Plastics to Micro-plastics to Ocean to Food Web

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Earth Day 2018 theme is 'End Plastic Pollution', April 22, 2018

Humanity developed a divine material when we learned how to turn brown stinky goo into plastic... Cheap, sterile and convenient. But this wonder of technology invented 100 years ago got a little out of hand. Plastic is harming our environment. It has entered the biology of animals we eat and now it's finding its way into our bodies.

Plastic is made from polymers - long repeating chains of molecule groups. In nature, polymers exist everywhere: the walls of cells, silk, hair, insect carapaces, DNA, etc. By breaking down crude oil into its components and rearranging them, we can form new synthetic polymers which have extraordinary traits. They are lightweight, durable and can be moulded into almost any shape and for every possible application- mechanical parts, PVC, electric gears, acrylic, nylon for clothing, phones, computers, furniture, appliances, houses, cars, bags, etc. Plastic just appears and goes away from our daily life very easily. Since synthetic polymers are so durable, plastic takes between 500 and 1,000 years to break down. More than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have become waste since 1907.Piled up in one place that makes a cube with a side length of 1.9 kilometres. About 9% was recycled and 12% burnt. But 79% of it is still around us. A majority of this percentage ends up in the oceans, around 8 million tons a year. Almost 90% of all plastic waste entering the ocean through rivers comes from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa.The Yangtze in China alone flushes 1.5 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year. Countries like China, India, Algeria or Indonesia have developed industrially at an impressive rate in the last few decades.

Because it's everywhere, marine animals keep getting trapped in plastic and swallow it. Many animals starve with stomachs full of indigestible trash. In 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up in Spain had eaten 32 kilos of plastic bags, nets and a drum. While this is tragic there's a new problem, invisible form of plastic: Micro-plastics. Micro-plastics are pieces smaller than 5 milli metres used in cosmetics or toothpastes. These micro-plastics which are floating in the water are constantly exposed to UV radiation and they break into smaller and smaller pieces.  51 trillion such particles float in the ocean, where they get swallowed more easily by all kinds of marine life. It would be dangerous if micro-plastics are toxic, because they travel up the food chain. Zooplankton eat micro-plastic. Small fish eat zooplankton so do oysters, crabs and predatory fish and they all land on our plate. Micro-plastics have been also found in sea salt. Sea salt seems to be more vulnerable to plastic contamination because it is made by dehydrating the sea water. Basing on the reports this contamination could affect health - increase blood pressure, prostate cancer risk, problems in the brain and other reproductive cancers.

We have lost control over plastic, so why don’t we ban it or to find alternative material ? Plastic pollution is not the only environmental challenge we face. Some of the substitutes we'd use for plastic have a higher environmental impact in other ways. According to a recent study, making a single-use plastic bag requires so little energy and produces far lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to a reusable cotton bag. Everything has an impact somehow, and it's hard to find the right balance between them. Plastic also helps solve problems that we don't have very good answers for now.

Plastic pollution is a complicated problem. We found a magic material and we had a really good time with it. But we need to be careful or else, we'll end up in a world that we can’t imagine. Refuse disposable plastics.

The bottom line is, as long as we don't address plastic pollution from a global view, we will not be able to solve it. Convince your friends and family to do the same. Together we can beat plastic pollution!

Author: S Deepak Mohan Reddy, CBIT (First year B Tech (Biotechnology)), Hyderabad.

Image Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/plastic-bag-iceberg-dolphin-environment-pollution-1116873989?src=QGacoR2z96o2NLEiodBy3A-1-1

Reference: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/08/sea-salt-around-world-contaminated-by-plastic-studies

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS7IzU2VJIQ&t=343s

https://foodpoisoningbulletin.com/2018/studies-sea-salt-contaminated-with-plastic/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHCgA-n5wRw

Posted By : ScienceIndia Administrator
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