Here is the real-life impact of plastic on the environment

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April 13, 2020
PATRICK PLEUL/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Here is the real-life impact of plastic on the environment

After a half-century of incorporating plastic into virtually all aspects of human life, the planet is now choking on it both literally and figuratively. There was more plastic made in the first 10 years of the 21st century than in all of the century prior; and much of that production has already made its way to recycling centers, landfills, and ecosystems around the planet.

Stacker used a variety of scientific sources, such as the United Nations Environment Program (2019) report on Plastics and Shallow Water Coral Reefs, to compile a list of 25 facts on the real-life impact of plastic on the environment. Although the story largely focuses on marine environments (which have been studied more extensively), plastic impacts the world’s lakes, rivers, soil, and air, and even poses danger to human health.

Every bit of plastic ever manufactured is still in existence today, and is likely to outlast all of us. Whether it’s leaching into soil structures and waterways, flaking off into nanoparticles that cause behavioral disorders in fish, or killing the largest creatures in the ocean, plastic has permeated every corner of the globe. Scientists in the last decade have exerted extensive energy documenting the effects of plastic on organisms and ecosystems while urging the world to curb consumption before we destroy some of our most precious resources, perhaps most urgently the world’s oceans.

Keep reading to learn about what lies beneath a beach’s surface, discover why corals eat plastic, and find out the biggest source of plastic pollution in the ocean.

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Laura Lezza // Getty Images

Coastal countries annually produce more than 600 billion pounds of plastic waste

A 2015 study published in Science Magazine estimated that 192 coastal countries in 2010 generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste. To figure out these numbers, researchers had to connect population density and economic status with global solid waste data. Countries with the highest volume of uncaptured waste correlated directly with waste management systems and population size.

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Up to 28 billion pounds of that waste find the ocean

Of those 275 million metric tons of plastic waste, up to an estimated 28 billion pounds of plastic entered the ocean. The 2015 study represents the first report of its kind since scientists first began to discuss oceanic plastic pollution in the 1970s.

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Plastic pollution hurts the ocean, lakes, rivers, soil, dust, and air

Commercial production of polyethylene, polyolefins, and polypropylene made plastic mainstream in the 1950s. The high durability of plastic products popularized them among consumers but cost us dearly in environmental degradation. Consumption is the most common risk plastic poses to organisms in nature, according to a February 2019 study by researchers at the University of Queensland and the University of Exeter. Plastic has been found in larvae and adult fish, cetaceans, sea turtles, birds, zooplankton, and marine animals. There is yet to be a study done on ingestion by humans, reptiles, or terrestrial mammals.

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Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild // Getty Images

Over 11 billion plastic items entangle Pacific coral reefs

Coral reefs are essential to protecting coastlines and offering habitats for fish and other sea life. Plastic pollution poses significant dangers to reefs, including light deprivation, and significant oxygen depletion.

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640 tons of discarded plastic fishing gear annually land in the ocean

A 2019 Greenpeace report suggests fishing gear represents the biggest source of ocean pollution. In recent decades, fishing gear increasingly is made from plastic, from fishing lines and nets to buckets and traps. The UN’s report puts fishing gear behind land-based river and land runoff and direct dumping among top plastic pollution sources.

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One piece of clothing can generate over 1,900 fibers per wash

By studying fibers found in wastewater from a standard domestic washing machine, scientists in a 2011 report surmised that many of the microplastic fibers discovered in bodies of water may come from sewage byproduct from clothes washing. The report, published in Environmental Science & Technology Magazine, went on to predict microplastic pollution will worsen as global populations grow and people continue wearing and using synthetic fabrics.

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Two-thirds of beach debris may be buried beneath the surface

Remote islands situated near high concentrations of ocean trash serve as vital sinks, or mitigators of toxins and pollutants, for that waste, according to a 2017 research paper by Jennifer L. Lavers and Alexander L. Bond published in the National Academy of Sciences. The density of debris found on the uninhabited Henderson Island represented the highest amount found anywhere on Earth—with 68% within the Pacific island’s sediment.

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Sea water exacerbates plastic toxicity and density

The toxicity and density of microscopic plastics that end up in ocean water can be exacerbated by organic materials. When these materials, like salt, attach to contaminants, they form an “ecocorona” and can increase the risk for animals in these ecosystems.

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Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild // Getty Images

At least 10% of species will eat ocean plastic

The reason sea creatures eat so much plastic may be because of the similar smells of algae and plastic. More than 180 marine species have been put in harm’s way by consuming plastic trash in water bodies.

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NOAA Photo Library // Flickr

Ocean plastic pollution hurts more than 800 species

The leading negative effects of plastic pollution on marine and coastal life is through consumption, getting tangled in debris, and alteration of habitat. Mitigating these issues is a priority among the international community of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, scientists, charities, and many in the private sector.

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Eating plastic damages animals’ organs

Because ingestion is the leading way ocean life interacts with plastic, ingestion is also the leading cause of damage to organisms. In addition to damaged organs, the effects of plastic consumption range from reduced predatory behaviors to lower neurofunctional activity to death.

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Corals entangled in plastic are 20 times more likely to get sick

Fragile coral reefs ecosystems suffer from toxin release, light deprivation, and significant oxygen depletion. These deficits offer fertile ground for pathogens: The probability of disease in coral reefs went up 20 times if a piece of coral was covered by plastic, according to a study published in 2018 in Science.

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NOAA Photo Library // Flickr

Corals can hold onto consumed plastic for over 24 hours

Corals may actually be attracted to plastics because of how they taste, according to reporting from Ben Guarino at the Washington Post on 2017 research published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin. In 8% of trials, corals held plastic for 24 hours before spitting them back out.

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YE AUNG THU/AFP // Getty Images

All 7 sea turtle species have been hurt by eating plastic

Not only are all sea turtle species hurt from ingesting plastic, but plastic pollution adversely affects the animals at every point in their life. Hatchlings make their way past plastic while going into the water, dodge it during migrations, and confuse it for jellyfish when it’s time to eat.

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Sea turtles eat plastic debris all over the world

Just as plastic trash affects sea turtles throughout their lives, it also pops up in turtles’ stomachs everywhere on Earth. In an analysis of 37 studies between 1985 and 2012, researchers found consuming plastic trash poses the biggest threat to oceanic leatherback turtles and green turtles.

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Plastic both looks and smells like food to sea turtles

Far and away, a sea turtle’s favorite food is jellyfish, which poses a significant risk when it’s time to eat, as plastic bags in the ocean closely resemble this treat to a turtle. As plastics spend more time in saltwater and organic materials bond to the material, plastic—whether in cigarette butts, or fishing gear—takes on the smell of the algae and tiny microorganisms turtles love to make a meal out of.

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Half of seabird species have been hurt by eating plastic

The number of marine species hurt by consumption of or entanglement in plastic trash doubled between 1997 and 2015, according to research published in 2015. That study reported 203 of 406 species of seabirds have been documented as suffering from eating plastic.

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Seabirds that eat plastic have damaged kidneys and higher cholesterol

Similarly to sea turtles, seabirds are drawn to the smell of plastic. Birds not killed because of plastic choking their stomachs face other life-threatening conditions, however, including decreased liver function, reductions in head, bill, and wing length, and heightened cholesterol levels.

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Two-thirds of marine mammal species have been hurt by eating plastic

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Plastic waste fills the stomachs of whales

Whales have endured hundreds of years of the effects of overfishing depleting their food access and whaling significantly reducing their population. Today, plastic pollution poses a new threat at the same time some whale species are showing signs of a comeback. As the biggest eaters in the ocean, plastic regularly ends up in whales’ stomachs—largely because it’s already present in the stomachs of their prey.

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Eating plastic is linked to brain damage in fish

Plastic nanoparticles pose a serious threat to fish despite being too small to pose choking hazards of larger pieces of plastic. The toxins in these nanoparticles interact with brain tissue, and is found to cause behavioral issues in fish, including how quickly they ate and how far they traveled to hunt.

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LUIS ACOSTA/AFP // Getty Images

Discarded fishing gear smothers, entangles, and causes disease

Abandoned or lost fishing gear in oceans is referred to as “ghost gear,” which comprises more than 46% of all plastic found in floating garbage patches around the world. The fishing equipment can strangle, trap, asphyxiate, and poison marine life.

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Foreign species can travel on plastic to invade new habitats

We all know storms and earthquakes cause massive damage to manmade structures and natural habitats. After-effects of these natural disasters often include foreign organisms hitchhiking into new ecosystems far from their native habitat. Following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami in East Japan, the vast majority of 300 (largely invertebrate) species washing ashore in the U.S. Pacific Northwest did so affixed to manmade materials such as plastic.

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Plastic and fiber ocean debris end up in our seafood

It should come as no surprise that if plastic winds up in the bellies of fish, mammals and birds, so too will it end up in our own bellies through the seafood we consume. Averages put seafood-lovers’ plastic consumption at more than 2,000 plastic pieces annually.

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Plastic particles end up in our tap water, beer, and salt

Of course, plastic doesn’t just get ingested by humans via seafood. Microplastics get trapped in the sediment of virtually every water body, meaning it’s easy for trace amounts to show up in the liquids we drink and salt we sprinkle on our food.

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