IN a study, published in July of last year, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, calculated that approximately eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950. Of this, 79% (6.3 billion tonnes) ended up in landfills or the natural environment. Only 9% was recycled while 12% was incinerated.
From drinking straws, to the packaging on our food, to plastic cups; many of the plastic items we use have a lifespan of just a few minutes before we dispose of them. In the natural environment however, their lifespan is much longer; often taking hundreds of years to biodegrade.
More than eight million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year, according to the US-based Plastic Oceans Foundation. Birds and marine animals eat this discarded plastic, believing it to be food. The ingested plastic poisons them and inhibits their ability to feed; leading to their starvation. According to UNESCO, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than one million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year.
It’s not only the visible plastic waste that is of great concern, but also the effects of its gradual biodegradation. With exposure to UV rays and the ocean environment, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller fragment. As the plastic degrades, these tiny pieces of plastic, less than five millimetres in size (known as microplastics) enter the ocean and its enormously diverse food web. Microplastics are consumed by fish and shellfish which then find their way onto our dinner tables. A recent study by the University of Hull and Brunel University London on supermarket purchased mussels, found 70 particles of microplastic in every 100 grams of mussels. The damage to human health from long-term ingestion of these substances is not yet known; but is of major concern.
Programmes like the Blue Planet 2 have broadcast the destructive effects of plastic pollution to a global audience. In response to growing public concern, many of the UK’s largest supermarkets have signed up to support a new initiative called the UK Plastics Pact. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Lidl are among the 42 businesses who are supporting the new pledge, which aims for all plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Critics say that the Plastics Pact needs to be enforceable and not merely a voluntary system, but, at the very least, it does represent a recognition from retailers that the continued use of non-recyclable plastics is unsustainable.
In Africa, a new impetus to tackle the plastic problem has already yielded significant results. Kenya introduced the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags in August of last year. The law threatened up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of $40,000 (£31,000) for anyone producing, selling or even carrying a plastic bag. The Kenyan government have hailed the new measure as a great success, pointing to the significant improvement in the cleanliness of streets and positive reports from fishermen on the quality of waterways and the marked reduction in visible plastic pollution. Other east African nations like Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering following suit.
New research is being conducted into an enzyme that actively breaks down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. The enzyme starts to break down the plastic in just a few days; far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. The research came about after the accidental discovery in a Japanese waste dump of a unique bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic. Speaking to the Guardian ‘s Damian Carrington, the head researcher, University of Portsmouth Professor John McGeehan, outlined the potential impact of this study:
“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic. It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment”.
In the US, scientists are preparing to launch a machine to clean up the planet’s largest mass of ocean plastic; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between Hawaii and California, it spans a staggering 617,763 sq. miles and contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic. Most of it is made up of so-called “ghost gear”: parts of abandoned and lost fishing gear, such as nets and ropes. Ghost gear kills more than 100,000 whales, dolphins and seals each year, according to scientific surveys.
The device has been designed by a non-profit technology firm called The Ocean Cleanup. The clean-up device consists of 40ft pipes that are fitted together to form a long tube. They are designed to float on the ocean’s surface and have nylon screens hanging down below to catch the plastic rubbish that gathers together when moved by the currents. Ocean Cleanup believe that the machine should be able to collect about 40,000 metric tons of plastic waste within the next five years.
For consumers, there are direct actions that can be taken to stem the flow of plastic into our environment. We can choose to stop buying plastic bags and bin liners. We can buy loose fruits and vegetables instead of those that are packaged.
We can stop buying plastic water bottles, instead using re-fillable bottles made of materials like stainless steel. We can refuse to purchase toothpastes or exfoliators which contain micro-beads.
We can selectively purchase items that are packaged in recyclable materials like paper and shun those that are covered in plastic. If consumers reject products with single-use plastics, store owners will tailor their products to suit their needs.
We are only now beginning to discover how dangerous the reckless disposal of plastics is to the natural environment and to our own health. But, through a combination of scientific ingenuity and the everyday actions of ordinary people, it is possible to reverse this destructive trend.
Anthony Angelini is a part-time lecturer at UCC. He has a Master of Philosophy (MPhil), International Peace Studies.