By Nigel Landon
Global news has been full recently with dire warnings about the state of our planets’ oceans and the rising tide of waste, mostly plastic (est. >80%), which is killing marine life, birds and mammals dependent on the sea for food, pooling in vast ocean slicks, and blanketing our beaches.
This is nothing new
Plastic, a man-made polymer, was first invented just over 100 years ago. Since then an estimated 9 billion tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date. The very properties that made it so desirable; durability and long-life, are now being seen as its drawback. It can take up to 1,000 years for many types of plastic to breakdown. We are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use products. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year (https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/). Because marine waste is so mobile, those being impacted are not always the producers of the waste. While plastics take so long to break down, they are much quicker to break up. The result is billions of tiny millimetre scale fragments of plastic which are difficult to detect, difficult to clean-up, and readily absorbed into the food chain through aquatic organisms. A recent survey by Plymouth University, UK, found that plastic was present in a third of all UK-caught fish.
So why has marine waste suddenly become such a hot topic?
Two possible reasons could be due to the high profile exposure of the problem by Sir David Attenborough in the award winning Blue Planet II series (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1FlfcGGKPSWv3m7JdfBT5dv/get-involved-with-ocean-conservation) , and secondly due to the recent discovery of high concentrations of plastics and other waste in great ocean gyres. The first of which, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, was discovered in the central North Pacific Ocean around 1985-1988. Since then a further four have been discovered globally (see map). These vast areas of marine waste form when circular ocean currents trap and concentrate waste in oceanic gyres.
Current knowledge of the size and scale of the problem is still limited, although rapidly evolving under increasing global focus. Today, estimates of the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone are that is covers an area up to three times the size of France and contains in excess of 80,000 tons of plastic.
Ironically, whilst our oceans are suffering, it is estimated that 80% of all marine waste is derived from land based sources (UNEP). With waste finding its way to the sea through rivers, dumping, or blown by the wind.
As we start to establish the shocking scale of the problem we are now pushing for solutions.
There are many projects underway targeting ocean clean-ups, including the first full-scale attempt to clean up one of the ocean gyres by The Ocean Cleanup (https://www.theoceancleanup.com/) which claims to be able to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years. This is however only addressing the Symptoms, not the Cause.
Back to the 3Rs
It is widely acknowledged that we cannot live without plastic now; from the toothbrush we grab first thing in the morning, to our laptops at work, and the light switch we turn off last thing at night, our days are driven by plastic. Many of the pressure groups that are pushing for a reduction in disposable plastic use agree that plastic is a key component in food preservation and without it we would have a much bigger problem with damaged or expired waste food products.
The answer then, lies in controlling and containing the use of plastic. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, is a well-established mantra in the waste management industry.
As our knowledge of the scale of the global plastic problem expands, individuals, businesses, and governments are coming up with more and more ambitious ways to reduce unnecessary plastic in our daily lives:
- Bans and surcharges on disposable plastic bags are now common with over 30 countries currently imposing some form of restriction;
- Plastic drinking straws are now being targeted with the European Union (including the UK) pushing for a ban on plastic straws and other single use disposable plastic products by 2030.
- Plastic microbeads, which many of us didn’t even know existed until recently, and yet are prevalent across a wide range of cosmetics, toothpastes, and shower gels, will soon be banned across many countries.
As well as initiatives by governments and businesses the general public must play their part. Every one of us must consider ways to reduce our plastic profile. Whether that is by voluntarily avoiding unnecessary disposable / single use plastic items, reusing plastic items, or separating plastic waste for recycling.
Effective recycling of plastic is a major growth industry with new technologies coming online commercially to process waste plastic back to virgin grade pellets or to produce energy or other products. Successful recycling is heavily reliant on good waste segregation, and this requires a commitment from all of us. We are all familiar with colour coded bins for recyclable waste. Some countries are now taking this a step further with advanced recycling systems, such as in Germany, where bottle banks scan barcodes to sort different types of plastics and other recyclables. This system is now being looked at by other countries in Europe along with introducing deposits on disposable containers.
In summary, whilst the scale of the current marine plastic waste problem is undeniably large, there is significant potential to not only clean up the problem but to control it and prevent it from recurring. However this does require a concerted persistent effort from everyone, from individuals, to business, to governments globally.
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