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What Is Plastic Pollution?

Plastic bags and bottles on a beach.
Plastic bottle floating in a lake.
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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2014
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Modern plastic is found in many items, from packaging to automobile parts. If it is not recycled or properly disposed of, it becomes plastic pollution. Minute particles collect in the ocean and poison fish that humans and other animals depend on for food. Plastic bags and bottles littering roadways are unsightly and release harmful chemicals into the environment. Strict litter laws and recycling programs as well as innovative cleanup solutions are some ways plastic pollution can be reduced.

Plastic is not biodegradable, and even if it is recycled it does not get rid of it. Burning it releases toxic gases, throwing it away fills up landfills, and tossing it in the ocean endangers sea life. Animals that rely on sea life for food may be severely impacted, and an estimated 44% of seabirds have eaten plastic.

Plastic presents a disposal problem on land. Recycling plastic is not as common as glass or cardboard. Grocery bags and disposable water bottles are often seen in ditches and stuck to foliage. Animals can get caught in the rings from soda cans and strangle or starve. Endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic chemicals from plastic pollution, such as phlalates, bisphenol A, and styrene monomer, can leach from the material into groundwater.

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the North Pacific Gyre, where the concentration of plastic pollution is much higher in the water column than normal. Tiny particles of broken-down material and chemical sludge have been collecting in the currents of the gyre. The plastic can absorb toxins and be ingested by sea life. Removal is not possible without seriously disrupting microbial and plankton life in the area. The patch is not as big as some media has portrayed it, but is still a concern.

Scientists are studying plastic pollution with a goal of finding ways of reducing damage already done. In 2009, a Japanese research team discovered that some types of plastic break down more quickly and at cooler temperatures in the ocean than previously thought. Later findings by British researchers showed that some microbes attach themselves to plastic and may break down both toxins and the plastic itself. Continued study will hopefully find the microbes or another natural solution can combat the problem.

Communities can help prevent plastic pollution by implementing more aggressive recycling programs. Cities around the world have instituted policies banning plastic bags or taxing their use. Many people in Europe and the US use cloth or string bags for shopping. Retailers have instituted programs for collection and recycling of plastic bags, as well as small discounts for using cloth bags they also sell. Countries with strict anti-litter laws, who have fines and penalties for dumping plastic waste, can be used as models for better regulatory compliance.

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