Plastic’s problems extend beyond the human body, according to the report. More than one-third of all plastic is disposable packaging like bottles and bags, many of which end up littering the environment.
Although the image of a bird tangled in a plastic necklace is by now burned into the public’s eye, ingestion of plastic fragments is much more common. Once inside, plastic can pack a one-two punch by both clogging an animal’s stomach and poisoning it with chemicals that have concentrated in the plastic. Some chemicals are then transferred to the food web when animals eat them.
More than 180 species of animals have been documented to ingest plastic debris, including birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals, according to the report.
Unfortunately, collecting data on plasticizers’ impacts on wildlife suffers the same pitfalls as studying human health. Still, there is already evidence that chemicals associated plastics might harm wildlife.
For example, laboratory studies have shown that phthalates and BPA affect reproduction in all studied animal groups and impair development in crustaceans and amphibians.
“While there is clear evidence that these chemicals have adverse effects at environmentally relevant concentrations in laboratory studies, there is a need for further research to establish population-level effects in the natural environment,” according to the report.
Charles Tyler, a professor at the University of Exeter School of Biosciences in the United Kingdom and a senior author of the report, said that scientists have shown that “some of these chemical compounds are getting into the environment and are in some environments at concentrations where they can produce biological effects in a range of wildlife species.”
Traveling from coast to coast, plastic can endure for thousands of years due to the reduced UV exposure and lower temperatures of aquatic habitats.
Barnes demonstrates plastic’s mobility with his account of a plastic sighting during an expedition to the Amundsen Sea where he took biological samples, the first there ever. The Amundsen, located in the Pacific Sector of Antarctica, is the only sea in Antarctica with no research station on its coast and the nearest urban center thousands of miles away.
“Even for us, getting in was a challenge because there’s so much ice and it’s so difficult to get there,” said Barnes. “But even in that remotest of environments, there was plastic floating on the sea surface.
Plastic also serves as a floating transportation device that allows alien species to hitchhike to unfamiliar parts of the world, threatening biodiversity. Global warming further aids the process by making previously inhospitable areas like the Arctic livable for invasive species, which can be detrimental to local species.
For example, plastic items are commonly colonized by barnacles, tubeworms and algae. Along the shore of Adelaide Island, west of the Antarctic Peninsula, ten species of invertebrates were found attached to plastic strapping that was littering the ice.
“Raising the temperature just one degree can make the difference between getting to someplace and actually surviving once you get there,” said Barnes.
Plastic is so resilient that even burying it deep within the earth doesn’t keep it from impacting the environment. Currently it accounts for approximately 10 percent of generated waste, most of which is landfilled. But, as the report notes, placing plastics in a landfill may simply be storing a problem for the future, as plastic’s chemicals often sink into nearby land, contaminating groundwater.
In addition, production of plastics is a major user of fossil fuels. Eight percent of world oil production goes to manufacturing plastics.