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Plastic pollution is defined as the accumulation of the different types of plastic material on land, as well as in water bodies like rivers, oceans, canals, lakes, etc. As a commodity, it is used on a large scale all around the world. Basically, it is a synthetic polymer that consists of many organic and inorganic compounds, and is mostly derived from petrochemicals like olefins. Plastic materials are mainly classified as thermoplastics (polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride) and thermosetting polymers (polyisoprene). Apart from these, they can also be classified as biodegradable, engineering, and elastomer plastics. Although they are extremely useful in many ways, and have been an important part of the global polymer industry, their production as well as disposal, pose a great threat to all the life forms on Earth.

Plastic generally degrades in about 500 - 1000 years, though we may never know its actual degradation time, as this material has been in long-term use only since the last century. During its manufacture, many hazardous chemicals are emitted that can lead to dreadful diseases in humans as well as other animals. Ethylene oxide, xylene, and benzene are some of the chemical toxins present in plastic, which can have hazardous effects on the environment. It is not easy to dispose it off, and it can cause permanent harm to living beings. Several additives found in plastic, such as phthalates, adipates, and even alkylphenols, have been recognized as toxic materials. Vinyl chloride, which is used in the manufacturing of PVC pipes, is classified as a carcinogen.

Causes
  • As plastic is less expensive, it is overused. When it is disposed off in landfill sites, it does not decompose at a fast rate, and hence pollutes the land or soil in that area.
  • Most people tend to throw plastic bottles and polythene bags away, even after a single use. This drastically increases its pollution rate on land as well as in the oceans, mainly in the developing and underdeveloped countries.
  • Plastic bags, plastic bottles, discarded electronic components, toys, etc., clog the water bodies like canals, rivers, and lakes, especially in the urban areas.
  • Every year, about 100 million tons of plastic are produced all over the world. Out of this, 25 million tons of non-degradable plastic gets accumulated in the environment.
  • Out of the entire quantity of solid municipal wastes in the US, about 20% consists of plastic and associated harmful polymers. About USD 50 million is the value of the US plastic industry.
  • Approximately 70,000 tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans and seas, globally. Discarded fishing nets and other synthetic material are eaten by terrestrial as well as aquatic animals, by mistaking them for jellyfish or food, leading to the bio-accumulation of plastic inside their bodies. This can cause choking, ultimately leading to their death. Scores of fish and turtles die every year because of this.
Effects
  • The rural areas are more prone to this type of pollution and the related effects, as a majority of the people from these areas use plastic on a large scale.
  • Many stray animals end up eating plastic bags and bottles due to improper disposal systems, and this can cause their death.
  • During the rainy season, the plastic rubbish that has fallen on the road gets washed away into the nearby water reservoirs, canals, and drains, leading to their choking up and overflowing. Also, the water quality gets spoiled due to the addition of these synthetic materials.
  • When dumped in landfills, plastic materials interact with water and form hazardous chemicals. If these compounds seep down towards groundwater aquifers, they degrade the water quality, leading to groundwater pollution.
  • Plastic pollution in marine water bodies leads to innumerable deaths of aquatic animals, and this also affects the aquatic plants to a considerable degree.
  • Blockage due to plastic accumulation may form breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other harmful vector insects, which might cause numerous diseases in humans.
  • The quality of drinking water on our planet is deteriorating, as plastic releases some toxic chemicals such as Styrene Trimer, Bisphenol A, and a by-product of Polystyrene. These products are worsening the drinking water situation with every passing day. Bisphenol A is a harmful chemical that damages the reproductive system of animals.
  • Bio-accumulation of plastic inside animals is one of the most recent effects of plastic pollution. Over many years, the accumulated plastic releases harmful chemicals, and also breaks down into small pieces, causing extreme discomfort to the animals. After their death, the body might decompose, but the plastic fragments may remain as a threat to other animals.
  • Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another, increasing the land litter. It also gets stuck on fences, trees, towers, buildings, etc., and any animal that comes in its vicinity might even get tangled in it and suffocate to death.
  • Burning plastic leads to contamination of the atmosphere, due to the release of poisonous chemicals, leading to air pollution. Recycling requires laborers, who are at the risk of developing skin and respiratory problems due to inhalation of toxic chemicals.
Solutions and Preventive Measures
  • Though commodities made of plastic are handy, it is time to become aware of the harm that plastic causes to life on Earth. Before the picture turns even more ugly, it is better that you take some effective preventive measures to reduce this type of pollution.
  • To bring a decline in its usage, start using paper or cloth bags for shopping and other purposes as much as possible, and avoid bringing plastic bags at home.
  • Understand the severity of the problem of plastic pollution, and know the consequences of dumping plastic in water and on land.
  • Ensure proper disposal of plastic.
  • Plastic which is disposed off can be recycled and used in many different ways such as for tote bags, wallets, or pouches. There are biodegradable plastic bags available, which can help to a considerable extent.
These changes might be gradual, and even less appealing against the problem; but taking small steps can greatly contribute to the reduction of plastic pollution. It is time for us to take some preventive steps, and ensure a better life for the future generations.