Nature always finds a way. And when nature is being thrown new conditions, such as during a brutal change of climate, either natural or artificially induced, or when a brand new material like plastic arrives into ecosystems, it suffers, but it adapts. What are the implications of introducing so much artificial material in nature? There are many.
What are plastics?
What is plastics after all? How can the same material be used for so many uses, from pipes to forks to packaging and to literally, every thinkable object, and more? The word plastic is derived from the ability to be malleable and moulded almost infinitely to take any desired form. This characteristic is called plasticity.
Plastics are a family of materials that are made up of polymers. A polymer is a very large molecule made of a repetition of the same grouping of atoms. Put one after the other, they create a pretty massive complex that is easy to manipulate, mould and alter. On the other hand, these structures are very hard – almost impossible – to digest and decompose organically.
Subtitles: Living creatures cannot transform these materials into organic matter. Implication: plastics stay in the environment for thousands of years, only decomposing into microparticles, which are smaller, harder to collect versions of the same molecule. Hence the shocking pictures of plastic-filled stomachs and plastic poop. That’s what happens when you eat something indigestible too. Except on a planetary scale this time.
What are those new creatures?
Nature, as we said at the beginning of this article, always finds a way. Anything new we can throw at her will be taken into consideration, adaptation techniques will be tried, and eventually, a living organism will learn how to break it down and make a living out of it. We have received word this has happened.
Get acquainted with these plastic-devouring slimy worms. They will be part of our future, for sure! Why?
Because of our addiction to plastics, we have let them spread in all directions and all over our planet. Statistics are properly alarming. From the surface of the oceans, where 6 plastics continents have formed, counting between 5-13 million tonnes of plastics (most likely around 10), or 5.5 trillion single pieces (are you coughing up yet?), to the bottom of the ocean, where a plastic bag has entered the Guinness world record book for being the deepest piece of trash in the history of mankind at almost 11,000 metres within the Mariana Trench.
Read also about our campaign against plastic and for marine life in India with Sagar Mitra.
Did you think nature was going to let all of this stuff go completely to waste? No, good sir (or madam). Not only have certain species evolved to feed off these polymers and digest what can be digested, but many more are already using plastics to build their nest and use the properties of plastics. Some hornets have started cutting and recycling bits of plastic bags to build waterproof and more resistant nests. The scientists write:
“Turns out that M. Campanulae was occasionally replacing plant resins with polyurethane-based exterior building sealant, such as caulking, in its brood cells–created in a nest to rear larva.”
As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.
Plastic is our responsibility
This article is not to say that nature will sort this problem out for us. The sheer amount of plastics we produce and put out in the environment year after year forces us to reflect on the life cycle of artificial goods.
Ecosystems and the living world is suffering greatly from our plastic addiction. So much so we are not far from the overdose. If a certain type of worm has figured it out, the rest of the biosphere hasn’t. Corals for example, accidentally trap plastics and this causes disease, death and destruction of entire reefs.
We won’t repost again these horrible pictures of injured turtles or malformed creatures due to 6-pack (not the muscles) beer can holders. However, we will say this much: plastics need to be addressed by each and every one of us because no one can say he is fully innocent.
Plastics have got really amazing use cases, and allow for very useful and sustainable practices. They also have very useless and damaging use cases. Any plastics (you remember, the material that can cross oceans for hundreds of years without suffering so much as a scratch) that is destined for a single-use is not a smart use of plastic.
As consumers, we must rule out straws, glasses, cutlery made of plastics and go out of our way to support initiatives which reduce the quantity of plastics used in packaging and processing.
As businesses, putting a product out in the world must require an exit strategy for all the materials used in the process. It is up to the businesses responsible for choosing these materials to provide clear and simple ways to allow this product to re-enter the chain of production. This kind of life cycle thinking is called circular design and should be part of any new item coming out of the assembly line.
We are not worried that nature won’t survive. We are worried that most of the nature that we know won’t. Because of a stupid waste management issue. We don’t want to see desert islands turn into landfills for the cheapest material we got.
And besides, those worms are not as cute as unicorns. No time to waste, let’s replace plastics with real food. Who knows which species might appear?
Questions: How does nature react to plastic? What are plastics exactly? Can we get rid of plastics?