Ecosystems are just as largely affected by plastic waste as individual organisms. Land, water and air pollution are all major risks associated with plastic pollution and can all have fatal consequences on the overall wellbeing of the environment. Landfills are one of the biggest causes of land pollution because when plastic is dumped there, it interacts with other liquids to form hazardous chemicals. These toxins continue to either seep underground and contaminate groundwater, or spread across the land and pollute the soil, restricting it from being used as breeding grounds for animals and smaller organisms.
Plants, a food source for many terrestrial animals, are also polluted through the toxins released by plastics, and when consumed, have the same devastating effects on the health of the animal and its offspring. Water pollution is a result of land pollution and occurs when these toxins seep into bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, streams and oceans. Plastics with a higher density than water sink to the bottom of aquatic ecosystems and destroy breeding and sleeping grounds, whilst plastics of a low density float on the surface and cause marine life to mistake it as food. Many plastics also act like sponges and absorb toxins from external sources such as fertilisers and pesticides. When these plastics eventually wash into water environments, it upsets the natural balance of the ecosystem by stimulating plant and algae growth that restricts the amount of oxygen in the water. Aquatic life is then suffocated and the entire ecosystem is poisoned. Air pollution is caused by the burning of plastic waste.
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Some people believe that burning plastic is a better alternative than landfill, however, what they may not realise is that it releases dioxins – highly toxic environmental persistent organic pollutants. Absorbed by plants, the effects of these dioxins remain in ecosystems, some of these including an increase in the risk of heart disease, rashes, damage to the nervous, reproductive and development system and the worsening of respiratory conditions.