Although we are often not aware of it we use plastic constantly in our everyday life. For example, the sandwich we had for lunch was wrapped in plastic. The tissue package in our bag is made of plastic. The Q-tip and the toothbrush we used this morning are made of plastic. The more you think about it the more you will recognize all the plastic around you.
It is estimated that 42 % of the globally produced plastic is used for packaging.
PET bottle: up to 450 years Plastic bag: up to 20 years Newspaper: up to 6 weeks The decomposition times are estimates, as it is still not fully clear how long it takes for plastic to decompose or if it ever totally disappears.
There are many different methods used by scientist to count plastic in the environment. Scientists collect and count plastic pieces by hand, with the help of a sieve or nets. In remote areas such as the deep sea they take pictures or videos with the help of submarines, so-called remotely operated vehicles (ROV). For small plastic pieces, microplastic particles, scientists use microscopes. Additionally, they can use the fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) which helps them to distinguish small organic particles from plastic particles and can even tell them what kind of plastic they are looking at. Some scientists look into the stomachs of dead fulmars. Fulmars are birds which only feed on water; this means all plastic found in their stomach must have been in the water before. Some scientists are developing special sensors which can count plastic particles automatically. This has a great advantage, firstly it is automated which means the results are always comparable as there is no human error. Secondly it allows us to take constant measurements in lots of different places at the same time.
Primary microplastic is from the outset used already in a size smaller than 5mm e.g. microbeads in cosmetics or plastic pellets. Secondary microplastic comes from larger plastic items which the sun and sea break down into smaller pieces.
A lot of different animals eat plastic intentionally or by accident, even the small ones such as plankton. Filter feeders such as corals, mussels or whales eat plastic by accident. It seems that fish, birds or turtles eat plastic because it looks or smells like their usual prey.
If animals eat plastic it might lead to injuries in their stomach or guts. If the plastic is not passed through their guts and is stuck in the stomach it can fill up the stomach and they can starve to death because they cannot take up enough real food. If animals get entangled in plastic they might starve or get eaten by a predator because they cannot move anymore. If the animal is an air-breather such as turtles or seals, they drown if they are caught and cannot go back to the surface.
Citizen Science means that scientist work together with the public on research projects to collect or analyze data. Citizen Science is great as it gives everyone who is interested the chance to be part of science.
There are plenty of ways to reduce your own plastic footprint. You could stop using plastic bags to carry your groceries and always bring your own bags or backpack when you go shopping. Stop using plastic cutlery, cups or plates when you’re having a party. Quit using plastic straws and other disposable plastics –there are often other great alternatives such as Bamboo straws. Bring your own reusable cup for your take-away coffee. Try to buy products which are not wrapped in plastic. Recycle your plastic waste. Avoid cosmetic products which contain microplastics. Try to use products that are made out of plastic for a longer period of time and try to repair them when they are break. Buy clothes that do not contain plastic fibers and try to wash them in a way in which the microfibers do not end up in the sewage.