Plastic waste is among the largest contributors to the pollution of the environment. Pollution of water resources means any changes in the physical, chemical, and biological properties of water in reservoirs due to the discharge of liquid, solid and gaseous substances into them, which cause or may cause inconvenience, making the water of these reservoirs dangerous for use, causing damage to the national economy, health, and public safety. Sources of pollution are objects from which hazardous substances are discharged or otherwise released into water bodies, deteriorating the quality of surface waters, limiting their use, and also negatively affecting the state of the bottom and coastal water bodies. The main reason lies within its core characteristics, which make plastic highly resilient to natural processes of degradation, especially biodegradation. The research question revolves around the notion of why plastic lingers, while other waste materials do not remain such a persistent source of pollution. The clues might lie in the fact that plastic is non-biodegradable, can leak to the environment at various stages of product lifecycles, have specific waste circulation patterns, which are further propagated by oceanic currents.
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Plastic Is Not Biodegradable
It is important to note that one of the key properties of the plastic material is that it is non-biodegradable. The given material is primarily made of polyethylene terephthalate or PET, which makes it highly resilient, durable, and indestructible (Andreeßen and Steinbüchel 2019). Although they are biodegradable alternatives, which can be degraded into biomass, carbon dioxide, or water. However, more than half of all plastic materials are made to be non-biodegradable because they are commercially advantageous due to the cost, durability, and resilience to harsh conditions (Andreeßen and Steinbüchel 2019). An object becomes non-biodegradable due to it being inorganic, which cannot be consumed or targeted by bacteria since the latter is the main driver of degradation or decomposition processes. Most biodegradable materials are objects, which can be consumed and digested by organisms, including microorganisms. The examples can include dead plant and animal materials and their derivatives, such as paper.
Another major contributing factor to plastics’ lingering capabilities is the fact that they can enter the environment at various stages of a product’s lifecycle. In other words, one should be aware that plastic does not become waste after the source was utilized because microplastics can cause pollution throughout the use of the product (Rochman, Cook, and Koelmans 2016). The given form of plastic material is comprised of particles smaller than 5mm in size, and it is a major threat to the aquatic environment (Schuhen and Sturm 2020). Primary sources of microplastic are microbeads, which are highly used in cleaning agents, cosmetics products, and fiber elements of clothing items, which contaminate the water during the washing process (Schuhen and Sturm 2020). However, the secondary group of microplastics is a result of the natural break down of plastic material from larger to smaller pieces (Schuhen and Sturm 2020). In other words, large plastic elements break into smaller parts due to physical, chemical, biological, or mechanical forces, which generate microplastics.
Ocean Currents and Gyres Circulate Plastic
Although plastic is a highly resilient material in itself and can enter at various stages of the product lifecycle, it is also important to important how its movement patterns contribute to pollution. The circulation processes of plastic material in aquatic environments are mainly driven by ocean currents and gyres (Monteiro, Ivar do Sul, and Costa 2018). In other words, one source of plastic pollution can have polluting effects on the entire water ecosystems because plastic and microplastics are capable of traveling long distances due to the movement patterns of oceans and related forces. For example, storms can transfer the given material from urban areas to coastal waters, from where it can proceed, polluting the entire aquatic environment. In addition, oceanic plastic pollution is worsened by the fact that illegal dumping takes place. The manufacturing process can also be considered as a major plastic pollution contributor since it created landfills, from which plastic can travel to aquatic environments through the wind.
Sinking into Benthic Zones
Lastly, plastic pollution lingers for significantly longer in comparison to other waste materials because it does not necessarily float or remain on the surface of the aquatic environments. Although gyres and oceanic currents are responsible for the movement of plastic debris, certain zones can be prone to become an accumulation site for the wastes, where it results in sinking and contamination of deeper zones of the water body. It is stated that plastic debris and microplastic particles are common in the benthic zones of certain aquatic sites, which severely damages the local biodiversity and results in the disappearance of vulnerable species (D’Alessandro, Esposito, Porporato, Berto, Renzi, Giacobbe, Scotti, Consoli, Valastro, Andaloro, and Romeo 2018). It is important to note that the benthic zone is the lowest ecological layer of the water environment, whereas the surface level is called the photic zone. The upper layer is the most abundant with life, which plays an essential role in providing nutrients for organisms of the benthic zone through the process of sedimentation. The presence of plastic debris and microplastics in the latter area and loss of biodiversity indicates that plastic waste can sink and pollute the aquatic ecosystem vertically (D’Alessandro, Esposito, Porporato, Berto, Renzi, Giacobbe, Scotti, Consoli, Valastro, Andaloro, and Romeo 2018). Therefore, plastic pollution is more likely to linger for longer due to its capabilities of sedimentation.
In conclusion, plastic waste lingers, and other material wastes do not because there are four major contributing factors. First, plastic is more durable than other materials due to its non-biodegradability, where microorganisms are unable to consume it since it is inorganic. Second, plastic can enter the environment at various stages of a product’s lifecycle in the form of microplastics, which can be categorized into primary and secondary groups. Third, plastic waste can relocate due to natural forces, such as oceanic gyres and currents, and it also can access the coastal waters through winds and storms. Fourth, plastic waste can contaminate the aquatic environment in a vertical manner, where deeper water zones can be polluted through sedimentation of microplastics and plastic debris. Therefore, it is important to conduct researches on microorganisms, which will be able to degrade plastic by consuming inorganic substances. It is necessary to develop wastewater treatment methods as another way to combat a significant pollutant of the hydrosphere. Wastewater treatment is the treatment of wastewater to destroy or remove harmful substances from it. Cleaning methods should be appropriate and can be categorized as mechanical, chemical, and biological. The issue is of paramount importance since plastic pollution can have dire consequences on biodiversity, aquatic life, and water ecosystems, which will inevitably lead to societal damages.
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