Christmas is just around the corner, and the shopping stampede is on. From vacuum cleaners to tinsel to electronic gadgets, most objects that people buy are made of plastic. Our plastic dependency seems to grow, despite increased awareness of the effects on health and the environment.

Last week, researchers from the 5 Gyres Institute published the first-ever global estimate of ocean plastic pollution: More than five trillion plastic pieces weighing over 268,000 tons. All in the ocean, all affecting life in one way or another and accounting for just 0.1 percent of the plastic manufactured in the world.

Image Credit: Daniela Ginta

Image Credit: Daniela Ginta

Some researchers estimate that less than half of what is produced ends up in the landfills (not a solution either), while the rest is in the ocean.

A chilling report published in Nature on December 17 shows that floating plastic is but part of the story. Samples taken in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean revealed that tiny plastic bits are embedded in the regions’ corals and and sediment. That amounts to a staggering four billion bits of fiber per square kilometer of sea bed in that area.

As for the other areas that have yet to be analyzed, chances are they carry the same non-degradable load, with areas close to highly populated regions believed to harbor even higher densities of plastic particles.

And more is coming. Christmas and Boxing Day add to the trouble, as far as consumption and garbage are concerned. But even if the holidays were shopping-free, the amount of plastic objects surrounding us on a regular basis is staggering.

About 288 million tons of plastic is produced annually around the globe, and only ten percent is being recycled.

Beyond the annoying accumulation of waste in landfills, plastic also carries health risks. Plastic products contain chemicals such as phthalates, known endocrine disruptors, that leach into food from plastic containers, especially when they are microwaved. From young to old, people eat out of plastic and end up ingesting plasticizers such as phthalates and bisphenol A on a regular basis. These chemicals are ubiquitous in such things as toys, household objects, dental and medical equipment and food storage and packaging.

Improper disposal of plastic leads to such chemicals leaching into the ground and going on to impact wildlife and plants alike. Recent research has shown phthalates were found in the essential oils of medicinal plants, thus forcing us to reconsider the way such products are being scrutinized for purity and lack of environmental pollutants.

For the lost-at-sea bits of plastic, the threat extends past the actual bits. Plastic, wherever it is found, attracts various oil-soluble pollutants, and the result is a population of chemically-loaded plastic bits that are a serious danger to the environment and wildlife.

Where to from here? Plastic dependency has to be tapered somehow. It’s a long way back and the path ahead does not look bright if nothing changes. If every little bit counts, then that’s where we have to start.

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