How our Trash Affects the Whole Planet

Ever wondered what happens when you throw something away? In this post we’ll dive deep to learn more about how our trash affects the whole planet, to help understand what we do here, affects people, animals and the environment everywhere.

how our trash affects the whole planet
A landfill in the forest

When we trash food, plastic, paper and everything else, it must go somewhere, right? But often that somewhere is a place we we choose not to think about. The true story is that somewhere is actually everywhere: this is the story of how our  our trash affects the whole planet.

Learn more about how our trash affects the whole planet

Maybe you think your waste is going into a landfill, or to a recycling facility (most likely it’s not actually being recycled), and hopefully you compost your food waste to turn it into soil.

But unfortunately, even though some stuff is going to landfills or recycling, a majority of our waste ends up spreading itself around the globe, either by being transported by wind, water or human; by breaking down into smaller (even microscopic) parts, or by degrading into its chemical components. And these dispersal methods are damaging the health of the animals, people and ecosystems on this planet.

Some of the waste is accidental, no doubt. Whether it’s a hurricane that damages a city and sends debris across the ocean, which is what happened with the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster, or products falling off a shipping container in the middle of the ocean. But much of the problem lies in a corporate culture that is not responsible for waste or end-of-life concerns for products, and our need for continuously cheaper goods made from unsustainable, short-life expectancy products.

how our trash affects the whole planet
How does our single-use lifestyle affect the ecosystems of the planet?

When companies make products, they are not required to think about how it will end its life. For example, there are hundreds of chemicals used in the production of computers, mattresses, shoes, fishing nets and plastic water bottles, but once the company produces the product and sends it off for sale, they are not responsible for the end of that products life.

This has led companies to create products with untested chemicals with little concern for the outcome of the chemical body burden (the collection of everyday chemicals that our body absorbs over a lifetime). Many of these chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors, which can impair reproduction by mimicking or changing hormonal activity in animals and humans. Additionally, most products, including their chemical components, are made within a framework of planned obsolescence, meaning that it is designed for the dump, with little concern as to how it might affect the environment.

So how does this corporate irresponsibility play out? There are dozens of examples of how trash and chemicals make their way into our ecosystems, but here are some of the worst ways our trash affects the whole planet.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

First found by Charles Moore on a trans-Pacific sailing voyage, the Pacific Garbage Patch is an accumulation of plastics, fishing lines, and other marine and land debris that spans HUNDREDS of miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The PGP is the largest, but it’s not the only one– there are actually multiple garbage patches across the Pacific.

how our trash affects the whole planet
Pacific Garbage Patches map, image from NOAA

But the worst part? No one really knows how big the garbage patch truly is or what exactly comprises the patch; National Geographic says,

“No one knows how much debris makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl. In addition, not all trash floats on the surface. Denser debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex’s area nearly impossible to measure. About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year.”

This is an oceanic mess of an unprecedented degree. Because the billions of pounds of trash is dispersed over so much of the open ocean, it cannot be dragged in, and because it contains so many type of garbage- including microplastics that have broken down because of saltwater and sun exposure, some of it cannot even be gathered. And plastic never fully degrades, it just breaks down into a smaller and smaller pieces. According to the EPA, every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence.

This is the waste of our world, gathered together in what should be a totally pristine environment. And it affects everything, including the wildlife of the Pacific ocean and beyond. National Geographic says,

“Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for [jellyfish], their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resins for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs. Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded more often because of their low cost. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets—a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing.’”

Even though some companies are trying to make use of the plastics from the Garbage Patch, they remain a huge global mess that the mess is not contained to just the patches. The chemicals and broken down plastics that find their way into the ocean and into all of the ocean creatures.

Dangers to the Animal Kingdom

“In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. And every year, billions of pounds of plastic end up in the world’s oceans.”

This shocking fact is from the Center for Biological Diversity. Plastics, whether in the ocean or in other natural environments, are ingested by birds, fish and other animals. The plastics in their bodies causes irreparable harm, but there are also long-term effects to the animals higher on the food chain because of the chemical makeup of the plastics.

how our trash affects the whole planet
Plastic in dead sea bird

Most of the products we consume in our daily life are made with petrochemical (fossil fuel-based) plastics, which leech chemicals into the environment though irresponsible disposal or accidental means, like hurricanes. In marine environments, the plastics actually absorb dangerous pollutants like PCBs, DDT and PAH from the surrounding waters, meaning animals that ingest the plastics get a double dose of chemical ingredients.

The chemicals in plastics are well-documented and studied to have proven negative impacts on animal and human bodies. From the Breast Cancer Fund, here is a list of just some of the chemicals found in plastic:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most pervasive chemicals in modern life. It’s a building block of polycarbonate (#7 is often polycarbonate) plastic and is used in thousands of consumer products, including food packaging. BPA exposure may disrupt normal breast development in ways that predispose women for later life breast cancer.
  • Phthalates are a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in PVC or #3 plastic. Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer. Some phthalates also act as weak estrogens in cell culture systems
  • Vinyl chloride is formed in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or #3 plastic. It was one of the first chemicals designated as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It has also been linked to increased mortality from breast cancer among workers involved in its manufacture.
  • Dioxin is formed in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or #3 plastic. Dioxin has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a known human carcinogen, and is also an endocrine disruptor.
  • Styrene can leach from polystyrene or #6 plastic and is found in Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, carryout containers and opaque plastic cutlery. It has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a possible human carcinogen.

These chemicals are absorbed into any animal that ingests the plastic. These animals are then eaten by other, higher food chain animals or by humans. While many of the most dangerous chemicals have been phased out of use or production, they are still present in the marine environments, and thus present in the bodies of animals– including humans.

The Grasshopper Effect: persistent chemicals in our bodies

Everyone knows that breast milk is the best food for a newborn, but what if breast milk becomes so hazardous it could be considered a hazardous waste? Seems like science fiction, but it’s true for many of the Inuit people living in what should be a pristine natural environment.

The Inuit, the native people of Alaska, Greenland and Canada, live in an Arctic environment that bears few plants and vegetables, so the traditional diet is based on the sea. Sea vegetables, fish, birds and marine mammals make up the bulk of their diets. Because these animals bioaccumulate toxins in their bodies, the toxins then enter the bodies of humans.

Theo Colburn, a researcher and pioneer in the field of endocrine disrupting hormones, found shocking results when she was working with the Inuit populations. Rather than finding that the population lived in a healthier environment, she instead found that the Inuit had record-breaking levels of contaminants in their bodies. Here’s a longer explanation:

“The Inuit diet of ‘country food’ which includes marine mammals such as beluga whale, narwhal and seal, puts them at the top of a contaminated food chain. The toxins collect in the animals’ fat and are passed on to the Inuit as they eat, or through breast milk. Depending on the amount and type of country food consumed, many Inuit have levels of POPs in their bodies well in excess of the “level of concern” defined by Health Canada. The bodies of Arctic people, particularly Greenland’s Inuit, contain the highest human concentrations of POPs found anywhere on Earth — levels so extreme that the breast milk and tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous waste.

Another study found that Inuit carried blood levels of contaminants ranged widely amount individuals but that the Arctic people’s PCB and OH-PCB concentrations overall were up to 70 times greater than the pooled samples from the southern part of Canada. And yet another article showed that, “In far northern [villages] one of every six adults tested exceeds 200 parts per billion of mercury in the blood, a dose known to cause acute symptoms of mercury poisoning, according to a 2003 United Nations report.”

how our trash affects the whole planet
Inuit man eating Narwhal; photo from National Geographic

How do pollutants make their way into the pristine Arctic? In addition to the bioaccumlation in fish and marine animals, and the traditional diet that is based entirely on these foods, toxins arrive by air. As pollutants are created by oil refineries, plastic production and chemical-based agriculture in the south, they evaporate in the relatively warmer air and travel in the wind. When these chemicals reach the cooler weather in the Arctic, they fall to the ground where they are absorbed by the plants, fish and other animals. These are known as persistent organic pollutants, and are considered an issue of global concern.

 


Industry and corporations have created a zillion things to be thankful for: the computer I’m typing upon, the seconhand couch upon which I sit, and the transportation that brings food to my table. But it’s become increasingly clear that the way in which business is being done needs to undergo a dramatic shift. The waste and chemical component of our goods has become too much for our planet to handle, which we can see in the garbage patches, rampant marine devastation, overfull landfills, and in our very own bodies.

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Related Trashy Links you Might Like:

How Much Plastic is in the Ocean [a video to watch]
How to Compost and Recycle Lawn Waste aldkjf
Composting Toilets
How Italy is Making a Commitment to Food Waste reduction
Food Waste Recovery Act 2016
Can mealworms help with Plastic Pollution?
Natural Cleaning Solutions and Green Home Detox
What is Sustainable Fashion?
How Food waste disrupts Ecosystems
Sustainable Building Materials from Waste
90% of Construction Waste can be Recycled






About the Author

A vegan chef, cookbook author, educator, writer, surfer, and yogi based in San Francisco, Andrea is also the Accounts Manager for Important Media. Follow her foodie adventures at AndreaBertoli.com, Vibrant Wellness Journal, Green Living Ideas and Eat Drink Better. Find more from Andrea on Facebook and Instagram

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