Science News: A new threat from plastic waste

– G.A., Senior Editor

The damaging effects of the plastic waste accumulating in the world’s oceans are well known. Plastic debris accumulation is known to be harmful to ecosystems and ingestion of plastic particles is recognized as a major health risk to marine species.

However, scientists from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa recently published an important study suggesting that plastic waste poses another threat to our world. Specifically, the researchers found that a variety of common plastic materials release methane and ethylene, so-called greenhouse gases, if they are exposed to sunlight and begin to degrade.

The results are of concern not only because the damage caused by plastic waste appears to have been underestimated, but also because the rate at which methane is released into the atmosphere has likely also been significantly underestimated.

Steps are being taken to both reduce the amount of plastic waste humans generate and remove damaging plastic debris from oceans. Starbucks recently announced that plastic straws would be eliminated from all Starbucks cafes throughout the world by 2020. Furthermore, a non-profit organization named The Ocean Cleanup has developed a system to collect and extract plastic debris from the Great Pacific garbage patch. The importance of these measures is now even greater given the finding that plastic debris in the environment can also contribute to climate change.

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