Making Sense of Plastic Pollution: Introducing Plastic Types in Human Life

Asia has been named as the most ocean polluter. According to a report from Jambeck et al (2015), 8 from the top 10 countries ranked by mass of mismanaged plastic waste are Asian countries. The rapid increase in consumer demand for safe disposable products using plastics packaging is the key reason complemented by inadequate solid waste management systems and bad behavior in littering the river that flows into the oceans.

Indonesia produced 65 million tons of solid waste in 2016 according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry data. Approximately 69 percent is landfilled, 7 percent are recycled and composted and 24 percent are illegally burned or irresponsibly disposed of (mismanaged). Among other solid waste, plastic is the one that so challenging to deal with. Indonesia contributes 1.49 MMT/year of plastic waste to the ocean and it was projected by Jambeck et al (2015) that in 2025 the amount will be slightly more than doubled.

Fortunately, the recognition to address this issue is growing as a part of an international effort to protect the environment. Some countries in the world provide plastic waste reduction programs such as taxation, thin plastic bags, as well as implementing technology and social engineering to change community behavior towards plastic waste. Some initiatives to prevent marine debris are supported by the establishment of Presidential Decree No. 83, 2018 about the National Plan of Action dealing the Marine Debris 2018-2025. The NPOA (National Plan of Action) is to tackle Marine Debris at the source through improvements in household waste management.

However, some studies show that currently many countries are facing the problem of knowledge gaps in societies. The public still underestimates the importance of the marine environment to society. They do not know what kind of plastics they use in daily life. This leads to the neglect of the plastic waste they produce. Whereas, when the societies become aware of the types of plastics they use and their disadvantages, the behavior can change dramatically with the implicit assumption that increasing public knowledge can lead to behavior change (McKinley and Fletcher, 2012). Some factors can create the knowledge gap such as the distance between the societies to the impacted area. People who live in urban areas with difficult and rare access to the coast may have indirect experience of this issue. 

In this article, I will show you how close humans with plastic either in terms of the use of plastic in daily life and how plastic pollution will influence human health. First of all, we have to know the types of plastic we use every day. According to Derraik (2002) and Thompson, et. Al (2009), plastics are synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymers that are cheap, lightweight, strong, durable, and corrosion-resistant. Therefore, plastic is utilized in daily needs start from packaging for our foods, bag for groceries, to pipes in our house. One of the plastic characteristics is their resistance and difficult to be degraded. Thus, single-use plastic waste creates a serious problem in our environment, especially to our ocean. The actual time that it takes for plastic to completely degrade in the marine environment remains unknown.

Human is the most plastic polluters due to their single-use of plastics in everyday life. However, many of us still do not recognize that. To increase your awareness, I bring you the types of plastic that commonly are used by humans and their effect. The most commonly used and abundant polymers/plastics are high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). These polymers are also the most commonly found plastics in the environment, especially in marine environments (Andrady, 2011; Engler, 2012). Due to their corrosion-resistant properties, most plastics are regarded as “hard-to-degrade” materials, which will persist in the environment for up to a century. Unfortunately, some people keep using these polymers without conscious of what are their effects.

We usually use HDPE plastic as detergent bottles, milk jugs, pipes, and tubes. HDPE release estrogenic chemicals resulting in changes in the structure of human cells (Ecology Center, 1996). The next commonly used plastic is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC can be found in shower curtains, flooring, to films. The side effect of PVC can lead to cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, to liver dysfunction (Ecology Center, 1996). The next type of plastics is polystyrene (PS) which we use every day as packaging foam, food containers, disposable cups, plates, and cutlery. When you use plastic cups and spoon for your food, you should remember that they have side effects on your health. The health effects of PS are irritating eyes, nose, and throat. PS also can migrate into foods and restored in fat (Ecology Center, 1996). People consume carbonated drinks and butter almost every day and commonly the bottles and jars are made by polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is potentially causing human carcinogens (Ecology Center, 1996).

From the above facts, we can see that the problem of plastics is not far from us as humans. The abundant portion of plastics in the human body can create health effects. If you argue that human is not consuming plastics, you should know types of plastics based on their size. Large plastic items, known as microplastics, have been reported in the marine environment since the early days of production (Derraik, 2002). Yes, you cannot ingest macro plastic, but how about the animals/fishes in the ocean? Ingestion of plastics mistaken as food is well documented in seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals (Jacobsen et al. 2010).  

The smaller types of plastics are classified as microplastics (5 mm – 100 nm), nano plastics (100 nm – 1 nm), and sub-nano plastic (<1 nm). According to Warring et al. (2018) plastic in micro and nano-size most likely to become internalized and cause direct harm to human health. Macro plastic found in marine and terrestrial environments can be degraded to micro and nanoparticles of plastic. These can enter the human body through the food chain by ingestion, particularly of crustaceans that we usually eat in our seafood. Even though plastic contamination of the food chain is unlikely to cause serious toxicity until high levels of contamination, the problem of tiny particle of plastics have recently drawn attention. 

It is time to be more concerned about our habit of using plastic. We should avoid single-use plastic as many as possible. The contamination of oceans by macroplastic that can be degraded into microplastics or even tinier is of concern not only because of the ecological impacts but also because they may compromise our food security, food safety, and consequently human health. 

 

Written by: Rio Alfajri, M.Sc.

Reference:

Jacobsen, J.K., Massey, L., and Gulland, F. (2010). Fatal ingestion of floating net debris by two sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Marine Pollution Bulletin, 60(15), 765-767

McKinley, E., & Fletcher, S. (2012). Improving marine environmental health through marine citizenship: a call for debate. Marine Policy36(3), 839-843.

Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., … & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science347(6223), 768-771.

Ministry of Environment and Forestry of Indonesia. 2017. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry of Indonesia Reduces 70% Marine Debris by 2025. http://ppid.menlhk.go.id/siaran_pers/browse/541, Accessed date: 12 Juni 2020

Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine pollution bulletin44(9), 842-852.

Thompson, R. C., Swan, S. H., Moore, C. J., & Vom Saal, F. S. (2009). Our plastic age.

Andrady, A. L. (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Mar. Pollut. Bull., 62(8): 1596-1605.

Engler, R. E. (2012). The complex interaction between marine debris and toxic chemicals in the ocean. Environmental science & technology46(22), 12302-12315.

Center, E. (1996). Plastic Task Force Report. Berkeley, CA.

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