Unseen Passage: Plastic Pollution

All of Earth’s oceans share one thing in common: plastic pollution. Discarded plastic bags, cups, and bottles make their way into the sea. Today, it seems that no part of the ocean is safe from plastic trash. In recent years, oceanographers have searched in vain for a pristine marine environment. They have found plastic everywhere they have looked. “It is a common global problem, we can’t point to a single habitat or location with no plastic.”

Plastic harms wildlife and introduces dangerous chemicals into marine ecosystems — communities of organisms interacting with their surroundings. Once plastic enters the environment, it lasts a long time. Scientists are working to prevent plastic pollution from entering the sea.

When people litter, or when trash is not properly disposed of, things like plastic bags, bottles, straws, foam beverage cups get carried to the sea by winds and waterways. About 80 percent of ocean plastic originates on land. The rest comes from marine industries, such as shipping and fishing.

In 2015, engineer Jenna Jamback at the University of Georgia and other researchers calculated that at least 8 million tons of plastic trash is swept into the ocean from coasts every year. That’s the equivalent of a full garbage truck of plastic being dumped into the sea every minute. If current trends in plastic production and disposal continue, that figure will double by 2025. A report published by the World Economic Forum last year predicts that by 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all the fish in the sea.

In today’s world, plastic is everywhere. It’s found in shoes, clothing, household items electronics, and more. There are different types of plastics, but one thing they all have in common is that they are made of polymers – large molecules made up of repeating units. Their chemical structure gives them a lot of advantages: they are cheap and easy to manufacture, lightweight, water-resistant, durable, and can be moulded into nearly any shape.

Unfortunately, some of the properties that make plastics great for consumer goods also make them a problem pollutant. Plastic’s durability comes in part from the fact that unlike paper or wood, it doesn’t biodegrade, or break down naturally. Instead it just fragments, or breaks into tiny pieces over time. These tiny pieces, known as microplastic, can potentially stick around for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years.

Another problem with plastics is the other chemicals they contain, like dyes and flame retardants. When plastic isn’t disposed of properly, these additives end up in the environment. Plastic also tends to absorb harmful chemicals from its surroundings. “It’s like a sponge for persistent organic pollutants.” These long lasting, toxic substances include pesticides and industrial chemicals. If plastic absorbs the chemicals, and marine organisms eat the plastic, they may be exposed to higher concentrations of these contaminants.

One of the biggest impacts of plastic pollution is its effect on sea life. Seals, sea turtles, and even whales can become entangled in plastic netting. They can starve to death if the plastic restricts their ability to move or eat. Or the plastic can cut into the animals’ skin, causing wound that develop severe infections.

Sea turtles eat plastic bags and soda-can rings, which resemble jellyfish, their favourite food. Seabirds eat bottle caps or chunks of foam cups. Plastic pieces may make an animal feel full, so it does not eat enough real food to get the nutrients it needs. Plastic can also block an animal’s digestive system making it unable to eat.

Plastic and its associated pollutants can even make it into our own food supply. Scientists recently examined fish and shell-fish bought at markets in California and Indonesia. They found plastic in the guts of more than a quarter of samples purchased at both locations. In organisms that people eat whole, such as sardines and oysters, that means we are eating plastic too. In larger fish, chemicals from plastic may seep into their muscles and other tissues that people consume.

One way to keep the ocean cleaner and healthier is through cleanup efforts. A lot of plastic waste caught in ocean currents eventually washes up on beaches. Removing it can prevent it from blowing out to sea again. Beach clean-up is ocean clean-up.

Cleanup efforts can’t reach every corner of the ocean or track every bit of microplastic. That means it’s critical to cut down on the amount of plastic that reaches the sea in the first place. Scientists are working toward new materials that are safer for the environment. For example, Jambeck and her colleagues are currently testing a new polymer that breaks down more easily in seawater.

“Individual actions make a big difference,” says Jambeck. Disposing of plastic properly for recycling or trash collection is a key step. “And simple things like reusable water bottles, mugs, and bags really cut down on waste”, she says. Skipping straws or using paper ones helps too. Ocean pollution can seem overwhelming, but it’s something everyone can help address. This is a problem we can really do something about.

Q. On the basis of your understanding of the above passage, answer each of the questions given below by choosing the most appropriate option.

  1. Percentage of ocean plastic that originates from land is:
    (a) 20% (b) 50% (c) 80% (d) 25%
  2. In which year did Jenna Jambeck and other researchers calculate that at least 8 million tons of plastic trash is swept into ocean every year?
    (a) 2018 (b) 2015 (c) 2005 (d) 2010
  3. Plastic is not biodegradable because it is made up of:
    (a) low atomic particles (b) tiny particles (c) strong big particles (d) large molecule polymers
  4. Sea turtles eat:
    (a) plastic bottles (b) plastic bags and soda-can rings (c) bottle caps (d) chunks of foam cups
  5. Scientists bought fish and shell-fish for examination at markets in:
    (a) China and Russia (b) Pakistan and Afghanistan (c) California and Indonesia (d) Australia and Brazil

Answer

  1. 80%
  2. 2015
  3. large molecule polymers
  4. plastic bags and soda-can rings
  5. California and Indonesia

Q. Answer the following questions briefly.

  1. Which articles made of plastic generally cause pollution in the sea?
  2. How does plastic in oceans harm marine ecosystems?
  3. How is microplastic formed? (iv) Why is plastic compared to a sponge?
  4. What is the biggest impact of plastic pollution on sea life?
  5. How are scientists trying to reduce the plastic pollutants?

Answer

  1. Discarded plastic bags, cups and bottles generally cause pollution in the sea.
  2. Plastic introduces dangerous chemicals into marine ecosystems which last a long time.
  3. Plastic is non-biodegradable. It breaks into very small pieces over the time. These tiny pieces of plastic are known as microplastic.
  4. Since plastic is able to absorb harmful chemicals from its surroundings it has been compared to sponge.
  5. The biggest impact of plastic pollution on sea life is the effect it has on marine animals. It can injure them, suffocate them, block their digestive system, starve them to death, etc.
  6. In order to reduce the plastic pollutants, scientists are working towards new materials that are much safer for the environment.

Q. Answer any three of the following questions in 25-30 words each:

  1. How does plastic waste enter the oceans?
  2. How is it true to say that plastic is everywhere in today’s world?
  3. Which property of plastic makes it a problem pollutant?
  4. What has scientist Jambeck suggested for having cleaner and healthier oceans?

Answer

  1. When trash, such as plastic bags, bottles, straws, foam beverage cups, etc. are not properly disposed off, they get carried to sea either by wind or water. A lot of plastic waste enter the oceans through marine industries.
  2. It is true that in today’s world plastic is everywhere. It is found in shoes, clothing, household items, electronics, etc. Plastic and its pollutants have even entered into our food. Chemicals from plastic may enter into the muscles and tissues of the animals consumed by people.
  3. The fact that plastic is non-biodegradable makes it a problem pollutant. Instead of breaking down naturally, plastic takes a long time to break into tiny pieces called micorplastic. This microplastic remains intact for hundreds of thousands of years.
  4. For having cleaner and healthier oceans, scientist Jamback has suggested cleanup efforts. All the plastic waste, which are carried by the ocean currents washes up on beaches. Removing it from the beach prevents the waste from entering the ocean again. In addition to that, proper disposal of plastic waste for recycle or trash collection, using reusable water bottles, mugs, and bags certainly cut down on waste.

Q. Pick out the words/phrases from the passage which are similar in meaning to the following:

  1. unspoiled (para 1)
  2. long lasting (para 5)
  3. people working together (para 12)

Answer

  1. pristine
  2. durable
  3. colleagues

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