Plastics can be found in your car tires, clothing, food wrappers, disposable water bottles, paint and even some tea bags. Often, plastics offer convenience in our busy lives, and they are cheap and disposable. But what happens to the plastic we discard?
The honest answer: most plastics are added to landfills, where they will take decades or centuries to break down. Despite producing more plastic each year, the trend for recycling plastics is decreasing, with 83.6 million tons of plastic released to the environment each year. Ultimately, most plastic pollution is washed into the oceans, where it sinks to the ocean floor or accumulates at the ocean surface.
The plastic materials are broken down into smaller pieces, called microplastics. These smaller plastic particles are lighter than larger plastic debris, making it easier to transport them in the environment and expanding the area they can impact.
There are shocking images of dissected fish stomachs full of small plastic particles, but the effects of microplastics on wildlife is just the start of the issue. Because of their small size, microplastics are extremely difficult to clean up and can carry more toxins than larger plastic debris.
All of this leads to not only the presence of a long-term pollutant, but the presence of a pollutant that is globally transported, difficult and costly to remove, and potentially carries large amounts of toxic chemicals with it in the environment.