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Are Plastic Straws Really Killing Sea Turtles?

It's no secret that plastic isn't great for the environment, but how sensationalized is this topic actually becoming?

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When I first saw a video of a sea turtle getting a plastic drinking straw removed from its nostril, I was obviously upset like any other viewer would be. I care a lot about the environment and about animal life and it was upsetting to see that a product of human consumption and ignorant waste was destroying precious parts of our world. I wholeheartedly jumped on the bandwagon of "plastic straws kill sea turtles!!!" but only knew about the issue from this video and what I heard from people or saw on social media. The whole topic of plastic waste into the ocean remained in the back of my mind until the recent pledge of Starbucks to stop using plastic straws in stores by 2020 reminded me of the issue.

As the topic of plastics and their pollution of the environment (largely the oceans) has become so recently powerful I decided to do some research of my own. If I was going to tell people to stop using plastic straws because they were killing sea turtles, I wanted to be sure that I wasn't just repeating everything I heard from social media.

Turns out, plastic straws are hurting sea turtles and other marine life, but a lot of what I thought about plastic waste was exaggerated (at least from what I had heard from others). Sea birds are the most impacted creature by plastic straws, not sea turtles. About 1 million or more seabirds die every year from ingesting plastic straws and choking on them. In research from recent scientific studies, 80-90% of seabirds have some kind of plastic inside of their stomachs. Also, the ecological footprint that plastic straws alone leave on the planet is actually pretty small compared to food waste or fossil fuels.

However, all the buzz about sea turtles may come from the fact that globally 86% of sea turtle species are known to be affected by plastic debris. Overwhelming amounts of plastic garbage in the ocean have caused a steady decline of the leatherback sea turtle over the past several years, so much that they have been placed on the endangered species list. Plastics can hinder eating and consumption, breathing abilities, and even reproductive capabilities of all kinds of sea turtles.

So while plastic straws may not be killing sea turtles in hordes, they are killing sea birds, and plastic overall have caused huge and deadly effects to many sealife species. We have known that plastic is bad for the environment and the oceans for quite a while, given the fact that the Great Garbage Patch was discovered almost 20 years ago, so it's more than time to start caring about the problem. If we can eliminate single-use plastic straws that aren't biodegradable, we can stop using other single-use plastics and make a better effort to reduce our harmful impacts on the oceans. Individually, we can move towards small changes, which can move our society to a more sustainable and healthy place. If you are more interested in this topic, I would suggest reading about how you can make a change or looking at this article and checking out this scientific journal.

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Vinicius Amano

@viniciusamano

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Berkeley Lab Breakthrough Brings Hope For Recyclable Plastics

Facing pressures to stop the build-up of plastic, there's finally renewed hope.

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A potential solution to recycling plastics has been found at Berkeley Lab by scientists who published their findings in Nature Chemistry. We currently face a $2.5 trillion impact from plastic pollution worldwide. Not only has this negatively affected the global ecosystem, other impacted areas include fisheries, recreation, and heritage. What's more, only 9.1% of plastics made in the U.S. in 2015 were recycled, down from 9.5% the previous year.

Traditional plastics can't be recycled due to their chemical composition which puts a strain on the recycling system.

Ultimately, plastics are disposed of which harms ecosystems and animals and clogs up waterways, or burned which releases CO2 emissions. Plastics are disposed of rather than recycled as they are a byproduct of petroleum, made of molecules known as polymers, which are made of compounds containing carbon, known as monomers. When the chemicals and the plastic are combined for commercial use, the monomers bind with the chemicals. The process at the recycling plant becomes difficult because without being able to adequately separate the chemicals and the monomers, the results of the new products are unpredictable.

This is where the Berkeley Lab breakthrough becomes important. The scientists discovered a new way to assemble the plastics at a molecular level and reuse them into new materials of any color, shape or form. It's called PDK

Also known as poly(diketoenamine), this new plastic material could reverse the pile-up of plastics at recycling plants because, at a chemical level, the carbon-based molecules and polymers are reversible through an acid bath process.

Lead author Peter Christensen, on why the study was needed and why this breakthrough is important, is because "most plastics were never made to be recycled." The goal with this product is to create a circular lifeline for plastic where it can be recycled and used for numerous products like adhesives, phone cases, and computer cables.

Since PDK only exists in the lab, for now, it is important to remember that progress doesn't happen overnight. Brett Helms, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry, is excited about this breakthrough because of the "opportunity to make a difference for where there are no recycling options." However, the landscape is looking grim. Despite the efforts of countries to curb and stop the use of plastic, the amount of plastic is still increasing and spreading. Therefore, it is our job to continue to recycle and continue our current efforts, until PDK becomes readily available for commercial use.

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