Insight: The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained

The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them. Plastic pollution is most visible in developing Asian and African nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or nonexistent.

Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics.

Most of the deaths to animals are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles, and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates. In many cases, these tiny bits pass through the digestive system and are expelled without consequence. But plastics have also been found to have blocked digestive tracts or pierced organs, causing death. Stomachs so packed with plastics reduce the urge to eat, causing starvation.

Plastics have been consumed by land-based animals, including elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels, cattle, and other large mammals, in some cases causing death.

Tests have also confirmed liver and cell damage and disruptions to reproductive systems, prompting some species, such as oysters, to produce fewer eggs. New research shows that larval fish are eating nanofibers in the first days of life, raising new questions about the effects of plastics on fish populations.

The solution is to prevent plastic waste from entering rivers and seas in the first place, many scientists and conservationists—including the National Geographic Society—say. This could be accomplished with improved waste management systems and recycling, better product design that takes into account the short life of disposable packaging, and reduction in manufacturing of unnecessary single-use plastics.

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