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5 Ways Plastic Harms the Environment

Plastic is everywhere. Over the course of the past century, mankind has engaged in the production and utilization of an immense amount of plastic. Owing to its affordability, durability, lightweight nature, and versatility, plastic has become an integral part of our lives. It has found its way into a myriad of applications, from packaging materials to automotive parts, and from household items to medical supplies.

However, despite its wide range of uses, plastic poses a significant environmental problem. All plastic, no matter how it is used or where it is discarded, eventually finds its way into our natural habitats. It contaminates our soil, pollutes our air, and most worryingly, accumulates in our oceans. In these marine environments, plastic debris is ingested by a variety of marine animals, including albatrosses, dolphins, and turtles.

Here are the five ways that plastics harm the environment, birds and wildlife — and even people. But as with anything, even plastics may actually have a beneficial use, despite the damage they are causing.

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By now you’ve probably heard about the mass amounts of plastic polluting oceans and other waterways. Plastic debris makes its way into oceans from rivers, shorelines, or boats. This plastic debris affects all kinds of ocean life, from sea turtles to ocean birds to sharks to fish and everything in between. Animals get tangled or stuck in discarded nets or bottles, choke on plastic debris, fill their stomachs with plastic they mistake for food, and much more. As these animals die, the ecosystems they play an essential part in begin to die with them.
Besides killing marine animals, plastic pollution also harms the environment by destroying habitats. You may have heard of the ocean garbage patches, huge collections of plastic thousands of miles across containing literal tons of plastic. These areas contain solid plastic debris as well as tiny microplastic beads, kept in place by ocean currents. These areas are uninhabitable and uncrossable by most animals, and they now cover huge swathes of the ocean.

Plastic also harms the environment through pollution. Plastics are essentially made from oil and gas. Mining these nonrenewable resources produces harmful chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and many more.
With no place to store plastics, much of the world also incinerates plastic waste or attempts to recycle it. Both of these activities produce toxic chemicals into the air, which is harmful to both humans and the environment.

Keeping plastic debris contained is a difficult task, especially when dealing with the sheer amount of plastic waste produced daily. Around the world, humans produce 380 million tons of plastic waste annually. Keeping plastic debris contained is a difficult task, especially when dealing with the sheer amount of plastic waste produced daily. Around the world, humans produce 380 million tons of plastic waste annually. The weight of plastic is only a fraction of the problem. Most plastic waste is lightweight, but takes up space, so the volume or the space that plastic waste takes up is a bigger problem. Most people don’t want to live close to landfills, so finding space for plastic waste often means moving it far away and making surrounding wildlife habitats even smaller. This is another way that plastic harms the environment.

In the last few months, the effects upon wildlife that come from eating, or becoming entangled in, plastic debris have been reported more widely and more often than ever before, leading to public outcry and protests. These tragic events should come as no surprise: there are an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic floating through the world’s seas where it threatens 700 marine species with its presence (ref). Further, there is growing evidence that plastics play a role in rising rates of species extinctions.


Once again, as demonstrated by the 1992 rubber duckie escape, plastics survive even the harshest conditions, such as floating around in a marine environment under blistering, unrelenting sunshine or frozen into Arctic ice for years before finally floating away and landing on some faraway shore. For this reason, plastics will probably outlast humanity itself. It is this apparent immortality leads me to my last point, which is that plastics may be co-opted for good.

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