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The global issue of plastic trash nears a tipping point

Plastic trash is everywhere in the world today, found along roadsides, in lakes and rivers and washing out to sea. Plastic pollution has even created famous island features in the ocean. 

In 2016, estimates of the amount of plastic dumped into rivers and lakes reached nine to 23 million metric tons of the trash, roughly the same as found on land. If nothing changes, this is expected to nearly double by 2025. 

An international team of scientists wants to know whether we’re reaching a tipping point where the damage from plastic trash is irreversible.

“Plastic is deeply engrained [sic] in our society, and it leaks out into the environment everywhere, even in countries with good waste-handling infrastructure,” said study lead author Matthew MacLeod of Stockholm University.

Despite an increase in awareness of the plastic problem by individuals and governments, plastic pollution is growing. The researchers believe this is because the problem is a deep one involving politics and society that technology is not great enough to deal with. They say the root causes of the issue must be addressed. 

“In remote environments, plastic debris cannot be removed by cleanups, and weathering of large plastic items will inevitably result in the generation of large numbers of micro- and nanoplastic particles as well as leaching of chemicals that were intentionally added to the plastic and other chemicals that break off the plastic polymer backbone,” said study co-author Professor Annika Jahnke of UFZ.

“So, plastic in the environment is a constantly moving target of increasing complexity and mobility. Where it accumulates and what effects it may cause are challenging or maybe even impossible to predict.”

Many people believe that recycling is a solution, but there are very real limits to recycling technology. Even countries with the best recycling practices produce plastic trash. 

Plastic thus accumulates in the environment where it weathers slowly – a process not yet well understood. This leaves many questions unanswered about the impact of plastics worldwide. 

It is not known exactly what this accumulation of plastic trash will do. It’s possible that it will make climate change worse by disrupting natural systems that cycle carbon, and it’s very likely that the buildup of plastics will impact non-human organisms and hurt biodiversity. These are already two very real problems. Adding more plastic to them could be like throwing gasoline on a fire. 

“Right now, we are loading up the environment with increasing amounts of poorly reversible plastic pollution. So far, we don’t see widespread evidence of bad consequences, but if weathering plastic triggers a really bad effect we are not likely to be able to reverse it,” said MacLeod. 

“The cost of ignoring the accumulation of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous. The rational thing to do is to act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic to the environment.”

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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