A total of 10.5 million tons of plastic waste is generated by Americans every year, of which only 13 percent of this waste is recycled. Plastic waste comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes – bags, excess packaging, containers – meaning many of the disposable items we use on a day to day basis can easily be overlooked.
Plastic straws are one such item. Every day, Americans produce and utilize 500 million straws. Combine this surprising figure with the fact that the majority of straws are thrown away after a single use, and the dangers of such a consumption habit become clear.
Around 8 million tons of plastic waste make its way into the world’s oceans every year. This waste destroys ecosystems and endangers the lives of marine species across the globe, with an estimated 100,000 marine animals dying each year from entanglement in waste.
In 2015, footage of rescuers painstakingly extract a plastic straw from the nostril of a turtle. In the video, which went viral shortly after it had been posted to social media, the turtle is clearly distressed due to the obstruction in its airway. After a few minutes of working to extract the plastic straw, the foreign object is removed from the turtle’s nostril and it is released back into the ocean.
Over 800 marine species are believed to be endangered due to the excess of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, according to a recent United Nations study. With disturbing figures such as these, it is important to note the amount of time it will take for some single-use plastic items to decompose in the environment.
Some plastics can take some 1000 years to decompose on land, resulting in devastating consequences on the environment and wildlife. Meanwhile, it is estimated that some plastics can take up to 600 years to decompose in the oceans. During this period, the plastic that does find its way into our oceans will degrade into smaller fragments known as ‘microplastics’. These small fragments – less than five millimeters in length – are often ingested by fish and other marine species. In addition, chemical toxins such as DDT and BPA have also been found to adhere to microplastics, allowing them to enter the food chain when consumed by fish and sea birds.
Until recent years, the lasting effects of microplastics in the ocean was never discussed. This changed when it came to light that the micro beads found in many personal hygiene products – including exfoliating shower gel, toothpaste, and makeup – were not filtered; now making their way to lakes, waterways and oceans shortly after being flushed down the drain.
A recent study in Environmental Research Letters predicts that around 93-236 thousand tons of microplastics have accumulated and are now floating in the oceans today. With these statistics, the devastating impact of plastic waste on our environment becomes clear; scientists are still uncertain of the full extent of the damage caused to our environment by plastic waste.
It is therefore advised that consumers must become more aware about the choices they make when purchasing plastic products. Returning to the theme of plastic straws; there are many reusable alternatives on the market that will significantly reduce your negative impact on the environment.
Image: Flickr, Horia Varlan (CC BY 2.0)
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