A salmon gets exposed to PVC ( polyvinyl chloride) plastics. This plastic is known to be heavily dosed with additives, particularly phthalates, which increase flexibility, transparency and durability. The additive goes into the salmon’s body. With chronic exposure, the fish loses its immunity and becomes susceptible to infections. In other words, the plastics we trash are poisoning the wilderness at a cellular level.

It is not the salmon alone that is bearing the brunt of human consumption. In the blue mussel, mytilus edulis, ingested polystyrene (thermocol) moves into its circulatory system. Can you imagine that? Toxic styrene from the disposable plate at someone’s birthday party in the blood of a tiny sea creature.

For many years, we have been shown images of cows, deer and sea birds with their bellies dissected and over-flowing with the plastic that took over their digestive tracks. Newer science warns us not to let invisible plastics lead us into complacence. Microplastics – invisible particles less than 5 microns in size – are embedding themselves in the smallest living organisms. They could be altering some fundamentals. We have no reason to glean even a modicum of relief from those popular charts that tell us how long it takes various plastics to degrade. They may degrade, break into tiny particles, but they do not ever die out.

Belly full of plastic

Plastics are both physical and chemical. They can choke, but they also contain all manner of poisons (additives, which give them specific properties) that they eventually release. When we trash them in our rivers, they float only so long. Finally, they lose their buoyancy and sink to the bottom, often in the deep, cold oceans. In the fine sands, they become fake food for several ground-dwelling species. A study of the Norway lobster, N norvegicus, in 2009 demonstrated how widespread microplastic contamination really is – 83% of the individuals sampled contained plastic in their stomachs. The author, Natalie Welden, described these as “ranging from a few strands to a tangled ball of filaments”. The lobsters were eventually found to suffer from metabolic stress – lower metabolic rates and lower haemoglobin. They lost body mass, which meant the females might have been producing less eggs. This was what physical assault did to them.

Corals are hard hit by plastics too. In their study of 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific, scientist Joleah B Lamb’s team found an 89% increase in susceptibility to disease among corals entangled in plastics, mostly because pathogens (disease-causing bacteria or viruses) bred more rapidly.

Chemical assault is what happened to the fish that scientist Chelsea Rochman and her colleagues studied. They found that fish who took in polyethylene (often touted as the most benign plastic), along with other marine contaminants including various plastics, suffered from liver toxicity. Fish fed with virgin polyethylene also showed “signs of stress”, but less severe than the fish that had ingested marine polyethylene fragments. In another study with another team, Rochman found early warning endocrine (hormone) disruption in fish that had ingested marine plastic debris. The team concluded that aquatic animals who take in plastic debris might suffer from alterations in the way their endocrine systems work. In humans, this would include birth defects, early puberty, developmental and reproductive snags and possibly, cancer. We do not yet have data on what it has done to other species, but we know how fragile other life forms are. Any disturbance and they start collapsing, so fine-tuned are they to the specific eco-system they occupy.

Unimaginable damage

In March, I attended the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference in California. The scientists shared paper after paper on the damage microplastics have heaped upon the planet. They also stressed the need for more studies. They are right, but they work in a specific context. We know that almost 70% of the marine debris today is plastic, we know most of it comes from land-based sources. We know that we can cling-wrap the earth in the plastic waste we have produced till date. We also know we cannot wait for more evidence to act.

The fact is, the industrialisation our lives are based on has extraordinarily frightening consequences we did not expect: we are altering marine wildlife so fundamentally that their cells, their building blocks, are unable to function. Unless we cold-turkey ourselves out of plastics – the most visible product of our economic growth – business as usual will dominate. Most of human civilisation will continue to depend on the very materials cycle that has turned us into ugly gladiators, fighting with other species for our right to consume. We will be the creatures who spill oil into the seas, convert the rest into plastic and then return the plastic as trash to the seas. This is the stinking vomit of human consumption.

This is the final part of a three-part series on fighting the waste crisis responsibly. Read the other parts here.

Bharati Chaturvedi is Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.