Everything is made out of plastic these days. And it is killing us. Out of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950, up to 6.3 billion tons of plastic becomes plastic waste. Out of this waste, a staggering 80% ends up in the ocean. A study conducted by Education University found that Hong Kong beaches had up to 2.4 times more microplastics per square meter compared to the United States. This is worrying because a study conducted by the United Nations found that up to 800 species of aquatic animals are affected by plastic debris in the ocean. Seabirds, sea turtles, fishes become entangled in the debris, while ingestion causes suffocation, starvation and drowning.
How does plastic waste in the sea affect you?
Research conducted by University of Science and Technology found that household products such as toothpastes, facial scrubs, and exfoliators contain microbeads are small enough to wash down drains and enter the oceans. Due to the small size of microplastics, it is very difficult to clean up from beaches so they end up circulating in the ocean for a longer period of time. The microplastics in the ocean is consumed by various marine life, and is lodged in their bodies.
Plastic is found in the seafood you eat
According to an analysis of 58 studies conducted by Greenpeace, microplastic pollutants including microbeads are found in 170 types of aquatic life. Many of these serve as common seafood dishes such as mussels, lobsters, oysters, with fish such as bluefin tuna and grey mullet. Traces of microbeads are found in their gut, and with these fish ending up on our dinner table. The irony? We end up consuming the microplastics we disposed off so carelessly.
Furthermore, microplastic could be more toxic than regular plastics due to their larger surface area- to- volume ration enabling it to absorb more organic pollutants. However, according to South China Morning Post, a Professor from Polytechnic University comforted the public that consuming non toxic microplastics in small amounts has limited harm on the body.
Plastic promotes growth of pathogens in the sea
Up to 11.1 billion plastic items are entangled in corals throughout Asia Pacific, and that number is projected to increase by 40% in 2025. Plastic is easily entangled in corals due to its spikey structure. According to a recent study, scientists have found that corals that come into contact with plastic have an 89% chance of contracting diseases due to light deprivation, toxin release, and anoxia.
Outbreaks of diseases on coral reefs have a domino effect to other industries. Besides the threat of extinction of aquatic life, up to 375 billion USD is at stake in the form of goods and service via fisheries, tourism and coastal protection. It is crucial for us to come up with a plastic waste management system that can protect the livelihoods of both humans, aquatic life, and the environment.
Covid-19 has increased plastic usage
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a jump in plastic usage. OceansAsia estimated that up to 12 to 15 million masks are disposed everyday in Hong Kong. However, most masks are not disposed off properly, and were instead left on the ground, on hiking trails or washed up by the beach. If you can, choose to use reusable cloth masks instead of the disposable ones.
The bring your own cup initiative around the world has come to a halt due to health concerns. Businesses have now reverted back to using disposable cups. Disposable cups are made of mainly polystyrene and miscellaneous plastics. Styrene in polystyrene is suspected to be a carcinogen and is associated with health issues. Number 7 plastic, or miscellaneous plastics are comprised of bisphenol A or BPA, which functions to give plastic products its shiny finish. BPA is a known endocrine disrupter (Check out article mentioning BPA in protein supplements) and is suspected of contributing to heart disease and obesity according to a report by South China Morning Post.
- BPA is prohibited by the European Commission for use in cosmetic products.
- BPA is banned on the Canada Ingredient Hotlist for use in cosmetic products.
- US California Proposition 65, list BPA as known to the State to Cause Developmental or Reproductive Toxicity in Females
What should we do about it?
- Ban single use plastics
- Opt for reusable mask, instead of single use, surgical ones
- Shops should offer incentives for consumers to recycle plastic lids
- Participate in beach clean ups
- Legislations to ban sale of product containing microbeads