Plastic pollution threat to health, environment

December 16, 2008 at 3:04 pm 2 comments

n the past we widely used natural fiber products including jute, bamboo, cane, wood, leaves and clay, paper to make the goods we needed. But now we are using artificial fiber made products like polythene bags and plastic products on a larger scale. It has made our daily life easy, comfortable and fast to some extent but it is also affecting the environment disastrously at the same time. This contaminated environment ultimately tells upon human health and the whole sustainable development process.

Since the development of plastic in the fifties of the past century by a German scientist, it has become a popular material used in a wide variety of ways and the production and the marketing of plastic goods have also increased over the mark. The use of plastic goods has had a worth-mentioning coverage in domestic, industrial and commercial sectors of the economy by dint of its some lucrative virtues including easy, cheap to make and longevity. Plastic is used to make, or wrap around, many of the items we buy or use. Of late, it is used even for producing boxes, utensils, doors and other commercial items. But unfortunately because of the same useful qualities, it poses a serious and huge pollution problem. The cheapness means plastic gets discarded easily and its long life means it survives in the environment for long periods where it can do great harm as it doesn’t decompose and requires high energy ultra-violet light to break down. In fact, the plastic that goes over the side today may still be around in hundreds of years to foul up the environment and economy as all forms of plastic consume growing amount of energy and other natural resources, degrading the environment in numerous ways. In addition to using up fossil fuels and other resources, plastic products create litter and threaten the basis of life on earth.

Plastic is one of the few new chemical materials which is manufactured largely using polythene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene. Synthetic polymers are easily molded into complex shapes, have high chemical resistance, and more or less elastic. These materials have molecular weight ranging from several thousands to 150,000. Excessive molecular size seems to be mainly responsible for the resistance of these chemicals to biodegradation and their persistence in soil environment for a long time.

Geographically, the production and the use of plastic goods are on the rise in three continents including North America, Europe and Australia. According to an estimate, more than 100 million tones of plastic products are produced every year all over the world. United States alone is producing over 25 million tons per year. About 20% of the solid municipal waste in US is plastic. In India, the production of plastic goods is only 2 million tons and per capita plastic use is 2 kg per year while in the European countries it is 60 kg per person per year and that in US is 80 kg per person per year. Again, use of plastic materials and goods is more in urban area than in rural areas. Especially plastic furniture, container, door are widely used in urban habitations. In fact, urbanization has added a new dimension to the plastic pollution in concentrated form in cities. Plastics thrown on land can enter into drainage lines and choke them resulting into floods in local areas in cities as experienced in Mumbai, India in 1998.

Generally the sources of plastic pollution includes the leftovers of everyday consumer products: plastic bags, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, bottles and their caps, toys, fast food wrappers and their packaging plastic goods, one-time use dishes, glass, Tiffin box etc.

Many chemical ingredients used in manufacturing of plastic goods including benzene, vinyl chloride, ethylene oxides, xylems and bisphend A. are linked with numerous health hazards and reproductive problems. For instance, bisphenol A, found in water bottles, has shown in lab rate to disrupt hormones and is associated with obesity and diabetes. Besides, when the toxic chemicals contained in plastic products leach from packaging into food and thus enter people’s bodies, they cause many tribulations including cancer, birth defects, hormone changes, respiratory problems, gastric, ulcers, and eye and liver problems. The people who are employed in factories producing plastic products experience higher incidences of cancer, skin diseases, and other serious diseases than the general people. In research, the Korean Institute of Health Research found that when meat, fish and vegetables are stored in plastic products, heat is generated. This heat causes a chemical reaction. Moreover, when meat and fish are stored in plastic, anaerobic bacteria are created, which speed the rate at which meat and fish spoil. Consuming fish and meat that contain anaerobic bacteria can also cause cancer. Dr. Shatshote Ray, a prominent nutritionist of Calcutta Medical College showed in his research that drinking lemon tea from a plastic or Styrofoam cup can cause a dangerous chemical reaction when the acid in tea and lemon mixes with the plastic or Styrofoam. This causes an increase in the risk of ulcer and cancer. When polythene bags and plastic products are burned below 700 degree Celsius, dioxin is created that causes a range of diseases including birth defects, eczema and cancer.

The manufacturing process of plastic products in plastic industries releases huge quantity of dangerous gaseous chemicals into the air including carbon monoxide, dioxin and hydrogen cyanide. These gases pollute air seriously. The presence of these gases in air at high proportion is detrimental to health of human being and animal kingdom. They may cause respiratory diseases, nervous system disorders and reduction in immunity to disease in the population.

Soil, one of the most valuable natural resources on Earth, is also badly affected by plastic pollution. Many times both consciously and surreptitiously we dispose of plastic products on land, thus making harm to soil. As plastic goods never biodegrade completely, remnants remain in the soil, disrupting the process of water and oxygen absorption by soil. Besides, plastic remnants also block sunlight. So the sun cannot warm the soil properly. As a result, the helpful bacteria die and the soil’s fertility is reduced. Ultimately it results in declining crop yield. The land which is mainly used for open dumping of plastic waste becomes permanently unworthy for future agricultural use. Even the soil is so debilitated by plastic products that the land proves itself dangerously risky for construction-purpose use, let alone the use for high-rise buildings which is very common sight in urban and urban surrounding area.

Water is an essential resource for life on earth. We drink it, relax in it, fish in it, keep cool with it, irrigate the plants, produce energy with it and also use it for transportation and recreation. It seems that water is abundant, but about 97% of all water is not naturally suitable for human consumption (Saxena, 2003). Apart from this scarcity of water, we are facing a serious problem of water pollution from different sources. Now- a-days plastic waste is a worth-mentioning one. Every now and then we dispose of plastic products, which we no longer want, in different water bodies including lakes, rivers, ponds, etc. The Ramna Park-lake in the mega city of Dhaka may be the best example of water pollution from plastic waste where plastic bottles, canes, bags and other plastic products are frequently thrown by the park-visitors. The presence of plastic products in water bodies disturbs the natural flow of water, limits the ability of fish to reproduce and destroys helpful organisms that otherwise live in water. Besides, plastic wastes make our drainage system dysfunctioning and thus cause water logging in the city. In rainy season, it occurs off and on in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. This stranded water becomes a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and the city dwellers specially the low income people fall a deadly victim to malaria, filariasis, dengue, and encephalitis along with diarrhea and dysentery.

Our oceans remain as one of the final frontier: unexplored, unknown and in some places, unreachable. Every second breath we take comes from the oceans. We rely on them for food, for recreation and the very life we all too often take for granted. In return, we are choking them with pollution and destroying the marine environment that enables us to live rich and enjoyable life. Since the days of ancient Phoenician mariners, sea goers have been dumping their trash at sea. Back on those days, the oceans could easily handle the waste, but today both the nature and the quantity of trash have changed greatly. Every day, more and more plastic is accumulating in our oceans. Recreational boaters improperly dispose of plastic refuse at sea. Plastics also enter the marine environment from sewage outfalls, merchant shipping, commercial fishing operations and beach goers. The world wide fishing industry dumps an estimated 150,000 tons of plastic into the oceans each year including packaging, plastic nets and buoys. A growing threat to the health of our oceans is plastic pollution. Such pollution can linger for years affecting marine environments far from where it entered the oceans. Plastic poses a serious enough threat to the marine environment that, in 1987, Congress enacted the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act. This law prohibits the dumping of plastics in all US water bodies and applies to all watercrafts from the smallest recreational boat to the largest commercial ship.

Studies did locally show about 3500 particles of plastic per square kilometer of sea off the Southern African Coast. Surveys of 50 South African beaches from the Eastern Cape Town show that in five years to 1989, plastic pollution has increased by 190%. More than 90% of the articles found on these beaches contained plastics. About 80% of garbage within water ways is plastic and it begins its journey on land rather than coming from boats, according to Algalita and California Coastal Commission.

Plastic is now found on virtually all South African beaches, even on the most remote one, and researchers are now also finding plastic rubbish in Antarctic region (Maneveldt, 2006). Geographically the world’s largest marine reserve sits next to one of the world’s largest floating garbage dumps. Between Hawaii and the United States mainland is the North Pacific Gyre, the epicenter of a giant circulating system of winds and currents encompassing the whole North Pacific Ocean. Plastic pollution from Asia, the Pacific and North America is sucked into this area, where it mingles with sea life, choking and ensnaring marine wildlife, and disturbing every level of the food chain. In fact, marine plastic debris is found floating on all the world’s oceans, even near to Polar Regions. It is found every where, from the beaches of industrialized countries to the shores of the remotest, uninhabited islands.

Plastic acts like a sponge for poisons such as PCBs, concentrating them at levels a million times higher than in sea water. It fatally contaminates sea water, sea floor and the marine environment as a whole. According to Charles Moore, a prominent American oceanographer, the amount of plastic pollution in oceans is so bad that it is beyond cleaning up. He returned on 23 February 2007 from a five week odyssey in the Pacific Ocean with samples showing 48 parts plastic for every part of plankton. He reported on arrival from Pacific Ocean that plastic contamination in the world’s oceans is worse than previously imagined and no amount of technology can clean them up. He said, “We are damned to a future of pollution by plastic. There is no evidence it will end in a millennium”. Mr. Moore has spent more than a decade investigating Pacific plastic pollution. According to his statistics, plastic pollution in the ocean has increased fivefold in terms of amount from 1997 to 2007. In the Pacific alone, plastic pollution zone amount to the size of the continent of Africa (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2008).

Careless disposal of plastic in ocean can have dire consequences on marine biodiversity. By discarding plastic thoughtlessly especially fishing gear and packaging, people are accidentally causing the death of millions of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish every year. Plastic can affect marine wildlife in two important ways: by entangling creatures, and by being eaten. Scientists estimate that plastic products are killing up to a million seabirds and over 100,000 sea animals a year.

Turtles are particularly badly affected by plastic pollution, and all seven of the world’s turtle species are already either endangered or threatened for a number of reasons. Plastic pollution is highly mentionable one. Turtle gets entangled in fishing nets and many sea turtles have been found dead with plastic bags in their stomachs. It is believed that they mistake these floating semi-transparent bags for jelly fish and eat them. The turtles die from choking or from being unable to eat. One dead turtle found off Hawaii in the Pacific was found to have more than 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach including part of a comb, a toy truck wheel and nylon rope.

There is great concern about the effect of plastic rubbish on marine mammals in particular. A recent US report concluded that 100,000 marine mammals die each year in the world’s oceans by eating or becoming entangled in plastic rubbish and the position is worsening when a marine mammal such as a Cape Fur Seal gets caught up in a large piece of plastic, it may simply drown, or become exhausted and die of starvation due to the greater effort needed to swim. Besides, a large number of marine creatures become trapped and killed in ‘Ghost nets’. These are pieces of gill nets which have been lost by fishing vessels. Commercial fishing fleets are estimated to have lost nearly 300 million pounds of plastic fishing gear in one year alone.

Worldwide 75 marine bird species are known to eat plastic particles. This includes 36 species found off South Africa. South African seabirds are among the worst affected in the world. Plastics may remain in the stomachs, blocking digestion and possibly causing starvation. The six-pack ring, which relieves us of having to juggle six cans at once, can become a deadly noose for a bird or fish. A plastic bag looks like a tasty jelly fish to an indiscriminate feeder like the sea turtle, but plastic is indigestible. It can choke, block the intestines of, or cause infection in those animals that consume it. Besides, a plastic bag can also clog an outboard engine’s cooling system. Lost or discarded monofilament fishing lines can foul propellers, destroying oil seals and lower units on engines, or it can become an entangling web for fish, sea birds and marine mammals.

On Hawaii the story of one albatross chick graphically illustrates the danger of marine pollution discovered by photographer, Susan Middleton. The chick had sheltered in her equipment shed, but soon became ill and died. An autopsy showed the young chick had a stomach full of hundreds of piece of plastic, picked up from the ocean by its mother. Fifty five of sixty chicks that were subsequently examined on the island had died with their stomachs full of plastic trash. However, plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the oceans kill as many as 1million sea creatures every year.

Under these circumstances, the issue of protecting the world’s oceans from plastic pollution has become a burning question to the world community for the conservation of the largest water body and ecosystem of the world. Here one key way to reverse the destruction is a global net work of marine reserves. Currently less than one percent of the world’s ocean is protected. Protecting large areas of ocean is necessary to give marine life time to recover from over fishing, plastic and other pollutions, other destructive practices as well as protecting vital habitats.

Apart from the above impacts, some scientists believe that the bobbing bits of polymer in the oceans could contribute to global warming by creating a shaded canopy that makes it harder for plankton to grow as it needs no telling that the plant kingdom is the universal carbon sink.

Quite a few decades ago, Bangladesh was not familiar with the multiple uses of plastics. Rather the dwellers of the country were highly accustomed to using environment-friendly products that are often labor-intensive to produce for packaging and carrying goods including banana leaves, glass bottles, jute, clay, ceramic etc. The production, use and disposal of these items posed essentially no harm to the environment. But in recent years, Bangladesh, particularly the large cities, has experienced a widespread and growing use of plastic products, including single use, disposable plastic products for carrying and storing items and as food and beverage containers. Besides, plastic furniture, doors, toys, self, etc. have seen a popular use in urban areas and are rushing to the country level. As a result, Bangladesh is also facing all of the environmental, economic and health problems caused by plastic pollution that are felt around the world.

Taking the environmental issue into account, Bangladesh government made a ban on the production, use, import, marketing, sale, displaying for sale, storing, distribution and carrying for commercial purpose of poly bag and other poly products across the whole country since 1st March 2002. And for taking the ban into action, the Environment Conservation Act 1995 had been amended in 2002. Basically plastic is a sort of polythene. In other words, plastic and polythene are a complex compound. The chemical name of this compound is polyethylene fiber. Immediate after the declaration of the ban, it was a little bit under control but now polybag and other poly products are gradually backing in business. Without perhaps realizing it, we are losing our battle with polythene shopping bags. We had discarded it six years ago under a nationwide ban. We carved a good name among the developing countries by the move but now the reputation is wearing thin. The almost ubiquitous reappearance of the non-biodegradable material poses a great threat to environment, particularly by choking the already dysfunctional sewerage system, not to speak of its insidious effect on soil quality and public health (The Daily Star, September 13, 2008). Notwithstanding the current relatively low use of plastic products makes this an opportune time for policy makers to formulate measures and for general users to change their habit and choice to environment-friendly natural fiber products as practical alternatives to plastic products exist. In this connection, most probably the easiest and most efficient way to influence consumer behavior to return to its healthier ancestry is to augment tax on plastic products as people’s response and choices are greatly influenced by differences in price. In a survey conducted by WBB (Work for a Better Bangladesh) Trust, about 77% of people surveyed said if drinks sold in plastic and glass bottles cost the same, they would choose glass bottles, 22% would still use plastic bottles and 1% had no option (figure: 1). So it is high time to take necessary steps to lessen plastic use in Bangladesh. Otherwise, the longer we shall wait, the more difficult it will be to change people’s behavior to environment-friendly alternatives.

(Muhammad Selim Hossain is B.Sc. (Hon’s) final year student of the Dept. of Geography and Environment, University of Dhaka.)

The New Nation


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. polythenepam  |  July 25, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    great post – this is why I boycott plastic. Each month I stop using a piece of disposable plastic and source a biodegradable alternative. It works for me and my bin is much emptier. I post all my alternatives on my blog – click my links if you want to see.

  • 2. plasticdave  |  September 7, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Great post!
    The best thing to i my opinion is tp get this issue into awareness & try to get as many people as possible active.
    Each and every one counts!
    So please help spread this very important word around!

    1. it takes more than 400 years for a plastic bottle to decompose
    2. plastic bottles contain dangerous chemicals hazardous to our health
    3. Plastic is poisoning our oceans –

    This may be a partial solution to the problem:
    Furthermore, we should put more efforts into recycling in a global view of things.

    Kind regards,
    A person who cares A LOT


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