Plastics are everywhere. They are present in our water, in our food, and even in the air we breathe. They are found in glaciers thousands of miles away and in the depths of the oceans.
A large percentage of plastics are carbon. Thus, by decomposing plastics, carbon is released into the environment. Recently, a program called the Carbon Cycle on Earth aired, in which Aron Stubbins looks at the amount of carbon that plastics add to the planet’s natural systems.
Stubbins is a professor of marine and environmental sciences, a chemist and chemical biologist, and a civil engineer. “The results we have achieved are astonishing,” he says. “We were expected to find environments where the amount of carbon is higher due to the presence of plastic, but unfortunately we saw that in some areas the amount of carbon in plastic is as high as the amount of natural carbon in some ecosystems.”
Thus, Stubbins contacted other colleagues studying plastics and natural sediment cycles to confirm their findings, as well as to perform further calculations, evaluate the consequences, and predict future conditions. Stubbins collected data related to the plastic-carbon global cycle, and was able to calculate the amount of carbon that plastics add to the environment and pollute it. The findings were published last week in the journal Science.
“We have added the plastic carbon cycle to the natural carbon cycle,” Stubbins said in a statement. The consequences of such a cycle are still unknown, but large amounts of carbon enter the environment at any given time due to plastic pollution. “This amount of carbon can have a significant impact on various aspects of human life, ecosystems and even the planet’s climate.”
Production and use of plastics began in earnest around 1950. In 1962, Stubbins discovered that the amount of carbon in plastics produced was greater than the total amount of carbon naturally produced by humans. Until 1994, carbon with a plastic source was the most abundant element found in nature. After all, we are all forms of carbon-based life. “People have only been thinking about reducing plastic consumption for a few years,” he says.
With its plastic source, carbon manifests itself in a variety of ecosystems around the world. However, some of the most important accumulations of carbon with a plastic source can be seen in the subtropical surface waters of the oceans. In these areas, the oceans flow in such a way that floating matter accumulates in a small area.
These areas have less natural carbon. Therefore, if the plastics that accumulate in these places are emitting carbon and spreading it in the environment, they can have a direct and significant impact on the chemical conditions of these environments.
On the other hand, it is possible that this event will cause climate change. Because the thin layer of the surface of the world’s oceans plays an important role in the exchange of matter between the ocean and the Earth’s atmosphere. “Aerosols and rare gases in the exchange between Earth and the atmosphere can change the situation chemically,” says Stubbins. In this way, we will also see climate change. “So if there is a lot of plastic in that particular layer of the sea surface, unpleasant consequences await the low atmosphere.”
“For scientists trying to link natural carbon cycles and climate change, the presence of carbon of plastic origin is a big problem that upsets their calculations,” Stubbins added. They think they are measuring natural organic matter, but in the end, the results will not be accurate. “Scientists should be aware that carbon from plastics also plays an important role in their computational samples.”
“There is still a lot to learn about how plastics affect the earth’s natural systems,” says Samuel Muñoz, an assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences and a civil engineer. “One of the topics that can be researched is changes in sediment flow around the world in the presence of carbon plastic.”
“Humanity has been trying for more than a century to understand how sediment moves in the environment,” he said. Now there is another substance whose presence next to the sediment is important to us. But the movement mechanism of these two substances is different. Sometimes, we see a smooth movement like water, and in some cases, the process of evaporation occurs. “In another case, we see that the sediment is not able to settle into the water.”
“Plastics are everywhere,” Muñoz said at the end of his speech. But we have very little information about them. “I consider this article an invitation to scientists to explore the myriad of ways in which plastic can affect the earth.”