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A cross-section of a dead bird stomach showing the amount of plastic it consumed (source:

Nine Reasons why Plastics are regarded as the Bad Boys of Global Pollution

By David Okul
July 19, 2019

Plastic, especially single use plastics, is causing widespread damage to the natural environment

From the Arctic to Antarctica, Plastic is literally everywhere on the planet. In the United States alone, more than 100 billion plastic bags are used annually. The figure translates to more than 300 bags per person.  The UN estimates that between one and five trillion bags of plastics are produced worldwide. Since 1950, it is estimated that man has produced over 9.2 million metric tons of plastic. Of the plastic produced, 6.9 billion tons became waste and 6.3 billion tons was never recycled. That is, it ended in landfills. Nevertheless, the exact number of plastic bags produced globally is largely unknown.

The proliferation of the bags is high that it has overwhelmed most of the western nations waste collection systems. Part of the problems of the plastic bag is that the flimsy bags are among the least recycled products because they tend to jam machinery during recycling. Their lack of recyclability is one of the top reasons why plastic wastes are regarded as bad boys of pollution. Here are nine other reasons we have compiled:

1. Plastic is toxic and dangerous

Anyone who has ever burned plastic bags knows of its toxic smells. Just the smell of incinerated plastics can give you an idea of the toxicity of the substance. The chemicals in the plastic can be divided into three parts including the ingredients for manufacture, the by-products of manufacturing, and chemicals adsorbed by plastic. Some of the common harmful chemicals in plastics include Bisphenol A, Polyurethanes (PUR), polyacrylonitriles (PAN), and polyvinyl chlorides (PVC).  It has been established that the chemicals in plastics could disrupt hormones that are crucial for healthy existence. Additionally, plastics act as magnets for other range of poisons and pollutants.

2. Plastics are Forever

Forget diamonds! Plastics are truly forever as they are not biodegradable. This fact is emphasized by a shipping accident. In 1992, a shipping container with 28,000 plastic and rubber duckies fell somewhere between Hong Kong and the United States. To date, these duckies wash ashore from time to time. They have been spotted even in different oceans such as the eastern seaboard of the United States. To make it worse, that has not been the only plastic consignment lost in seas. There are millions of Lego pieces, sneakers, styrofoam insulation, plastic crates, and a plethora of other items lost in the sea. The lost consignment demonstrates how indestructible plastic is in the seas and the far-reaching effects of the pollution. Many scientists have claimed that it takes 1000 years for plastic to break down. 1000 years is a millennium by the way!

3. Groundwater pollution from plastics

Plastics are causing widespread pollution to the groundwater sources. Plastics usually reacts with water creating harmful chemicals such as Styrene Trimer and Bisphenol A which are extremely harmful to human health. Bisphenol A has been established to affect the reproduction system of a variety of animal species, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same effects on humans. This point relates to the first point on the toxicity of plastics.

Plastic bags could block drainage
Floods are among the most common disasters caused by plastics in urban areas

4. Plastic cause floods

The major cause of floods is obviously heavy precipitation, usually from rainfall. However, there are some cases where the water damage and floods could be avoided if people had not been irresponsibly disposing of plastics. The dumped plastics often end up in canals, water reservoirs, and drainage. Eventually, they clog natural and artificial drainage systems thereby causing floods. Most towns and cities in the third world face flooding caused by drainage problems.

5. Plastic creates breeding grounds for mosquitoes

Related to the previous point, plastics prevent the flow of water creating pools that are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Malaria is a serious disease that is associated with a type of mosquito. Recent research has shown that mosquitoes feed on microplastics. As animals higher in the food chain feed on the mosquito, the microplastic is absorbed in their bodies.

6. Soil contamination could be attributed to plastics

The effects of plastic on soil are not as thoroughly studied as the effects of plastic on groundwater and marine contamination. Probably because the plastic on land is likely to find itself eventually in a water body. However, it is hypothesized that plastic on soil interferes with the normal development of plants and animals. China offers an interesting case study for studying the effect of plastic on soils as it has been using plastic materials in mulching since the 1970s.

White mulch usage in China is common
The use of white (plastic) mulch in China presents opportunities for understanding the effects of plastic contamination on soils (Source: The Scientist)

7. Marine Pollution is perhaps the biggest effect of plastic

Basic geography informs us that the planet is majorly water, especially oceans and seas. As such, marine pollution has serious repercussions on the global geochemical cycles. The material can degrade to have disastrous consequences for marine life. A marine scientist from Plymouth University coined the term microplastic that refers to the microscopic fragments of plastics that are consumed by aquatic creatures.

Plastic bags are among the top five items found in beach and river cleanups. It is estimated that between 10 and 20 million tons of plastic find their way into the oceans and seas every year. The Independent reports that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Further, it is thought that 99% of all sea birds have consumed microplastics.

What is even more troubling is that the plastic would eventually be consumed by humans as food. The sea creatures consume the before mentioned microplastics, and some of the sea creatures are popular in human cuisine! In 2015 alone, 92.5 million tons of seafood was caught for human consumption.

8. Direct consumption of plastic kills animals too

It is estimated that 100 million marine life has died primarily because of plastic ingestion. Still, wild and domestic animals on land also eat plastic as they mistake it for food. When a considerable amount of plastic is stuck into an animals’ stomach, it prevents the animals from eating additional food. The sea turtle is notorious for mistaking plastic bags in the sea for jellyfish. Also, animals could get tangled and suffocate in plastic wastes.  

Animals ingest plastic that interferes with their digestive systems
A cross-section of a dead bird stomach showing the amount of plastic it consumed (source:

9. Plastics contribute to climate change too!

The impacts of climate pollution do not end on interfering with plant and animal life. Plastics are also a major contributor to the problem of climate change. Greenhouse gases are emitted on each stage in the life cycle of plastic from its production, transportation, refining, and how it is handled as a waste product. By 2050, plastics alone could contribute up to 13% of the total greenhouse gases! 

Unlike climate change, there are no prominent deniers of plastic menace. Consequently, it should be relatively easy for mankind to reverse the global plastic pollution trend before the oceans turn to a big mass of plastic soup. The good thing is that some countries are taking action in implementing plastic bans and taxes. Nevertheless, more action is needed before we can irreversibly damage the planet.


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David Okul is an environmental management professional with over 10 years experience on donor projects, conservation, forestry, ecotourism, and community-based natural resources management. When not working on  active environmental management projects, I spend my time writing for Silvica on a variety of topics