Young environmentalists are needed!
Table of contents
- What is plastic?
- What is plastic pollution and how does it hurt Earth’s wildlife?
- Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It breaks down into microplastics.
- What can we do about it?
- Upcycling Plastic Waste
- Do your part in raising awareness!
Plastic and plastic pollution are the subjects of our article today since many people don’t know much about this material that is present everywhere in our daily lives: from toys to water bottles to shopping bags to even our clothing! Although plastic can be useful in many ways, it also poses a major threat to the environment and wildlife. Plastic is among the most harmful substances to our planet because it can take hundreds of years for it to completely break down in natural ecosystems! Plastic can be recycled, it’s true, but sadly, a lot of it ends up in our landfills and oceans, harming the animals who dwell there.
As today’s children and the future Guardians of Earth, you have the power to change things and to make a difference! This beautiful planet, with all its earthly creatures and marvels, belongs to YOU! So start taking care of it today!
(Image courtesy Olena Shvets)
It’s time to take action, so let’s start learning!
What is plastic?
Plastic is a synthetic (man-made) material derived mostly from petroleum (crude oil), which is found in geological formations and is primarily recovered by oil drilling. Petroleum is one of the main contributors to climate change since it releases a lot of greenhouse gases during its extraction, refinement, and burning processes.
Petroleum contains petrochemicals that are composed of polymers, which are extended chains of molecules. When these polymers are heated and mixed with other chemicals (additives), they can be shaped into solid objects of various forms to create what we know as ‘plastic’. Besides its plasticity, this material is highly durable as well, which has led to its widespread use. This, however, also means that plastic may persist in our environment for a very long time without decaying, which is a major environmental issue.
(Image courtesy Tim Mossholder)
The world’s first entirely synthetic plastic was invented in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that this material started to gain popularity and be widely used. 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic are estimated to have been produced between 1950 and 2017!
“Of all the plastic discarded so far, some 14% has been incinerated and less than 10% has been recycled. And the remainder? It has either been disposed of in landfills and dumps or released into the environment, including the oceans. Take a moment to think about these figures. The 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic ever produced are as heavy as 28,000 Empire State Buildings in New York, or almost 2 billion elephants. Today, approximately 438 million tons of plastic are produced per year,” it is shown in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study ‘Drowning in Plastics – Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics’ (2021).
(Image courtesy Volodymyr Shevchuk)
What is plastic?
a) A natural material produced from plants
b) A synthetic (man-made) material derived primarily from crude oil
c) A kind of rock found in mines
What is plastic pollution and how does it hurt Earth’s wildlife?
Plastic pollution happens when plastic waste is not disposed of properly and ends up in the environment, especially in our oceans. The plastic leakage into the environment already has a significant impact on ecosystems and, without major interventions, between 23 and 37 million tonnes per year of plastic waste could enter the oceans by 2040 and between 155 and 265 million tonnes per year could be discharged into the environment by 2060. Did you know that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans right now?
When plastic ends up in our oceans, it can harm marine life. From plankton to blue whales and sharks, plastic is thought to impact over 1200 marine species. Sea turtles, for example, can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, which can cause them to become sick or even die. Plastic can also harm birds and other wildlife that get entangled in it or mistake it for food.
(Image courtesy Naja Bertolt Jenson)
In the research published on 26 February 2023 in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the scientists at the Natural History Museum in London found severe, widespread fibrosis and subsequent tissue damage in wild seabirds due to plastic exposure and ingestion: “The ingestion of plastic causes unique physical damage and pathologies that are not created by indigestible, naturally occurring material”.
Scientists even propose a new disease in wildlife: ‘Plasticosis’, defined as inflammation and fibrosis in response to plastic presence.
”As plastic emissions continue to grow and plastic pollution becomes increasingly prevalent in all environments globally, it is likely that exposure of all organisms to plastic is inevitable. Further, the ingestion of plastic has far-reaching and severe consequences, many of which we are only just beginning to fully document and understand. This study clearly demonstrates the ability of plastic to directly induce severe, organ-wide scar tissue formation or ‘plasticosis’ in wild, free-living animals, which is likely to be detrimental to individual health and survival,” it is said in the research.
Image from the study ‘‘Plasticosis’: Characterising macro- and microplastic-associated fibrosis in seabird tissues’ conducted by the scientists Alexander L. Bond, Hayley S. Charlton-Howard, Jack Rivers-Auty, and Jennifer L. Lavers in January 2023 on wild seabirds from Lord Howe Island, Australia
What is ‘Plasticosis’?
a) It is another name for microplastics
b) It is a new disease in wildlife caused by plastic exposure and ingestion
c) It is an additive used in creating plastic
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It breaks down into microplastics.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade! This means larger plastics that have made their way into the environment can’t be broken down by bacteria or other organisms. Instead, they slowly disintegrate (due to solar radiation and physical abrasion) into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. The wind transports these tiny particles (less than 5 millimeters in size) across the Earth and the rain carries them from land into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
In marine creatures, microplastics can interfere with biological processes and lead to genetic alterations, reductions in reproduction, disruptions in feeding, and decreased growth, and survival chances. Microplastics can not only hurt wildlife, but they can also end up in our waterways or enter our food chain, posing health risks to humans. Microplastics and nanoplastics can enter with ease the human body through ingestion of for example marine organisms, through inhalation, or through the skin.
(Image courtesy Krzysztof Bargiel)
Much of the plastic that now flows in our oceans will be deposited, over periods of a few decades to several centuries, in deep-sea ecosystems. In the study “Microplastic Pollution in Deep-Sea Sediments From the Great Australian Bight” (2020), scientists indicate that 14 million tonnes of microplastics are currently on the ocean floor at abyssal depths.
What effects do microplastics have?
a) They endanger wildlife
b) They put people’s health at risk
c) They pollute our environment
What can we do about it?
First of all, we should learn how to recycle plastic properly. Inform yourselves about what can and cannot be recycled, because not all plastic can be recycled! Look for the recycling symbol on your plastic items. Items with the recycling symbol numbers 1-7 can usually be recycled, but items with the recycling symbol numbers 3 or 6 cannot be recycled in most places. Check with your local recycling program to see what they accept.
We can use reusable bags when shopping and reusable water bottles. Did you know that it takes about 450 years for a plastic bottle to break down? Also, plastic straws are a big contributor to plastic waste, so saying no to them and using our own reusable ones can make a big difference. If we see litter or plastic waste in nature or cities, we can simply pick it up and throw it away properly. There’s no shame in picking someone else’s trash (but please use gloves when doing this and dispose of them correctly!)
(Image courtesy Yomex Owo)
What are some alternatives to plastic?
a) Reusable water bottles made of metal or glass
b) Paper straws instead of plastic ones
c) Cloth shopping bags instead of plastic bags
Upcycling Plastic Waste
While recycling is important, there are also many ways to upcycle plastic and give it a second life. There are so many both fun and creative, as well as eco-friendly DIY projects that you can do at home with your friends and family!
I’ll offer you here just two ideas. Search yourselves for more DIY projects to upcycle plastic waste!
Plastic Bottle Feeders
Did you know that you can make a bird feeder out of a plastic bottle? All you need is a clean plastic bottle, and some wooden spoons or chopsticks, and if you wish to bring some color and personality to your bird feeder, then paint the wooden elements in your favorite colors (use nontoxic paints!). Cut a hole in the bottle, insert the wooden spoons or chopsticks, and fill it up with bird seeds. Hang it outside and watch as the birds come to feed! And if you add some tasty nuts, you may even see some squirrels running to have their easily gained lunch.
(Image courtesy Lemanieh)
Plastic Bottle Planters
Cut the top off of a plastic bottle and decorate the outside with paint or markers. Fill it with soil and plant a flower or herb. Choose to plant insect-friendly plants to attract bees, bumblebees, and butterflies! One example is Lavender (Lavandula), a plant you probably already know. In this article, we already discussed the importance of insects and especially butterflies to our ecosystem.
Do your part in raising awareness!
We call ourselves ‘humans’ and declare that we are superior to other earthly living beings:
We say we have intelligence. Then let us use it to create a better and healthier world for the next generations!
We say we have consciousness. Then let us use it and instead of just throwing our garbage anywhere we please, recycle it properly!
We say we are powerful and we can manipulate and shape our world. But are we truly content with what we created so far as humans on Earth?
We say we have language. Then let us use it and spread the word! Share this article with your friends and family members and do your part in raising awareness!
(Image courtesy Jireh Foo)
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