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So the world is on track to banning single-use plastics and you’re totally on board with that. Law or no law, you try to use as little plastic as possible and it feels pretty great. Most of the time. You know that virtuous, do-good feeling when you use a paper bag instead of a plastic bag to bring home your groceries? Clutching your overstuffed bag uncomfortably to your chest, you stride along the sidewalk, buoyed by the fact that you’re doing your bit for the environment, saying to yourself, ‘who needs handles anyway?’ Then suddenly the bottom of the bag gives way because the condensation on your glass—not plastic—milk bottle has made the brown paper soggy, and now your eggs are broken and your broccoli is rolling down the pavement? Not cool.
Aggravating moments like this can seriously test your commitment to saving the planet. When what you really want to do is march into the nearest store and demand an entire plastic bag full of plastic bags, try reminding yourself of these six negative effects of plastic waste on the environment and on yourself. Reflecting on these horrors for a moment or two will have you back to shunning that plastic in no time.
All over the world, rivers and canals are being clogged with plastic. This causes flooding when rainwater is not channelled to the ocean quickly enough to keep up with rainfall. With global warming resulting in less predictable weather patterns, periods of heavy rainfall are becoming a common occurrence, especially in tropical regions of the world. These calamities, exacerbated by the clogging effects of built up plastic waste, are responsible for hundreds of human and animal deaths per year, not to mention the thousands of people who are losing their homes to ground flooding.
What’s the most annoying thing in the world? When you’re sipping your mojito through one of those very thick cardboard straws, feeling pleased with yourself because paper straws reduce plastic waste, but then you take too long to finish your drink and the straw turns your mojito into a pulpy green cardboard smoothie. You might think to yourself in this moment, ‘this is the most annoying thing in the world’ but you would be wrong. People all over the globe agree that the most annoying thing in the world is mozzies.
When discarded plastics slow water drainage, what you’re left with is standing water: the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Not only are mozzies the most annoying things in the world, they are one of the biggest causes of death on the planet due the spreading of diseases. And the mozzie damage does not stop there: the larvae of those annoying bugs have been shown to feed on discarded plastic, which means that animals that eat mosquitoes risk ingesting micro-plastic. And those animals are eaten by bigger animals, and so on up the food chain until we’re eating microplastics, too.
When you throw away a plastic bag or milk carton, you’re probably not thinking ‘Can’t wait to drink this plastic in few years’ time and see what it does to my reproductive system.’ But as strange as this sounds, you should give this some thought. Over time, the chemical components of the plastics crammed into landfills drain with accumulating rainwater into the water table. The chemicals in plastic react with water, breaking down into substances such as by-products of Polystyrene, Styrene Trimer and Bisphenol A, which has been shown to have adverse effects on animal reproduction.
You are what you eat, right? While the debate rages on over the details of what makes a healthy diet, we all basically agree that getting your daily dose of fruit, vegetables and grains is the best way to stay healthy. But what happens when countries like and Australia and China announce severe soil pollution problems, with more of the world’s countries due to follow with similar announcements? If our most healthy foods grow in soil, can we trust that the food we eat is actually good for us? The proliferation of tiny plastic particles, or microplastics, in the soil, as well as the various harmful chemical by-products of plastics that enter the soil through water, disrupt the soil’s ecosystem and harm the life forms within the soil essential to the healthy and normal development of the plants we eat.
Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered with water. That’s two thirds of our home. And yet so far, we human beings have dumped between ten and twenty million tonnes of plastic into the ocean. This is deadly for marine life great and small, but one of the most serious and far reaching problems is hardly visible to us. Microplastics, such as the tiny beads in exfoliating face wash, enter the ocean and drift on the currents. These grain-like floaters are eaten by fish, which are netted up by fishing trawlers. Further down the line, those fish end up on our dinner plates. The harmful chemicals that result from the partial breakdown of plastics within the digestive systems of fish then pass straight into our bodies. Once again, it’s a case of plastic coming back.
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The death toll for marine animals caused by plastic waste currently sits at a staggering one hundred million individuals. Washed into the sea by rivers, plastic takes the lives of sea animals in a variety of ways. Ingested plastic wreaks havoc on animals’ stomachs, making them unable to digest food. Sea birds and mammals can become entangled in floating plastic and drown. And the terrestrial members of the Animal Kingdom are affected, too. Especially in urban areas, animals like racoons and pigeons often grab what looks like a snack on the sidewalk or in a rubbish bin and end up eating plastic instead.
You may be a committed advocate for the environment. You’ve ditched plastic bags. You’ve switched to solar power. Maybe you even drive a green car. But even the most hardened environmentalists are going to struggle to stay calm from time to time when choosing not to use that little bit of plastic feels really inconvenient. In these moments of temptation, take a few deep breaths and think about these six threats that plastic poses to your home, planet Earth.