Plastic pollution harms us in ways we didn’t expect

Plastics can be found almost everywhere. They can be found in our water, in the food and even in the air we breathe. They can be found in glaciers far away and deep in the ocean.

(Photo: Getty Images)

In addition, plastic is mainly made up of carbon, which is released into the environment when waste breaks down. When Aron Stubbins was organizing lectures on the earth’s carbon cycle, he decided to examine how much carbon plastics contribute to the natural systems of our earth.

Stubbins, professor of marine and environmental sciences, chemistry and chemical biology, and civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern, said what he discovered was “surprising”. “It was obvious that plastics now make up a large proportion of carbon in some environments. There is just as much plastic carbon in certain ecosystems as there is natural carbon. “

Plastic in carbon pollution

Plastic pollution

(Photo: Tom Fisk)

Stubbins turned to other scientists researching plastics and natural sediment cycles to make his estimates and study the consequences.

With their help, Stubbins created a diagram of the global plastic-carbon process and a calculation of how much carbon-plastics contribute to the ecosystems they contaminate. Last week, their results were published in the journal Science.

Stubbins explains: “In addition to the natural carbon cycle, we have introduced a new carbon cycle made of plastic.” According to him, the consequences of this are not yet known.

Still, the large amount of carbon brought into the natural world through plastic pollution could have an impact on all life forms, ecosystems, and even the planet’s climate.

Related article: The Secret Seafood Ingredient: Microplastic

Increase in plastic production

Plastic waste

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By 1950 the manufacture and use of plastics became more serious. By 1962, the amount of carbon in plastics had exceeded the total amount of carbon found in all people in the world, according to Stubbins.

In 1994, the amount of carbon extracted from plastic exceeded the total amount of the chemical element in all mammals. After all, we are all carbon-based organisms. He replies: “The plastics just pile up.”

Carbon derived from plastic is found in various habitats around the world. However, some of the most important accumulations occur in the surface waters of subtropical ocean eddies, where ocean currents circulate in such a way that floating debris collects in a patch.

And, according to Stubbins, such parts of the ocean are naturally low in carbon. So if the plastics that end up there dissolve and release carbon into the ecosystem, the chemistry there could change dramatically.

Climate change

It’s also possible that it will change the climate, he says. Because the exchange of substances between the ocean and the atmosphere is supported by a thin layer on the surface of the world’s oceans. The aerosols and trace gases from this exchange can “alter atmospheric chemistry, which can affect the climate,” he adds. “So if there is a significant concentration of plastics in this layer on the ocean surface, it can have consequences for the lower atmosphere.”

According to Stubbins, having so much carbon from plastic could ruin scientists’ calculations as they attempt to understand the natural carbon cycle and climate change. “We believe that we only recognize natural organic substances. So if we also measure plastics, our results would be distorted.” We must therefore bear in mind that especially in these systems, plastics can be contained in our samples. “

Plastic sediments


(Photo: Paula Bronstein / Stringer / GETTY IMAGES)

According to Samuel Muoz, Associate Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences, and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern, there is still a lot to learn about how plastics affect the earth’s natural processes. He is particularly interested in how the movement of sediments changes the planet when plastic particles are mixed in.

“We have been trying to understand how silt migrates through the ecosystem for more than a century,” he says. “And now there are all these other things that matter in some areas. However, the processes by which it moves will be different. It will at times float rather than sink. It can sometimes blow up more easily. That is not always like that. ” settle in a column of water as quickly as sediment. “

“Yes, plastics are everywhere,” adds Muoz, “but we don’t know a lot about them.” “I almost see this study as a call to arms to scientists” to find out how this substance affects Earth’s systems in a variety of ways.

Also read: Enzymes from cow stomachs contain beneficial microorganisms that can recycle plastic

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