We are currently living in a plastic world, whether we realise it or not. The average consumer comes into daily contact with all kinds of man-made plastic materials from their morning coffee to their office computer. Plastics are lightweight, strong, durable and cheap, characteristics that make them suitable for the manufacture of a very wide range of products. These same properties happen to be the reasons why plastics are a serious hazard to the environment. Plastics take centuries to biodegrade but only seconds to throw away.
More than nine billion tons of plastic have been produced since 1950, and the vast majority of it is still around. That’s over one ton of plastic for every human on earth. Yet only two billion tons of that plastic is still in use. The durable characteristics which make plastic so appealing to manufacturers have devastating effects on the environment due to the longevity of their brake down. For example plastic grocery bags can take 20 years to break down, plastic beverage holders 400 years, plastic bottles 450 years and disposable diapers 450 years. Clearly these ‘disposable’ products are not at all disposable and the current rates of input (discard) far exceed the rates of decomposition.
A perfect example of the wasteful nature of plastic comes from the soft drinks companies. The industry is responsible for selling over a million plastic bottles every minute. Leading to >30 billion plastic bottles been discarded to landfill sites every year in Europe alone. 50% of all plastic items are discarded within a year of their manufacture. Considering that it takes centuries for these items to degrade, why do we all have the mentality that it is ok to throw such an indestructible product away each time? Only about 12% of those 9 billion tons of plastic have been incinerated, which is the only way to permanently dispose of plastic; 9% has been recycled, which only delays final disposal. That leaves around 5 billion metric tons of plastic left in landfills or more often than not in our natural environments.
Plastic is taking over our natural environments. There are very few places you can go in the world without seeing a plastic bottle or food packaging on the floor. On the land, plastic pollution is causing problems to drainage systems, with plastic clogging them up and causing urban flooding. Land birds, such as the reintroduced California Condor, have been found with plastic in their stomachs, and animals that normally feed in waste dumps – for instance, the sacred cows of India – have had intestinal blockages from plastic packaging. However, since oceans are downstream from nearly every terrestrial location, they are the receiving body for much of the plastic waste generated on land.
It is thought that 80% of plastic pollution that enters the ocean originates from land. Common sources include: recreational beach users, people who drop litter on pavements, plastics manufactures and transporters, illegal dumping, and areas with inadequate trash receptacles. In Panama, experimentally cleared beaches regained about 50% of their original plastic load after just 3 months, showing that we have made our great oceans into soups of plastic. Current estimates show that at least 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans every single day.
The United Nations Environment Program has stated “Marine litter currently poses a dire, vast and growing threat to the marine and coastal environment”. The fact is that the devastation is already underway. There are already at least 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of the world’s oceans, killing a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. Some figures suggest that there is now up to five times more plastic in the ocean than plankton, the basis of most marine food webs. So what effects are all this plastic having on our oceans?
One of the most distressing effects for marine life is the problem of ‘ghost fishing’. This is where marine mammals, birds and fish are getting entangled in discarded fishing equipment. Lost fishing gear is considered to be among the greatest killers in our oceans. Literally hundreds of kilometres of nets and lines get lost every year. Due to the high amount of nylon/plastic in the nets they can persist for decades, entangling all manner of marine life.
Another problem with marine plastic pollution is that of accidental ingestion. Plastic litter is often mistaken for prey items. Studies have found that all kinds of species, including small zooplankton, large cetaceans, most seabirds and all marine turtles, readily ingest plastic bits and trash items such as cigarette lighters, plastic bags and bottle caps. The plastic can sit in the stomach giving species a false sense of satiation, meaning they do not eat enough real food for energy. The plastic can also block the digestive tracks of the animals causing starvation.
The problem doesn’t end there, studies have shown that seabirds and sea turtles which ingest plastic assimilate chemicals from plastic particles in their stomachs. As these chemicals get passed up the food chain they increase in concentration to sometimes lethal levels. Plastics have been shown to concentrate pollutants up to a million times their level in the surrounding seawater and then deliver them to species ingesting them. These chemicals are also been passed onto humans as a large amount of people rely on fish as their main source of protein. With one in three fish caught for human consumption now containing plastic, the question is no longer are we eating plastic but how bad for us is it? Plastics absorb chemicals like PCB’s and DDT’s which have been linked to endocrine disruption and even some cancers.
Clearly it is time to act on this problem we have created. For years we have been dumping our ‘man-made’ materials into the natural environment, slowly poisoning it, and now we realise this will also poison us. So what are the governments and corporations doing to stop the problem?
Fines for littering have proved difficult to enforce, but various fees or outright bans on foamed food containers and plastic shopping bags are now common and could help reduce further input. Extended producer responsibility schemes are slowly been put into place making manufacturers of some items responsible for creating an infrastructure to take back and recycle the products that they produce. However, Greenpeace revealed that Coke has no target to decrease its use of throwaway packaging and that its use of single-use packaging has actually increased in the past decade. As one of the biggest sinners, that is not a step in the right direction.
Perhaps one positive outlook from another industry is going to be put in place. Just this week the English government declared it is to go ahead with a ban on “rinse-off” plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and personal care products. Exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste are among products to be affected. Currently in some facial scrubs there are over 300,000 plastic beads in one tube. So it is a positive that the government are doing something to stop this however the companies have resisted the ban for products like make-up and sunscreen saying it would be too difficult and expensive to reformulate all their products.
Although there are some positive steps been taken from governments and the largest corporations that are contributing to the problem, it seems as though (as always) profit margins are going to be the stumbling block to putting into place the regulations which are necessary. So it looks like the best way to reduce the amount of plastic pollution is for us to reduce our consumption. If we consume less then the companies will produce less, simple.
Here are several steps you can take to reduce your plastic intake as an individual:
Stop using plastic straws – in the US and UK 550 million are thrown away every DAY. They really are not necessary.
Try not to buy plastic bottles – Worldwide 500 billion plastic bottles are used every year. Drink beverages from reusable bottles or mugs.
Take groceries home in reusable bags, not plastic – worldwide, up to one trillion plastic bags are discarded every year.
Use cloth diapers instead of disposables – in the US over 27.4 billion disposables are thrown away every year.
Ditch the disposable razor – over two billion are thrown away every year in the US alone
Give up gum – its made of synthetic rubber, which is plastic. Worldwide over 100,000 tons are discarded every year.
Join beach clean ups – if you live anywhere near a coast then there is guaranteed to be organised beach clean-up sessions, get involved.
If we all do these things then we can seriously halt the increasing input of plastic into our environment. Although recycling is a great way of reducing the production of more plastic, it only delays the plastics inevitable trip to the landfills. Incineration is the only way to assure that plastic is truly eliminated. In Europe and China around 40% of their new plastic disposal is incinerated. Compared to only 16% in the US. So truly the best way to reduce plastic pollution is to change the mind-set of individuals.
The prediction that by mid-century, the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, kilogram for kilogram, has become one of the most-quoted statistics on the topic. Imagine if extra-terrestrial life ever did come to our planet, all that would remain for them to investigate would be seas and mountain of plastic. We must change our mind-set and tell others to do so as well. We cannot continue to consume and discard a product that is so obviously poisoning our environments. Start the change today and think about how you can reduce your personal plastic intake.