons can block these creatures’ intestinal tracts. Once inside the body, plastics can cause the starvation of marine animals, and eventually, death.
The chemical content of plastics in the seas and oceans can also poison animals. Even if an animal excretes the plastic, there are some remnants left in their bodies. Now, when predators feed upon these animals, these harmful chemicals are transferred to the predators.
Ghost gear or the remnants of fishing equipment can also pose direct harm to marine animals. Nets and similar equipment have been known to entangle and kill sea mammals like dugongs, dolphins and whales and other animals like turtles.
A worsening problem
Without the proper interventions, these problems can only grow worse.
What is even more concerning is that people are just beginning to see what is only the tip of a giant iceberg that is plastic pollution. Over the next years, more problems can start to emerge. That can be attributed to a great extent to the increase in the production of single-use plastics in recent decades.
While the future may seem bleak, that does not mean that humanity should be resigned to a gloomy fate.
A glimmer of hope
Fortunately, through the concerted efforts of environmentalists and progressive officials, the problems caused by single-use plastics have come to light. In reaction to these problems, many places around the world have drafted policies aimed at reducing or even outright banning the use of single-use plastics.
But these actions are not enough. At the crux of the issue is the need to eliminate the demand for single-use plastics. This is where you can contribute significantly to this cause.
What can you do to help?
• Start by swapping plastic bags with bags made out of fabric.
• If you are getting a drink from a coffee shop, bring a reusable container like your own coffee mug and avoid using straws.
• When dining out, specifically at fast-food restaurants, avoid using plastic cutlery.
• Buy items in bulk. This helps reduce the overall use of plastics for packaging.
• Bring a container with you when eating out. If you are taking leftover food home, you can use this container instead of takeaway containers.
• Support initiatives and environmental activities against the use of single-use plastics in your area.
It may take a long time before people can start to see substantial progress with regards to the issue of plastic pollution. Still, every step and every contribution is significant.