The Big Plastic Problem

Our society’s plastic consumption has created a problem—we’re drowning in it. From our homes, to our landfills, beaches, parks, and oceans, plastic (and all the chemicals used to make the material) surround and permeate our lives.  Plastic is easy to produce, cheap to ship, and tough to destroy, making it the perfect material for a multitude of uses.  The problem is, it doesn’t disappear after were finished using it.

In Costa Rica in the late ‘90s, soft drink companies (let’s say Coca-Cola to avoid any confusion) started bottling their beverages in plastic containers rather than returnable glass bottles.  Coca-Cola then began sending 3 semi-trailers a week full of the plastic Coke bottles to the Osa Peninsula.  Each truck drove out to the Peninsula with thousands of plastic bottles, delivered the goods to various stores, and then returned to San José empty, ready to repeat the process.  Lacking the means to process the mounting quantities of plastic, the rivers, beaches, and forests of the Osa literally began filling up with discarded Coca-Cola bottles.  After furious protests by Osa Residents, the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Costa Rica agreed to take collected, used bottles back to San Jose.  However, since less then 1% of plastic material is recycled in Costa Rica, the waste, was ultimately transferred from one part of the country to the next.

Plastic trash represents more than just a black eye along Costa Rica’s tropical beaches. Recent studies reveal a cadre of adverse biological effects that can result in humans and animals from the host of different compounds found in plastics.  In nature, more than 180 species of animals have been documented to ingest plastic debris – including birds, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals (Laist, 1997).  Small plastic pieces floating on the ocean surface are mistaken for food by both fish and birds, while turtles eat suspended plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish.  And plastic ingestion also occurs in marine mammals that ingest smaller fish that have eaten plastic.  Ingestion of plastics has many detrimental consequences, including gastrointestinal blockages, ulceration, internal perforation, and death (Oehlmann et al., 2009).

Research is showing how plastic is a vector for the transport of contaminants to animals.  Plasticizers, the largest group of additives in plastics, have been shown to affect reproduction, to impair development, and to induce genetic aberrations in molluscs, crustaceans, insects, fish and amphibians (Laist, 1997).  And while Costa Rica’s beaches are considered to be remote compared with those of industrialized nations, they are not immune to a slew of contaminants found in plastics including: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides (DDTs), polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nonylphenol, octylphenol, and bisphenol A.  In fact, plastic fragments collected from Costa Rica’s Pacific coast beaches demonstrated high concentrations of endocrine disrupting chemicals (Oehlmann et al., 2009).

With the detrimental health affects of plastics now surfacing, it’s imperative we first reduce, then reuse and ultimately recycle everything we can.

Laist, D. (1997). Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in debris including a comprehensive list of   species with entanglement and ingestion records. Marine debris—sources, impacts and solutions. J. M. Coe & D. B. Rogers. Berlin, Germany.

Oehlmann, J., Schulte, U., Kloas, W., Jagnytsch, O., Lutz, I., Kusk, K., Wollenberger, L., Santos, E., Paull, G., van Look, K., Tyler, C. (2009). A critical analysis of the biological impacts of plasticizers on wildlife. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society Biological Sciences. 364: 2047-2062.

One Response to “The Big Plastic Problem”
  1. Marc Ward says:

    Dr Hideshige Takada tested our plastic samples from the West Coast of Costa Rica, and compared them to samples collected on the industrialized coast of Japan. The samples from Costa Rica had three times the nonylphenols that the samples fron industrial Japan contained. Is that significant? Nonylphenols are banned in some countries, due to their edocrine disrupting characteristics.

    This year I surveyed a 200 meter stretch of secluded nesting area for four months. Collecting balls of monofiliment fishing line, at intervals over the course of 4 months. That was interesting becasue I collected over 311 balls/pieces of monofiliment on that little stretch, and documented the rate of landfall for that item on that stretch of beach. The amazing part of the survey was that on other sites I used for cross comparison in the area I had 0 and 0 monofiliment balls respectively. So I seem to have located a stretch of nesting beach that also collects monofiliment fishing line at unproportionate rates. Some of the samples of fishingline had been in the water for years — completely encrusted with calcium deposits, other pieces were fresh. This has an effect on a wide range of wildlife and needs more attention.

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