Monitoring and tackling plastic pollution

Plastics are ubiquitous in society, but poor disposal leads to widespread pollution especially in the rivers and oceans. How is this pollution monitored? What are some of the effects? How might we help tackle this pollution?

Plastics help keep our food and drink fresh, lightweight vehicles to save fuel, maintain sterile environments, and insulate buildings. So society uses an increasing amount of plastic materials each year and many of these are single-use or only used for a short lifetime. As a result this leads to a growing waste management challenge for society due to their low value.

The careless disposal of plastic items means they find their way into the natural environment and may become widely dispersed. In particular, plastics are frequently deposited in our rivers and oceans, as shown in the image to the left.

A key property that makes plastics suitable for many applications, in particular in packaging, is their ability to prevent the ingress of water and to be resistant to the attack of bacteria. Unfortunately these properties also lead to plastics being difficult to be broken down or degraded under many natural environmental conditions. Consequently if carelessly discarded in the environment plastics will last for a long time, (as shown below) and begin to accumulate.

Image: copyright of NOAA.

As an introduction to plastic pollution and how it is monitored watch the video below. In particular note the discussion on plastics at the end of their life, their appearance and the sizes of those that are collected.

Plastic pollution in the rivers and oceans

Video: copyright of the BBC/ Bang Goes the Theory (Series 7, episode 1. 4th March 2013).
  • In the Video above, why are there growing concerns about the smaller plastic particles?
  • These can become trapped and retained. They may also act as a vector to transport chemicals to the creatures that ingest them. This affects both creatures in the seas, beaches and consequently may influence our food chain.

The term microplastics has been coined for plastic fragments that have dimensions smaller than 5mm and many of these were seen in the previous video. Due to their small size many marine species can ingest microplastics, even such small creatures as zooplankton (Botterell et al., 2019) upon which other sea creatures feed. This provides a pathway into our food chain, for instance plastic debris has been found in fish and shellfish (Rochman et al, 2015).

It is noteworthy that this same study also found fibres from synthetic (i.e. plastic) textiles in some fish samples from the USA. Such fibres may well have originated from laundry and passed through wastewater treatment plants, which members of the public may not have considered as a source of plastic pollution. Furthermore researchers have demonstrated that performing laundry can produce a large number of microfibers in the wastewater (Hartline et al., 2016).

It should be remembered that as members of society we can all have an influence on plastic pollution in the products we buy, how we use them and how we dispose of them.

It is clear from our discussion so far that plastic pollution is a significant challenge and one that scientists are continuing to research. However scientists, engineers and technologists are also researching ways to tackle plastic pollution by developing more environmentally friendly plastics. For instance a recent study compared the degradation of several biodegradable polyesters in both freshwater and seawater finding that only one example showed 100% degradation under the test conditions after 1 year (Bagheri et al., 2017). This highlights that it is a complicated issue for society though, as some of the biodegradable polyesters tested would degrade if composted under appropriate industrial composting conditions due to the elevated temperatures and the presence of a greater number of bacteria.

Image: copyright of the BBC.

Starch film derives from a natural polymer and is increasingly being modified for use in plastic packaging applications. However again it should be disposed of in an appropriate manner, particularly as starch based bioplastic carrier bags were shown to degrade in soil or compost but were very slow to degrade in seawater (Accinelli et al., 2012).

It should be remembered that as members of society we can all have an influence on plastic pollution in the products we buy, how we use them and how we dispose of them. Notably we are all able to adopt a responsible approach and so try to better satisfy the three R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle where plastics are concerned especially around the issues of littering and pollution in our rivers and oceans.

Dr Simon Collinson is a Lecturer at The Open University. This article was previously published on OpenLearn in March 2019.

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