Greenhouse gases are vital to life on Earth. Life as we know it would not be here without them. These gases in the atmosphere are transparent to sunlight but keep heat in. It is similar to what happens when light passes through your car windshield and is converted to heat. Your windshield keeps the heat in but allows the light to pass in or out. As you know, the temperature in your car goes up quickly. Your car windshield is acting like greenhouse gases. The problem is that human activity is producing so much CO2 and other greenhouse gases that the earth’s atmosphere is heating up too fast. This is global warming. It has many aspects and causes, but I want to concentrate on how plastics contribute to this problem.
Some people have suggested that this time in human history will be called The Age of Plastic. Plastics are a relatively new substance and have been very successful, to say the least. They are light and versatile and have been used in many life-saving ways. They are mostly made from petroleum and natural gas which are non-renewable sources. They do not biodegrade in the environment, meaning there is no microorganism that consumes them. They do photodegrade, meaning they become brittle when exposed to light. They slowly break into smaller and smaller pieces but are still chemically plastic.
The manufacture of plastics uses a lot of energy and resources. More than 90% of the impact of a plastic bottle or plastic bag happens during the manufacturing process and that impact includes burning fossil fuels and releasing pollutants. For what - a short useful life, maybe only minutes, then centuries in a landfill. Landfills are the largest man-made source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 70 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. If the plastic does not go to a landfill it may be incinerated which produces more greenhouse gases. The rest of the discarded plastic becomes litter or is down cycled into a new type of plastic.
One of the many abuses that we are inflicting on the oceans is the direct or indirect dumping of plastic trash in them. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge area of the North Pacific where plastic debris is circulating with the currents, permanently circulating where it interferes with the food chain. As pieces of plastic photodegrade, they become so small that filter feeders consume them. Then these pieces work their way up the food chain into fish that we humans consume. Tiny particles of plastic act like sponges that attract toxins, such as DDT, that also are passed up the food chain. Larger pieces of plastic like rogue fishing nets ensnare animals and destroy coral reefs. Fishing line, plastic bags and six-pack rings also harm ocean creatures. Floating pieces of plastic become encrusted with organisms and act like small mobile ecosystems causing exotic species to move into new areas. Plastic does not belong in our oceans and we are only beginning to understand the detrimental impact it produces.
The oceans play a major role in determining our climate and weather. They store heat much better than air. This heat helps energize storms like typhoons and hurricane and it creates ocean currents. Much of our oxygen comes from marine photosynthetic phytoplankton. In the same process, these organisms take in CO2 and store it. Oceans provide a large part of our food. Even though they cover 71% of the planet, they are fragile and can take only so much abuse.
What can you do? Reduce your use of disposable plastic. 1. Do use reusable shopping bags instead of disposable ones. 2. Do not use bottled water. Use a stainless steel water bottle and look for beverages in glass or aluminum. 3. Buy products that are packaged in no plastic. Buy in bulk when possible. 4. Eat at restaurants that use non-plastic utensils and dishes. Bring your own container for left-overs.