Closeup of oil spill
Source: iStock

Odds are, you’ve heard the word pollution in a variety of contexts — that’s because there are numerous different kinds of pollution. So before getting into the main types of pollution that harm our environment, it's important to understand exactly what pollution means.

What does pollution mean?

Essentially, pollution is when an environment is contaminated with something whose presence negatively affects the natural order of the environment. Pollution typically refers to aspects of nature, ranging from the ocean to the soil to the atmosphere.

What is ocean pollution?

Ocean pollution is when something that does not belong in the ocean enters the ocean — and that's mostly plastic and other trash. Ocean plastic negatively affects marine life and ecosystems — meaning it also negatively affects humans.

Facts about ocean pollution:

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth, according to the NRDC — so it’s safe to say that it’s in humans’ best interest to protect them. But according to Our World, there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, which is pretty wild, considering plastic was only invented in 1907. That’s not exactly a good example of humans protecting the ocean, is it?

Where does ocean plastic come from?

Ocean plastic comes from humans. The greatest source of ocean plastic is from fishing nets, which account for about 46 percent of ocean plastic, at least in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to a study published in Scientific Reports and as reported by National Geographic. Where does the rest of the ocean's plastic come from? In the study, most of the other ocean plastic found was additional items from the fishing industry, such as ropes, eel traps, and crates, the study added.

The commercial fishing industry employs a process called trawling, which is when a large fishing net is pulled through the ocean, gathering fish as well as accidental “bycatch,” such as dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles, and more. Unfortunately, many fishermen leave their nets and other gear behind in the ocean, causing animals to get tangled in them and die.

The remainder of ocean plastic comes from items human use, such as straws, food packaging, grocery bags, and drink bottles, as well as microplastics that shed from clothing and from plastic items trying to break down. Unfortunately, many sea animals mistake these items for food, and ingesting them can cause death. Additionally, when humans eat fish or shellfish, they are in turn ingesting the microplastics that were in the animal’s body.

How can I fight ocean pollution?

The best way to reduce your contribution to ocean pollution is by not eating sea animals. You can also use as little single-use plastic as possible, and make steps toward a zero-waste or low-impact lifestyle. Additionally, you can pick up trash whenever possible, especially on beaches, to prevent litter from entering the oceans.

What are crude oil spills?

Crude oil is unrefined petroleum product and a fossil fuel. It is used for things like gasoline, jet fuel, heating, paraffin wax, tar, and more.

Oil spills are usually accidents, occurring when oil platforms, refineries, tankers, or ships spill crude oil into the ocean, according to a study published by Science Direct. As explained by the NOAA, things like equipment malfunctioning, human error, or natural disasters are often the cause of these accidental spills. But sometimes, cruise ships will purposely dump oil-contaminated waste into the ocean, which can get the cruise companies into serious legal trouble.

When crude oil pollutes the ocean, it in turn pollutes the ocean’s inhabitants. As noted by the NOAA, oil can damage marine mammals’ coats, ruining their insulation or water-repelling capabilities; crude oil is also poisonous, and if a sea animal swallows it, it can be deadly.

How can oil spills be cleaned?

According to the NOAA, there a variety of ways to clean up oil spills, including: “sorbent” sponges that absorb oil; “in situ burning,” which burns recently-spilled oil that is floating on the water’s surface; chemicals that break oil down into its chemical components; vacuum trucks; and more.

What is air pollution or atmospheric pollution?

Air pollution or atmospheric pollution is when a harmful gas, material, chemical, or particle enters the air. According to National Geographic, some of the most prominent air pollutants are greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which are caused by a variety of activities, and which both contribute to the greenhouse effect, and therefore to climate change. Other common atmospheric pollutants include, soot, mold, pollen, asbestos, cigarette smoke, and ozone, National Geographic added.

Why is air pollution harmful?

As mentioned earlier, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are a form of pollution because they contribute to climate change. As for the other atmospheric pollutants, many of them can have negative impacts on human health. According to the World Health Organization and National Geographic, ambient air pollution can cause illnesses like strokes, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and heart disease, and in 2016, air pollution was responsible for an estimated 4.2 million deaths globally.

How can I reduce air pollution?

To contribute to less atmospheric pollution, you can: take measures to conserve energy, such as using energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances, and more; rely on public transportation, walking, or biking instead of driving a car; send less trash to landfills, where garbage emits harmful greenhouse gases; eat less animal products, since livestock emits significant amounts of methane; and use eco-friendly household products such as paints and cleaning products.

What is land pollution?

Land pollution is when land or soil is contaminated by a variety of environmental pollutants. According to the Conservation Institute, the major causes of land pollution are: industrialization, deforestation (which can cause soil erosion), landfills (which pollute the soil and the air), mining, sewage, and agriculture (both the chemicals used on crops and the runoff from animal agriculture).

Why is land pollution harmful?

Land pollution can lead to a number of harmful consequences on the environment. According to Conserve Energy Future and the Conservation Institute, land pollution can cause: soil erosion; climate change; various negative effects on human health; air pollution; the destruction of animal habitats; a higher risk of wildfires; and more.

How can I reduce land pollution?

To reduce your contribution to land pollution, you can: reduce your consumption of single-use plastic and try to send less rubbish to landfills; make sure to responsibly dispose of toxic chemicals, such as cleaning products, aerosol cans, and paint; eat less animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs, since livestock is responsible for significant land pollution and air pollution; eat or grow organic produce when possible (check out the Dozen and Clean 15 for more information); plant trees; and donate to organizations that plant trees.

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