how does plastic pollution affect the environment

How Does Plastic Pollution Affect the Environment?

Last Updated on August 16, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Plastic pollution severely threatens marine biodiversity, food webs, and ecosystem function.

Plastics leach toxins, choke and entangle wildlife, provide vectors for disease, and contribute to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.

This article explains how plastic pollution affects the environment and what can be done to reduce its harmful effects.

Key Points

  • Plastic debris directly harms over 200 species through ingestion and entanglement.
  • Plastic additives like phthalates and BPA cause endocrine disruption in marine life.
  • Producing and disposing of plastic generates over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually.

How Does Plastic Pollution Affect the Environment?

How Does Plastic Pollution Affect the Environment?
Around 8 million tons of plastic trash are lost into the oceans every year from coastal countries. That would be the same as covering every foot of coastline in the world with five garbage bags full of trash. Image Credit: The Guardian

Seabirds like albatrosses and petrels frequently mistake plastic for food, feeding it to their chicks or ingesting it themselves.

Brightly colored plastics resemble squid, fish eggs, and other prey.

An estimated 90 percent of seabirds have ingested some form of plastic.

Once consumed, hard plastic fragments cause lethal lacerations and blockages in birds’ digestive tracts.

Soft plastics reduce birds’ urge to eat but provide no nutrition.

Starvation often results.

A staggering 400,000 seabirds die annually from plastic ingestion.

Midway Atoll in the Pacific is littered with bird carcasses containing hundreds of plastic bits.

Some albatross chicks have been found dead with stomachs full of swallowed plastics.

Toxic chemical additives on plastics also work their way into birds’ tissues once ingested.

Does plastic pollution spread disease to marine animals?

Plastic debris makes ideal habitats for disease-spreading organisms including bacteria, algae, and barnacles.

Plastics leach harmful chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), which impairs immune function in marine life.

This combination of factors leaves marine animals susceptible to infection and disease.

On the microplastic level, pathogens like E. coli and Vibrio bacteria hitch rides on the surface of plastic particles.

Plastics enable their spread into new regions, increasing the occurrence of disease.

Consumption of microplastics by filter-feeding invertebrates allows bacteria to enter the food chain.

In mammals like sea lions, researchers have observed associations between entanglement and abscesses, lung infections, and bladder stones.

Following plastic ingestion, liver dysfunction, and reproductive disorders may develop.

Overall, plastics act as vectors for pathogens and shed harmful chemicals – both mechanisms that increase disease in marine life.

Are corals threatened by plastic waste?

Coral reefs around the world suffer from plastic pollution and marine debris.

Floating plastic bags resemble jellyfish to hungry turtles who ingest them, causing gut impaction.

Plastic packaging and fishing gear scrape against and smother coral colonies.

This blocks sunlight transmission essential for survival.

Once plastics reach the ocean floor, polyester fabrics, and plastic fibers become coated with algae.

This algal cover mimics the scent of food sources, attracting coral larvae.

Instead of settling on bare reef substrate, coral larvae attach to plastic debris.

This prevents reef formation and growth.

Additionally, plastic additives like phthalates and BPA have endocrine-disrupting effects on corals.

They disrupt reproductive cycles and development, reducing coral’s ability to recover from damage.

Intensifying threats from climate change requires healthy, resilient reefs, but plastics jeopardize this.

How does plastic waste impact whales and dolphins?

Cetaceans like whales and dolphins frequently ingest plastics after mistaking them for food.

The increased prevalence of plastics in cetacean habitats has led to a rise in fatal plastic ingestion.

Once inside an animal’s stomach, plastics block digestive pathways and reduce nutritional uptake.

In cetaceans, plastic ingestion has been linked with gastritis, ulceration, starvation, and death.

Whales beached on European coasts were found to have stomachs obstructed with plastic bags, thick sheeting, and fishing gear.

In 2019, a pregnant sperm whale washed up dead on an Italian beach with 22 kilograms of plastic inside its stomach.

The problem may start small – microplastics less than 5 mm in size are consumed by baleen whales when they filter feed.

These microplastics then transport chemical pollutants into whales’ bodies.

Efforts to reduce plastic waste are crucial to protect these threatened marine mammals.

How do plastics affect fish populations?

A fish entangled in discarded plastic
Fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals can suffocate, starve, or perish when they eat or get tangled in plastic trash. Image Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Fish consume tiny plastic fragments floating in the ocean after mistaking them for plankton or other food sources.

Microplastics build up in fish’ intestinal tracts, providing a route for chemical toxins to enter the tissue.

The implications of this bioaccumulation impact thousands of species vital to ocean food webs and human fisheries.

Fish larvae are vulnerable to impairment and death when exposed to microplastics containing bisphenol.

A during early life stages.

Later in life, liver toxicity and endocrine disruption result from plastic additives accumulating in fish bodies.

Population-level declines in fish that humans rely on for food could result.

Plastics also severely reduce oxygen in waterways essential for fish respiration.

Excess nutrients from fertilizer runoff create algal blooms, which aquatic life depends on for oxygen.

But plastic debris blocks sunlight transmission necessary for algae to proliferate and produce oxygen.

Under these low oxygen conditions, large numbers of fish perish.

This troubling cycle contributes to “dead zones” devoid of fish and other marine life.

Does plastic attract other pollutants from seawater?

Plastics adsorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) already dissolved in water, concentrating them up to a million times ambient levels.

These highly toxic POPs include PCBs, DDT, and PAHs.

When marine organisms ingest microplastics, these concentrated POPs transfer into their tissues.

In multiple species studied, including fish and seabirds, ingested plastic transferred significantly more POPs into their bodies compared with food sources alone.

Beyond ingestion, toxicants adsorbed to microplastics in water can desorb into the lipid tissues of animals.

Desorption elevates POP levels in living organisms, even when plastics are not directly ingested.

Plastic waste thus provides new pathways for organic pollutants to permeate ocean food webs. ‘

Highly polluted ocean regions already contain more microplastics, heightening health risks.

Does plastic pollution release greenhouse gases?

Plastic production and disposal contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Producing plastic begins with extracting and transporting crude oil or natural gas.

These fossil fuels are then refined and processed into polymers, emitting carbon at each stage.

The manufacturing process to create plastic products requires immense energy input.

Finally, at the end of use, plastic waste emits potent greenhouse gases as it degrades.

In landfills, polyethylene plastic can emit methane and ethylene, both potent greenhouse gases.

Polyurethane plastic releases volatile organic compounds.

Even the most “environmentally safe” plastic emits nitrous oxide as it breaks down.

Across its lifecycle, plastic generates over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year.

Eliminating single-use plastics and excess packaging would significantly curb these emissions.

In addition, reducing plastic waste avoids methane release from landfills as it breaks down.

How Does Plastic Pollution Affect Us?

Plastic pollution poses direct threats to human health and well-being.

Microplastics contained in seafood accumulate up the food chain, increasing human dietary exposure.

Ingestion of microplastics can cause inflammation, oxidative stress, and cell death.

Microplastics also provide attachment sites for harmful bacteria and contaminants.

Plastic additives like BPA and phthalates leach from debris into food and water sources.

These toxicants cause cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive issues, and birth defects.

Illegal dumping of plastic waste exposes marginalized communities to high pollution levels.

Globally, plastic pollution costs the economy billions annually in beach cleanups, reduced tourism, and impacts on fishing and shipping.

Plastic clogs street drains, exacerbating urban flooding during extreme weather.

It also causes respiratory issues through airborne microplastics and when burned.

Our reliance on single-use plastics is inextricably tied to public health risks.

What Environment is Most Affected By Plastic Pollution?

Marine ecosystems are the most severely affected by plastic pollution.

Up to 12.7 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year.

Coastal environments bear the brunt of plastic accumulation.

Densely populated coastal regions contribute more plastic waste mismanaged on land.

Surface currents and gyres spread plastics across the oceans.

Plastics degrade into microparticles that sink to the seafloor, harming organisms at all water depths.

The effects span from the Arctic to Antarctica.

Even remote, uninhabited islands have plastic waste washing up on their shores.

Coastal wetlands, mangrove forests, and estuaries are also affected.

These critical buffer ecosystems become inundated with plastic debris.

Additionally, urban stormwater runoff contributes microplastics to inland waterways.

Though less studied, lakes, rivers, and streams suffer the impacts of plastic pollution.

In Summary

Plastic pollution severely impacts nearly every ecosystem on Earth.

It leaches toxins, transports invasive species, and contributes to climate change.

As plastics break down into smaller pieces, they enter food chains, accumulating dangerous concentrations up trophic levels.

This poses threats not only to marine life but to human health as seafood consumers.

Curbing plastic waste requires a massive scale-up of public education, corporate responsibility, and political action.

But our effort is well worth it to preserve healthy ecosystems for generations to come.


How long does plastic last in the ocean?

Plastic debris can persist in the marine environment for decades to hundreds of years before degrading. The lifespan depends on the type of plastic polymer, exposure to UV light, and physical abrasion. More durable plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene can endure over 50 years in the ocean.

Does plastic sink or float?

Initially, most plastic waste floats at the ocean surface. But over time, biofilm formation and fouling by organisms cause the plastic to sink. Denser plastics like PVC also readily sink. This plastic still poses risks to marine life. Deep sea sediments are becoming contaminated with microplastics that sink.

Can plastic pollution be cleaned up?

Large-scale plastic cleanup is extremely difficult due to plastic particles diffusing across massive ocean regions. Many technologies are being developed and tested to help extract plastics from the seas. But the most effective solution is preventing plastic from entering oceans in the first place through reduced usage and improved waste management.

Are there bacteria that break down plastic?

A few bacterial species can break down plastic polymers through enzymatic degradation. Ideonella sakaiensis breaks down PET plastic using a PETase enzyme. Pseudomonas bacteria secrete enzymes that degrade polyethylene. However, these processes are slow and unable to make major dents in the vast accumulation of ocean plastic. Reducing plastic production remains imperative.

Can we turn plastic waste into fuel?

Plastic waste, including hard-to-recycle polyethylene and polypropylene, can be converted into synthetic gas or oil through processes like pyrolysis and thermal depolymerization. These liquid hydrocarbon fuels could help reduce dependence on fossil fuels. However, plastic-to-fuel systems are still expensive and energy-intensive. Eliminating single-use plastics and excess packaging remains a priority.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about the natural world and protecting the environment for future generations. We provide informative content to raise awareness about pressing issues like plastic pollution and wildlife conservation. Please visit our website to learn more about sustainability, ecology, and how you can take action to preserve nature.

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