Plastic! It isn’t fantastic. For over half a decade, the man-made material has proved one of the biggest threats to the future of our planet, and things are taking a turn for the worse, claims one of the world’s leading experts.
Plastic is considered my many as a threat worse than climate change, and if you think that’s melodramatic, try a few of the following statistics for size.
In the remote Pacific, there lies a floating garbage patch of plastic which is as big as Wales. And if you don’t believe a country the size of Wales is big enough to raise the alarm, what about this — 90 percent of seabirds found dead on the beach have ingested plastic.
Here’s the worse bit: Plastic has now become such an integral element in human existence that in the past 30 years, the production of what was once a by-product of petrochemical refining has increased by a staggering 50 percent.
We now pretty much live in a world constructed of plastic. Our mobile phones and cars all depend on plastic to some degree. Even the food we consume comes wrapped in the stuff. The real problems begin when we discard plastic. It doesn’t matter if it ends up in landfill or in the ocean — plastic pollution is a massive problem which needs to be addressed.
Charles J. Moore, a U.S. merchant marine captain and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, California, told the Daily Mail he’s utterly shocked at the huge increase in plastic litter found floating on the ocean’s surface in the past five years.
“Plastic is choking our future in ways that most of us are barely aware.”
In just three days, Captain Moore and his team estimated that the urban hubs of Southern California were responsible for polluting the sea with 2.3 billion pieces of plastic.
Garbage patches of floating plastic comprised of everything from shampoo bottles and toothbrushes to cigarette lighters and tires lie accusing and apathetic in the remote Pacific. Passing seabirds often mistake these brightly colored objects for squid or fish. Weighed down with plastic fragments, the birds then return to their nests and unwittingly feed the plastic to their young. Their stomachs bursting with the toxic material, they are unable to ingest any real food.
Skeletal remains of dead chicks lie scattered on remote islands, and where their stomachs should be lies nothing but a tangled mass of plastic. The extent of the plastic pollution cannot be over-estimated.
Captain Moore recently returned from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is just one of five such patches in oceans north and south of the Equator, and what he saw didn’t make him overly optimistic for the future.
“I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.”
Author Philip Hoare concurs with Captain Moore’s increased warnings about plastic pollution, and recalls his own experience of the negative impact plastic is having on the planet and its inhabitants.
“I’ve seen many scenes in my work studying whales, dolphins and marine mammals, both uplifting and disheartening. But one of the saddest was the sight of a young grey seal pup in a colony on the idyllic shores of Cape Cod.
“It was an otherwise healthy animal — but with a plastic strap looped round its neck — the kind you get around a parcel. Slowly but surely, as the animal grew, its noose would tighten.
“As I looked at the animal, I could foretell its painful death, probably from starvation, as the seal became unable to feed.
“Even more upsetting are the great whales which also mistakenly eat plastic rubbish. One sperm whale off the coast of Spain was found to have swallowed 100 plastic bags. It, too, died a horrible death — as do 100,000 other marine mammals each year, from the same terrible cause.”
Science writer Gaia Vince has estimated that every square kilometer of ocean now contains an average of 18,500 pieces of plastic. In fact, there is nearly nowhere on earth where you cannot detect the presence of plastic. Plastic is quite simply everywhere, something which Hoare said is having serious consequences for our food supply.
“These are the visible signs of plastic pollution. Much more insidious, and ultimately much more dangerous for us, are the microscopic particles of plastic which are entering the food chain.
“Plastic does not degrade; it merely breaks up into smaller pieces. As it does so, it is ingested by small animals known as zooplankton.
“Because these animals provide the food for larger marine fish, the plastic enters the food chain — which ends up on our dinner-plates.”
According to a study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution In Cape Cod, the plastic fragments which the zooplankton eat, and in due process ends up in our digestive system, come from a surprising source — sewage discharged into the ocean.
“Shampoos, scrubs, lipstick, soap, eyeliners and all manner of other personal care products contain plastic micro-particles which find their way into the sewage system when we wash them off, and on top of this tiny bits of polyester and acrylic fibres break off when synthetic clothes are washed.
“Even more frightening is the discovery that these new microbes could also carry disease, raising the nightmare of new kinds of water-borne infections.”
As opposed to the Age of Aquarius the baby boomers promised us, we are now living in the Age of Plastic, but is there a solution to stem the tide of the plastic tsunami before our own bodies end up bursting with plastic as we slowly choke on our own sewage?
According to Captain Moore, the answer may not just lie in simply recycling plastic anymore.
“Plastics are a nightmare to recycle. They are very hard to clean. They melt at low temperatures, so impurities are not vaporized.”
The old adage that prevention is better than cure seems to apply to the current plastic problem, with Moore praising scientists who want to offer a “precycling premium” to plastic manufacturers or suppliers — an incentive to ensure that they design products which do not pollute the planet.
Yet Hoare believes we need to be more radical than telling shops you don’t need a plastic bag for the handful of groceries for the five-minute journey home, and suggests that perhaps we need to revert to pre-plastic values.
“When I was a boy in the Sixties, almost none of the food my parents bought was packaged in plastic. Plastic bags were rare. If my mother acquired one, she carefully folded it up and kept it in her handbag for future use.”
One thing for sure, we all seriously need to think about how we consume and discard plastic, because as Captain Moore points out, “Until we shut off the flow of plastic to the sea, the newest global threat to our age will only get worse.”