What is the Impact of Plastic Pollution On the Environment?Thursday 28th September, 2023
It is estimated that, worldwide, approximately eight million pieces of plastic waste enter the ocean every day. The UK is a significant contributor to this statistic, with it being estimated that we use five million tonnes of plastic each year. Our waste disposal habits have a big part to play in the growth of this problem.
At Unblocktober, we are concerned about a number of aspects of plastic pollution - especially how it gets into the ocean, and the impact this can have on our infrastructure, health and natural environment. In the following guide, we outline the various impacts that plastic pollution can have on our environment, highlighting the bad habits that lead to increased pollution, and what steps we can take to reduce it.
Marine life, including species native to UK waters, is severely impacted by this growing environmental crisis. Famous images of beaches plastered with milk bottles and single-use wrapping, and sea turtles with straws lodged in their nasals are unfortunately familiar, but these issues go deeper.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are created as plastic degrades. The discovery of these particles is a relatively new concept, and the proposed risks that microplastics pose to the environment are only just being explored. However, they have been found in the digestive tracts of samples of marine life taken for inspection, and even as far down as the Mariana Trench. If a location that remote has been compromised, imagine what it must mean for our own water supplies!
Ingestion of plastics
One of the most immediate threats to marine animals is the ingestion of plastic debris. Many species mistake these foreign objects for food, leading to internal injuries, blockages and malnutrition. For example, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their primary food sources. Once ingested, these plastics can cause severe digestive issues and may even lead to death.
Entanglement in plastic waste is another significant hazard for marine life. Discarded fishing nets - also known as 'ghost nets' - and other plastic debris can ensnare animals, causing physical harm and restricting their movement. In some cases, entanglement can lead to drowning or severe injuries that make it difficult for the animal to hunt or evade predators.
Coral reefs and microplastics
Coral reefs, often referred to as the 'rainforests of the sea' due to their huge biodiversity, are also victims of plastic pollution. Microplastics can settle on corals, causing stress and making them more susceptible to disease. While coral reefs may not be abundant in UK waters, they are crucial for global marine biodiversity and indirectly affect the health of our local ecosystems.
Impact on plankton
Plankton, the base of the marine food web, are not spared from the impact of microplastics. These tiny organisms can ingest microplastics, which then make their way up the food chain, affecting larger marine animals and, eventually, humans. This is particularly concerning for the UK, where fishing is both a vital industry and a cultural tradition.
For the UK, an island nation with a rich maritime history and a close relationship with the sea, this could have a profound impact.
While much attention is focused on the scale of ocean plastic pollution, terrestrial ecosystems are by no means immune to the effects of plastic waste. Wildlife, including various bird species and mammals, often ingest plastics or become entangled in them.
Ingestion and physical harm
Similar to marine animals, terrestrial wildlife often mistake plastic items for food, leading to ingestion that can cause internal blockages, malnutrition and death. Birds have been found with plastic rings around their beaks or necks, leading to starvation or strangulation. In the UK, native species like foxes, badgers and hedgehogs are prime examples of wildlife that suffers from eating plastic waste.
Plastic waste doesn't just pose a direct physical threat to animals; it also disrupts their natural habitats. Microplastics contaminate the soil and affect plant growth, impacting the herbivores that rely on these plants for sustenance, and setting off a chain reaction that can destabilise ecosystems.
The long-term effects of soil contamination by microplastics are not yet fully understood, but initial studies suggest they could interfere with soil fertility and water retention, affecting both agriculture and natural ecosystems.
Impact on pollinators
Pollinators like bees and butterflies play a crucial role in both natural ecosystems and agricultural settings. There is growing concern that microplastics could affect these vital insects, either through direct ingestion or by contaminating their food sources. Given the already precarious state of bee populations in the UK, this is an area of significant concern.
Litter and scenic beauty
Beyond the ecological impact, plastic waste also impacts the natural beauty of our landscapes. The UK is home to some of the world's most stunning natural scenery, from the Lake District to the Scottish Highlands. The presence of plastic litter not only detracts from these beautiful landscapes but also poses a risk to the tourism industry, a significant contributor to the UK economy.
The impact of plastic pollution isn't limited to wildlife; studies suggest that it poses a direct threat to human health as well. Microplastics can enter the food chain, eventually making their way onto our plates. The concept of bioaccumulation - where substances build up in an organism over time - means that these plastics could pose long-term health risks. In the UK, where seafood is a significant part of the diet for many, this is a particularly pressing concern. In some cases, traces of plastic materials have been found in the placentas of unborn babies.
Plastics often contain a range of additives, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which can be harmful in large quantities. When plastics degrade, these chemicals can leach out, posing a risk not just to animals but also to humans. In addition to this, plastic debris is a perfect environment for certain dangerous bacteria to thrive. The long-term health effects of exposure to these substances are still not fully understood, but could include hormonal imbalances and an increased risk of certain cancers.
Drinking water contamination
Microplastics have also been found in drinking water sources, including both bottled and tap water. While the health implications of consuming microplastics through drinking water are not yet fully understood, the presence of these particles in our water supply is a cause for concern and warrants further investigation.
The issue isn't limited to our food and water: microplastics can also become airborne, posing a potential risk when inhaled. In urban areas of the UK, where air quality is already a concern due to pollution from other sources, the addition of airborne microplastics could exacerbate respiratory issues.
Typically, this air pollution is in the form of small plastic fibres - the type used in polyester clothing and other fabrics. When these fabrics are washed or even simply used, they degrade over time, causing the plastic fibres to detach from the material and enter the environment. Many of us own cheaply-made polyester clothes and wash them in machines without any way of limiting the spread of microplastic fibres, so this is a real cause for concern with regard to pollution contribution.
Government and community initiatives
Thankfully, there are steps being taken to combat plastic pollution. The UK government has implemented policies such as banning single-use plastics like straws and stirrers. Community-led initiatives are also making a difference, from beach clean-ups to educational programmes. Businesses are increasingly recognising their role in this issue, with many opting for sustainable packaging and reducing plastic use in their operations.
However, there is more that must be done. Unblocktober focuses on reducing pollution that enters the environment through our drains. With plastic pollution in the world's oceans being one of the most worrying facets of the issue, we are taking steps to encourage individuals and organisations to hold themselves accountable and reduce bad waste habits.
Historically, we have also taken steps to combat the issue of waste in our drains that does not belong there. Fatbergs are enormous amalgamations of fats, waste paper, sanitary products and plastics that collect, congeal and block our drains. These can lead to flooding and expensive removal procedures that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, which could be better spent by the government on other aspects of our cities. By keeping potential pollutants out of our drains, we can limit the formation of fatbergs and their impacts on our infrastructure.
Sign up to help
The Unblocktober initiative aims to spread awareness about the importance of keeping our drains clear and reducing plastic waste. You can sign up to help us on our website today: