Thermoplastic Waste Pollution in Marine Ecosystems: The Futuristic Considerations

Park explores how thermoplastic waste has detrimental impacts on marine ecosystems.

Introduction

Thermoplastic pollution is pervasive in marine ecosystems around the world and has gained substantial attention from the general public, environment awareness organizations, and the government. In recent years, the necessity and usage of plastics materials have proliferated at a rapid pace due to the efficiency and convenience that they bring to the economy. As this increased usage has been developed, applied, and made available to more people, the number of plastic waste entering the ocean has undergone a corresponding increase. The exigency of this issue was legally recognized by virtually “200 countries that signed a U.N. resolution on thermoplastics and marine litter in Nairobi to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea”(Russell, 2017). The exposure of thermoplastic waste in the ocean elicits detrimental effects including disruption of marine life, premature of marine species, and pollution of oceanic waters. So, what exactly are thermoplastics? According to a research report by Professor Robert W. Thompson at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, “thermoplastics are a common type of plastic that have distinct long, entangled chains and become a liquid when heated and can be molded and cooled to harden many times with no degradation”(Thompson, 2009). Thus, in order to combat this prevalent thermoplastic waste pollution in marine ecosystems, it is critical to consider the future implications of this phenomenon and the effects that the continued and negligent plastic exposure will have on the environment and its inhabitants. Without any changes or regulations, the current status and rate of plastic disposal will cause toxic plastic ingestion and entanglement by marine species, groundwater pollution, and threats to human health in the near future.

Plastic Ingestion and Entanglement

Plastic waste exposure is as much a transboundary global quandary as well as a local issue with a multitude of origins. According to a study conducted by Chris V. Wilcox in 2016, author of the Marine Policy and researcher under the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, “the number of scientific publications on marine debris has increased dramatically in the last ten years and nearly 700 marine species are now known to interact with marine debris. Entanglement and ingestion are the two main mechanisms by which marine taxa are exposed to marine debris” (Wilcox, 2016). This information makes evident the magnitude of this issue of plastic pollution as it notes toxic ingestion and entanglement as the primary sources of the premature deaths of marine species. The increased use of plastic leads to a corresponding increase in the number of plastics polluting the marine environment: this continuous ingestion of plastic waste by marine life animals elicits “harmful effects such as the blockage of gastric enzyme secretion, diminished feeding stimulus, lowered steroid hormone levels, delayed ovulation, and reproductive failure”(Omidi, 2012) – all of which jeopardize the natural ambiance of the marine life. From an ethical perspective, concerns regarding the morality of heedless plastic disposal on causing the pitiful deaths of marine inhabitants would arise. Although undeniably immoral, plastic debris continues to injure and kill fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Ultimately, when these organisms become infected due to plastic ingestion or entanglement, problems arise for the predatory animals that rely on them for food, consequently disrupting the flow of marine ecosystem food chains. Due to this, it is indubitable that the continued allowance of plastic waste exposure to the marine ecosystem will lead to dramatic increases in marine life deaths in the future due to plastic ingestion and entanglement.

Groundwater Pollution

Not only does plastic cause damage to marine species, but it can also toxify groundwater sources. When plastic waste is dumped into landfills, hazardous chemicals form with the interaction of water. Ultimately, when the waste flows down towards groundwater aquifers, they devalue the water quality, prompting groundwater pollution”. An international journal, Science Advances of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has come out with a new study on plastic, quantifying its production and explaining how “79% of the total plastic waste of 6,300 million metric tons is accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment” (Mohan, 2017). This study also highlighted that “if current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 MMT of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050” (Mohan, 2017). Evidently, plastic pollution is quantifiably a major issue due to the sheer magnitude of the waste entering the groundwater aquifers and landfills. Not only does this groundwater pollution raise environmental concerns, but it can also be directly linked to health issues of both marine species and humans, as water is consumed by both parties. National Geographic in 2018 conveyed how “experiments show that microplastics damage aquatic creatures, as well as turtles and birds”(Royte, 2018). Though animals are unquestionably affected, “scientists remain concerned about the human health impacts of marine plastics because, again, they are ubiquitous and they eventually will degrade and fragment into nano plastics, which measure less than 100 billionths of a meter”(Royte, 2018). Thus, the harmful nature of plastics should be examined due to the groundwater pollution it elicits and the health issues that ensue from this pollution.

Threats to Human Health

In addition to the risks of polluted oceanic waters, the ingestion of plastic by marine species also in-turn induces harm to people who consume marine food. For example, a study conducted by National Geographic in 2012 has concluded that different plastics spread throughout the ocean and “as styrofoam breaks into smaller parts, polystyrene components in it sink lower in the ocean so that the pollutant spreads throughout the sea column”(Devi, 2012). As these chemicals are ingested by animals in the ocean, this devastates human health, as humans are the ones to ingest contaminated fish and mammals. Studies from the Ecology Center in 2018 have stated that “direct toxicity from plastics comes from lead, cadmium, and mercury. Such toxins in plastics are directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues”(Andrews, 2018). Thus, this information epitomizes how plastic pollution is not only ethically and environmentally iniquitous, but also scientifically proven to be damaging for human beings. Plastic exposure continues and will continue to harm a variety of aspects of the environment, thus the consideration of its future implications is seminal for shaping a clean world. Due to the expansive and contagious nature of plastic waste pollution, it is undeniable that the continued allowance of this waste disposal will lead to more human suffering.

Conclusion

Despite the efficiency, convenience, and productivity that plastic brings to the economy, its negligent and overwhelming usage has been followed by a majority of unintentionally detrimental consequences. The continued allowance of plastic waste flow into the marine ecosystem will engender problems in the future including waste ingestion and entanglement, threats to human health, and groundwater pollution. In order to prevent the plastic ingestion by marine species from a political perspective, the government should enforce strict policies for the waste management regulations of major industrial corporations that utilize plastic material. This will “minimize debris from being deposited into coastal waters from inadequate waste handling procedures possibly by waste transporting vessels”(Bergmann & Lars, 2009). Additionally, pollution and human health threats from plastic waste can be prevented by education. For instance, raising awareness of such issues by implementing environmental-friendly education to the public will eventually lead to a decrease in the careless disposal and littering of plastic waste into the marine ecosystem. Ultimately, the fight to protect the lives of the innocent marine species and to improve the deleterious health and environmental conditions relies heavily on those aware of this issue to take action against the reckless disposal of plastic waste into the marine ecosystem

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