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What's the deal with plastics?

Plastic is a very useful material that makes up many of our everyday products. It is cheap to make and lasts a long time.

So what's the problem? Plastic lasts a really long time. Long after we have any use for it, for up to 1,000 years, that plastic will still be around. The trash we throw away goes to landfills, and most items decompose, or break down, fairly quickly. However, plastic just keeps adding to the levels of our landfills as we create more and more trash that does not decompose.

An even bigger problem is that a lot of plastic does not make it to landfills. Instead, plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, food wrappers, and all sorts of plastic debris gets littered. That litter goes into streams and oceans (check out the watersheds lesson for more information on this), and creates another set of problems.

The amount of plastic pollution continues to grow in the ocean. Several patches of garbage are gathering in certain areas of the world's oceans as the currents push the trash together. The largest, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to be 1 million square miles wide! That's a lot of trash!

It is estimated that by 2050, the amount of trash in the ocean will outweigh the fish in the ocean. This in itself is a problem. Where plastic is in the ocean, many other problems are created. Fish, whales, seals, and birds can get tangled in things like rope, fishing nets, and plastic rings, which can strangle or drown them.

Floating plastic bags look a lot like jellyfish, which are part of a sea turtles diet. More than half of the world's sea turtles have plastic in their stomaches. Even whales have been found beached with hundreds of pounds of plastic inside them.

Hermit crabs that search the shoreline for food, water, or new shells crawl into plastic containers like water bottles, and become trapped. When they die, they emit a smell that lets other hermit crabs know a shell is available. These crabs also become trapped in the container, and several hermit crabs end up dying.

As plastic ages, it starts to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Once they are very small, they are called "microplastics". Even though you may not be able to see them, they are still dangerous. Plastic is full of chemicals, and very bad for the health of any animal or human if eaten. Microplastics are so small that they are eaten by zooplankton, the tiny creatures that are a food source for other animals in the ocean. The zooplankton are eaten by small fish, who are then eaten by bigger fish. The microplastics are passed to each animal through their prey, building up in their system. The chemicals in plastic can cause problems like organ damage and can cause the animal to produce less offspring. The larger pieces of plastic fills the animal's stomachs, which means they aren't getting the nutrition they need to give them energy to perform daily activities, and they may even starve to death.

Humans also eat seafood that has been contaminated with microplastics. We also get exposed to microplastics in salt, our water, and even the air we breathe. Therefore, plastics are becoming a direct threat to our own health.

Image credit: PML

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to make a difference!

  • Help pick up trash if you see any on land or in the water. Every piece you pick up could save an animal from injury. A good rule to start is to pick up five pieces of trash before you leave the beach.

  • Use reusable bags when shopping.

  • Avoid buying food wrapped in plastic, and don't use disposable plastic plates, cups, or silverware.

  • Buy a glass or metal water bottle and refill it instead of buying disposable plastic water bottles.

  • Experiment with do-it-yourself products like candles, deodorant, soap, or exfoliant. Making it yourself is fun, reduces waste, and cuts out chemicals that may be in store-bought varieties.

  • Evaluate the products you use in your daily life and see where you can cut out plastic. Here are some examples:

  1. Carry your own metal straw and water bottle.

  2. Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.

  3. Shop with reusable bags, and use mesh bags for your produce.

  4. Use glass food containers for storage.

  5. Use a bamboo hair brush, toothbrush, and q-tips.

Activity #1

  • Go to the beach or on a hike, and collect all the trash you find.

  • Bring the trash home, and sort it. What types of trash did you find the most of?

  • Use the pieces of litter to create a piece of art.

  • Share the artwork, and the lesson about picking up litter, with others.

Activity #2

  • Walk through your house and make a list of everything that is made of plastic.

  • Discuss with your family if there are any non-plastic reusable alternatives that you can use instead.

  • Make a plan to start replacing some plastic products with the alternatives you came up with.

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