(ENVIRONMENT/GREEN LIVING) In April 2002, a dead Minke whale washed up on the Normandy coast. An investigation found that the animal’s stomach contained 800 kg of plastic bags.

In February 2004, a Cuviers Beaked whale washed ashore on the coast of Isle of Mull, Scotland was found to have a cylinder of tightly packed shredded black plastic bin liner bags blocking its stomach.

Garbage, mostly plastic, is pictured floating in the hundreds of miles long ocean junkyard suitably named “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Photo Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography via National Geographic News

Death by plastic is not uncommon. On the contrary, it’s the norm. Tens of thousands of marine species are killed every year due to our plastic waste.

From production to consumption, plastic is toxic.

Did you know that plastic is made from crude oil? Crude oil is a non-renewable resource, meaning once it is used, it cannot be replaced.

According to Frontline, the world uses approximately 90 million barrels of oil per day (bpd). 3.6 percent or 3.2 million bpd of which is used in plastic and chemical production. To better understand this immense quantity of oil, let me define some terms.

A barrel of oil is defined as exactly 42 US liquid gallons. A liquid gallon is exactly 231 cubic inches, which is still abstract unless you imagine a gallon of milk, which is able to fill up 16 cups (if you don’t spill (due to gravity not to klutziness) the hard to pour first cup). That is over 2 billion cups of oil a day just to make plastic!

Most of our crude oil is drilled in Alaska. Alaska’s North Slope, once the United State’s largest wilderness area, now houses one of the world’s largest industrial complexes.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), each year the oil industry spills tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil on the North Slope alone. These oil spills (and oil operations on the whole) pollute and contaminate the air, water, and land, thus being incredibly toxic to all animals in its surroundings.

And it’s only getting worse. Recently, Royal Dutch Shell has been given permission to drill for an offshore oil well in the Artic.

Not only is the production of oil harmful to the environment and wildlife, the transportation of oil is hazardous, too. Huge tankers are used to transport crude oil. If one of these tankers are involved in an accident, the spilled oil can cause an environment disaster—contaminating beaches and destroying wildlife.

Once transported to an oil refinery, the crude oil can be transformed into plastic. The creation of plastic begins with a distillation process, which involves the separation of heavy crude oil into hydrocarbon chains. Separated out of these chains are ethane and propane, which are then heated and converted to ethylene and propylene and combined with other chemical to form a polymer which is then compressed into tiny plastic pellets “nurdles” and shipped and sold to manufactures that shape the polymers into different shaped plastics.

These are nurdles from a transportation spill. Less than five millimeters in diameter, these nurdles can easily flow through waterways and into the ocean where they are mistaken for fish eggs and consumed by a variety of species.
Photo credit: Emily Buenger

During transportation, many nurdles blow off into the ocean where they are mistaken for fish eggs and swallowed by birds and marine life. Worse, nurdles naturally absorb and amass other deadly synthetic chemicals making them even more hazardous. These tiny pre-production plastic pellets are responsible for the sickness and death of thousands of fish and birds every year.

What’s wrong with making plastic? Plastic degrades, but it does not biodegrade—meaning that plastic simply just fragments and fails to decompose. Even bags advertised to degrade in compost piles by heat generated be decaying organic garbage, definitely do not degrade on a beach or in the ocean. Similarly, recycling plastic is extremely difficult. “Only about 5 percent of all plastic actually gets recycled,” according to Addicted To Plastic creator Ian Connacher.

Both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans have large areas of open water that are covered with floating plastic that ends up as microscopic fragments. These micro plastic particles are mistaken for food and ingested by marine life that is consequently killed by the adverse effects of the particle on its digestive track. Larger marine life consume microorganisms and smaller marine life that have ingested the toxic material and have become toxic themselves. Plastic contaminates the entire food chain. And the higher levels of the food chain experience the highest concentration of toxicity due to biomagnification. Yes, that means you!

Plastic is an even more toxic substance as, previously mentioned, it acts as a toxic-sponge for the ocean’s man-made pollutants. It accumulates pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, and heavy metals at concentrations up to 1 million times higher than in ocean water. Thus, almost every person has toxins infiltrated from plastics in their bloodstream.

Plastic bags are particularly a problem as they are often mistaken as jellyfish in the ocean. Species such as turtles that normally prey on jellyfish are especially at risk from plastic bag ingestion. Plastic once ingested, cannot be digested or passed, so it hangs out in the animal’s gut indefinitely.  Plastic obstructs the digestive track, blocks air passageways, and can cause entanglement. The image of a seal or pelican entangled in plastic is all-too-common to us. Over 100,000 marine mammal die each year from eating plastic bags.

A seal is pictured above, trapped in plastic.
Photo credit: Nels Israelson via Flickr

It is estimated that our annual global plastic consumption worldwide is 290 million tons, a number that is 283 million tons greater than the number 50 years ago. Why do we use so much plastic? Plastic is cheap, non-conductive, strong, and moldable. It makes for lighter cars and planes, equating to the consumption of less fuel and therefore the reduction of CO2 emissions. It also is the material of energy-efficient insulation and the required material of wind turbines that greenly convert wind (kinetic) energy into mechanical energy. For these reasons, along with many others, plastic is beneficial for our planet. But we are overusing and misusing this valuable material.

The most significant overuse of plastic is plastic packaging. The usage of plastic packaging has skyrocketed over the past fifty years. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the use of single-use plastic packaging has grown from 120,000 tons in 1960 to 12,700,000 tons in 2006. Plastic packaging, originally meant for product protection and transportation, has now become tied up to the products image. The first impression of a product is the package and companies are well aware that they must design a package that captures the consumer’s eye.

Plastic is also overused in food packaging. Snack packs are not a necessity; they are a convenience. There is no need for bite size cheeses wrapped in individual packages or individually wrapped mini boxes of raisins. Do we not have enough willpower or time to create our own serving sizes? Packaging material makes up more than 30 percent of all consumer waste (EPA). Buy in bulk to save waste and trips to the store!

Not only is plastic overused in wrapping products, but it is also misused in products. For example, an ingredient in most feminine beautify aids—from Neutrogena to Clearasil—is plastic, labeled as “micro-fine polyethylene granules” or “polyethylene micro-spheres”. These beauty products are meant to go right to the drains, in due course ending up in the stomach of marine life.

Awareness of the world’s plastic problem is the first step to reducing it. Individually, you can help the planet by becoming more plastic free. Buy a reusable water bottle and coffee mug, get a filter for your faucet (filtered tap water in some countries is actually more clean than bottled), bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, buy products with minimal packaging, buy food from bulk bins and fill your reusable containers, go to local farmers markets, avoid using disposable utensils, petition governments for better recycling laws, and pass on this information.

— Danielle LeVee, exclusive to Global Animal