Plastic pollution causes great harm to all organisms that encounter it, whether they are big or small, terrestrial or aquatic. The major threats caused by plastic waste are ingestion and entanglement, and when coupled together, these threats become fatal. Entanglement occurs when plastic – particularly plastic bags, plastic bottle caps or rope – gets caught around animals and causes strangulation, suffocation or starvation.
Marine life tends to be more vulnerable to entanglement as drifting plastic can easily latch to animals as they swim by. 700 marine species alone have been killed by plastic entanglement, which is an increase of 40% over the past decade. Ingestion, being the other large problem caused by plastic pollution, often occurs because animals mistake plastic debris as a potential food source.
Turtles, seals, seabirds, fish, whales and dolphins are examples of some of the most susceptible forms of sea life affected by this issue, resulting in over 100 million deaths per year. Even if plastics become somewhat degraded or broken down, it still leaves particles, known as microplastics, which can be even more harmful to terrestrial and aquatic life as it makes it easier for the debris to enter their system. The ingestion of plastic causes ulceration of the animal’s stomach, making them feel full and preventing them from eating real food.
As well as this, toxic chemicals on the surface of plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride and bisphenol A, transfer into the food chain and work their way up as prey is eaten. This can impact on humans as we consume these contaminated fish and mammals and are therefore affected by the pollutants. Toxins such as lead, cadmium and mercury have been found in the systems on many fish, and these can be very dangerous for humans (Andrews, 2018). Exposure to chemicals such as these is directly linked to cancers, reproductive problems, nervous system and kidney damage, birth defects and childhood developmental issues.