The Problem With Plastics

April 13, 2018
Plastic debris from the ocean washes up on a beach in Australia.
DANIELA DIRSCHERL—GETTY IMAGES

One late-summer day, a team of cleanup volunteers was exploring the shore of the Anacostia River, in Washington, D.C. The water rippled under a hazy blue sky. Tall grass swayed on the mudflats. But something else caught the group’s eye.

Along the shore were heaps of plastic bottles. They had drifted down the river and gotten caught in branches that dipped into the water. The more the group looked, the more bottles they found. They gathered about 500 that day. But how many more had made it downstream and into the ocean?

“It was just overwhelming,” Nancy Wallace told TFK. She leads the Marine Debris Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “You didn’t have enough room to move because of the piles and piles of bottles,” she says. The area was “completely covered.”

The world has a plastics problem, and not just with bottles. Candy wrappers, straws, toothbrushes, toys—all kinds of plastics are piling up in landfills. A recent study published in Science Advances estimates that landfills contain a large part of the world’s 5 billion tons of plastic waste. By 2050, the amount could reach 13 billion tons.

TOO MUCH TRASH Children clean up trash at the beach in Mumbai, India.

INDRANIL MUKHERJEE—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Much of this trash finds its way into the ocean. Scientists estimate that 165 million tons of plastic debris is floating around out there. In 32 years, plastic in the ocean could outweigh all the fish. And since most plastic is not biodegradable, it will remain in the ocean forever. It endangers marine life and can even end up in the food we eat.

Governments are realizing that recycling may not be enough. Many want to eliminate some plastic items altogether. It could have a huge impact on the planet. “The problem can seem overwhelming,” says Wallace. “But it’s a solvable problem.”

Plastic Pollution

Plastic litters beaches. Whales have been entangled in discarded plastic fishing nets. Plastic packing bands have strangled sea lions. Birds have starved, with bellies full of plastic straws and bottle caps.

Yet another danger is harder to see. Sunlight causes plastic to become brittle. Ocean waves then break the plastic down into smaller pieces. These bits collect pollutants already in the sea. Marine animals that eat them are poisoned.

Products like cosmetics and toothpaste are made with bits of plastic called microbeads. These get washed down the drain and wind up in rivers and oceans, where fish eat them.

DANGEROUS DEBRIS A tire is wrapped around the neck of a crocodile in Indonesia.

ARFA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Last Straw

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that plastic products are disposed of properly,” Ashley Stoney says. She works for the Plastics Industry Association. But not all types of plastic can be recycled. Stoney says companies should find a way to make and use plastics that can be.

In December 2017, 193 countries signed a United Nations pledge to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea. Britain has outlawed the manufacture of products containing microbeads. Rwanda has made plastic bags and packaging illegal, except in hospitals. Scotland and Taiwan have banned plastic straws, and several coastal cities in the U.S. are following suit.

SWIMMING IN PLASTIC Anything we throw away can wind up in the ocean.

GARY BELL—GETTY IMAGES

Local advocates are also at work. Diana Lofflin started StrawFree.org, in San Diego, California. The organization visits businesses and schools, encouraging people to give up plastic straws. The U.S. alone throws away some 500 million straws a day, enough to circle the Earth twice. They are one of the most-found plastic items on the beach.

“Saying no to a plastic straw is an easy way to make a big difference in the world,” Lofflin told TFK.

After all, she says, it’s our future that’s at stake. “Do we really want to pass on to the next generation a world that’s choked by plastic?”

Chew On This

Here’s a tasty way to reduce waste. Bakeys, a company in India, has made the first-ever spoons you can eat. Their edible cutlery is made of millet, rice, and wheat. It comes in flavors like ginger-garlic and black pepper, in a paper wrapper. If you throw a spoon away, it decomposes in just a few days.

“The cutlery is tasty, fun, nutritious, and environmentally friendly,” says Bakeys founder, Narayana Peesapaty.

BI/BARCROFT MEDIA/GETTY IMAGES

Harvard University scientist David Edwards has designed an edible packaging material called WikiCell. It protects the food or liquid inside as a peel protects an orange. The translucent skin is made of food particles from chocolate, fruit, seeds, or nuts, so it’s a delicious replacement for plastic wrap.

Assessment: Click here for a printable quiz. Teacher subscribers can find the answer key in this week's Teacher's Guide.