Plastic waste in the ocean will never fully break down. It causes untold harm not only to the environment but to marine and human life.
Marine animals ingest plastic bags, bottle tops, or get caught in plastic beer rings . They also get tangled up in plastic fishing nets, or discarded fishing line. Many suffer a prolonged and agonizing death.
Plastic has only been widespread for about 60-70 years. In that short period it has transformed the modern world due to it’s strength, versatility and cheapness. Plastic is everywhere, from packaging, single use takeaway items, electronic equipment and in many household items including building products.
One of the main advantages of plastic is that it is designed to last. This is also a curse as nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today.
The Scale of plastic usage in Australia
Australia produces almost 3 million tonnes of plastic per annum. Less than 12% of this is recycled and each year about 130,000 tons of that ends up in the ocean as plastic pollution. Each person uses roughly 130 kg of plastic, and about 30 kg of each person’s waste could end up in the ocean. So, if we each stopped using as much plastic as we can, particularly single use plastic, this would make a big impact.
I have noticed that the majority of people continue to use single use plastics without a second thought. The scale of our waste is quite mind boggling. The number of disposable coffee cups used in Australia alone each year would , if placed in a line, stretch around the world twice! This is in a country with a little over 25 million people. You can only imagine this duplicated in the rest of the world!
In developing countries with little or no recycling and inadequate facilities to deal with waste, much of their waste ends up directly in the environment. As developing countries become more affluent, their use of plastic will increase, and so too will their plastic waste.
Plastic breaks down faster in the ocean
The only real way to break down plastic is through photodegradation. This kind of decomposition requires sunlight, not bacteria. Plastic buried in landfill doesnt break down as there is no light which is needed for breakdown to occur.
When UV rays strike plastic, they break the bonds holding the long molecular chains together. This can turn a big piece of plastic into lots of little pieces. Ocean plastic is bathed in as much light as water so breaks down much more quickly than plastic waste on land.
Although plastic is non-biodegradable, it does break down until it is no longer visible to the naked eye. A single plastic bag can fall into millions of plastic pieces. As a result of the ongoing break down process, the number of micro and nano-particles is continually increasing in the environment.
In 2009, researchers from Nihon University in Chiba, Japan, found that plastic in warm ocean water can degrade in as little as a year. On face value this sounds great but those small bits of plastic are toxic and plastic debris and micro and nano particles end up in the guts of animals or wash up on shorelines, where humans are most likely to come into direct contact with the toxins. Chemicals leached by plastics are in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to microplastics through rain, wind (inhalation) and ingestion is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments
Plastic stays in the environment forever
We now know that micro plastics can no longer be completely removed from the natural world. This would not be a problem if we were sure that they are harmless in the environment. The point is that there are various indications that they are harmful. What we know is that all animal species, including humans, ingest them and that the smallest particles – the nano-plastics – can spread throughout the body and possibly reach the organs, including the brain. We also know that the concentration of these small particles in the environment is increasing, and it’s likely that the concentration of particles in humans is doing the same. We can only hope that the consequences in the short and long term are better than expected.
Plastic in the ocean is often thrown away on the beach where it is eventually blown or washed into the ocean. Once in the ocean, it is there to stay in one form or another.
Production of new plastic is still increasing
A report published by the American Chemistry Council in 2019 predicts a massive increase in the production of plastic. By 2050, they forecast an increase from 308 million tons produced in 2018 to about 756 million tons by 2050. Billions of dollars are being invested in new or expanded chemical plants to produce plastics in the United States. China is also increasing its production of virgin plastic. This is to accommodate emerging developing countries who will be looking to increased plastic consumption. A growing world population may also see this trend continue.
How we are going to deal with a further escalation of plastic waste is extremely worrying. People need to change their consumption and discarding habits worldwide to try to curb this trend.
What can we do?
Although we cant eliminate plastic ocean waste it could be significantly reduced. Improving waste collection, recycling, redesigning products to eliminate packaging made from un-recyclable plastics, expanding re-fillables, and in some cases substituting other materials could help.
Solutions such as recycling, (currently only around 12% globally), would require a massive scaling-up with many additional recycling facilities that don’t as yet exist.
One solution to this environmental disaster is biodegradable plastic.
A plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastic made from corn, tops the list as the most talked-about alternative. It decomposes into water and carbon dioxide in 47-90 days. This is four times faster than a PET based plastic bag floating in the ocean. Conditions have to be just right though for this to occur. It works best when composted in commercial facilities at high temperatures.
If buried in landfill, a plastic bag made from corn may remain intact just as long as a plastic bag made from oil or natural gas.
It may feel better to have a “biodegradable” or “eco” plastic shopping bag, but in reality it may make no difference to an ordinary plastic bag in considering the amount of waste generated.
Reducing waste instead of generating waste is the key.
There is no known way to get micro and nano plastic particles out of the environment. We have to stop plastic entering the environment rather than trying to deal with it once it is there.
Actions you can take
Check out previous blogs on reducing and managing plastic waste , and eliminate personal care products containing plastic micro beads.
Pick up and dispose of any plastic and other waste you find when at the beach:
I take a rubbish bag when I go to the beach to collect any plastic or other waste I find on the beach. This ensures it ends up in landfill and not the ocean. I would heartily recommend everyone doing this.
Hopefully if other people notice this, others will also start to do the same. Little by little, awareness of the issues are growing and more people are becoming involved in conservation.
A number of organisations have beach cleanup days which everyone can join and reduce the amount of beach plastic and other waste ending up in the ocean. Currently worldwide, the number of people attending such beach clean ups is about one million each year. One billion people would need to attend such cleanups to actually have an effect in reducing the amount of plastic in the ocean. A massive, but achievable task.
Grab a group of friends and have a beach picnic and pick up waste as a day out. Have fun and help the environment!
It is important not to lose hope that things can be better. Marine Conservation groups are working hard to achieve positive outcomes for our oceans and marine life.
Check some of them out:
Australia – Australian Marine Conservation Society
International – Ocean Conservancy