Five Ways That Plastics Harm The Environment (And One Way They May Help)

Plastics may actually be co-opted to help reduce harm to the environment — but only if we stop screwing it up in all those other ways we mess with it

In 1992, a shipping container filled with 28,000 “rubber” duckies was lost after it fell into the sea somewhere between Hong Kong and the United States. Even today, those plastic bath toys still wash ashore from time to time (link), even in totally different oceans as far away as the eastern seaboard of the United States, as well as the coasts of Britain and Ireland. That flotilla of escaped plastic ducks joins millions of Lego pieces, sneakers, styrofoam insulation, plastic crates and a plethora of other items lost at sea (link) that — surprisingly — are teaching us about ocean currents and about the astonishing indestructibility of plastics in marine environments.

But all this plastic waste is very harmful: listed here are the five ways that plastics harm the environment, birds and wildlife — and even people. But as with anything, even plastics may actually have a beneficial use, despite the damage they are causing.

1. Plastic is ubiquitous

Plastic debris is found absolutely everywhere, from the Arctic to Antarctica. It clogs street drains in our cities; it litters campgrounds and national parks, and is even piling up on Mount Everest (link). But thanks runoff, and to our fondness for directly dumping our trash into the nearest river or lake, plastic is growing increasingly common in the world’s oceans.

2. Plastics are one of the main products of fracking

We already know that fracking is bad for the planet — it pollutes water, soil and air with toxins, it creates underground cavities that collapse into sinkholes, and it raises pressure in underground rock formations, destabilizing them and leading to earthquakes, even in places where earthquakes are uncommon. Adding insult to injury, one of the main products of fracking is … plastics. Basically, fossil fuels removed from shale and other rock formations are turned into resin pellets that are used to manufacture ever more plastics, plastics that are easily discarded, plastics that usually are designed to be single use.

You may not know that plastics manufacturers are dangerous to the environment, to wildlife and to people in other ways, too. For example, the British chemical industry giant, Ineos, has 75 manufacturing facilities in 22 countries, including the United States. In addition to contributing to growing mountains of plastic rubbish, Ineos facilities can boast an impressive — and growing — record of fires, explosions, and chemical leaks.

3. Plastics kill more than just people

In the last few months, the effects upon wildlife that come from eating, or becoming entangled in, plastic debris have been reported more widely and more often than ever before, leading to public outcry and protests.

These tragic events should come as no surprise: there are an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic floating through the world’s seas where it threatens 700 marine species with its presence. Further, there is growing evidence that plastics play a role in rising rates of species extinctions.

4. Not all plastic is recyclable and not all recyclable plastic is recycled

People are often confused by the terms, “break down” versus “biodegradable” (or “compostable”). When plastics are broken down, this simply means one large piece of plastic is reduced into a bunch of smaller pieces of plastic. These smaller pieces of plastic can be consumed by smaller animals, but are still indigestible.

A minority of plastics are “compostable” or “biodegradable”, which means they can be reduced to their chemical components by, say, your home compost. Other plastics can only be successfully composted by industrial or municipal facilities after first being separated from other, non-biodegradable, plastics.

5. Most plastics last forever

Once again, as demonstrated by the 1992 rubber duckie escape, plastics survive even the harshest conditions, such as floating around in a marine environment under blistering, unrelenting sunshine or frozen into Arctic ice for years before finally floating away and landing on some faraway shore. For this reason, plastics will probably outlast humanity itself. It is this apparent immortality leads me to my last point, which is that plastics may be co-opted for good.

Plastics could be used to benefit the environment

It is tempting to demonize plastics, but realistically, plastics themselves are not inherently evil. Plastics make life better, and easier, for us. For example, one of the first things you use every morning and one of the last things you use every night — your toothbrush — is made of plastics. Every time you visit your supermarket, you meet many sorts of plastics that serve as packaging to prolong the freshness of foods, and in a hospital, a variety of plastics help prolong your life.

In fact, it is the immortality of plastics has inspired some enterprising researchers to begin thinking “outside of the box” to develop innovations to re-purpose already existing plastics, perhaps to even reduce the effects of climate change.