Plastic ‘Not So’ Fantastic
Since its creation, the incredible and versatile material known as plastic has been used in all industries. As a material, plastic is cheap, versatile, lightweight, strong, and long lasting. The problem is that plastic is durable and slow to degrade, and when it never really goes away, it only degrades into smaller and smaller pieces.
Single use plastic is now one of the largest threats to our environment. Our plastic waste is piling up at an incredible rate, and yet we continue to make more, over 300 million tons annually. More than 8 million tons of this plastic enters our oceans each year and this is now devastating marine ecosystems and threatening wildlife. Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes.
Buoyant plastic transports alien species around the world. Abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear continues to catch animals for decades, and scours and smothers reefs and other benthic habitats. Animals that become entangled in smaller pieces of net or other plastic items like 6-pack rings, may be quickly suffocated, or suffer lacerations or a lingering death from malnutrition. Plastic pollution harms a number of maritime and coastal industries: it damages tourism, devastates fisheries, and causes serious economic losses in the shipping industry.
Plastic never goes away, instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, what are known as microplastics. When these tiny pieces of plastic are ingested by animals, and they increasingly are, they block the digestive tract, get lodged in animal’s windpipes cutting airflow causing suffocation, or fill the stomach, resulting in malnutrition, starvation and potentially death. Toxins from ingested plastic transfer into the flesh and organs of the animal, and work their way through the food web, eventually reaching humans who catch and eat the fish, transferring the toxins from the fish to us!
Community beach clean ups are now a very common sight on our beaches and coastlines. Whilst these are valuable initiatives, serving as educational and awareness raising exercises, as well as removing pollution that could pose a threat to wildlife, beach cleanups are not the solution.
We need to stop creating more plastic and thus pollution in the first place.
Asia is a major source of marine plastic pollution, with the five largest contributors are found in Asia; China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. There are a number of reasons as to why this is the case. These countries have poor waste management infrastructure and a lack of education around the harms of single use plastics. Global manufacturers are also to blame, as they are scaling down products into single use versions for less developed countries. For example, whereas in a developed country shops may sell a single large bottle of shampoo, which can then be easily recycled after its used, this is not the case in many developing countries. Here, manufacturers offer shampoo in single use sachets, which are sold in large rolls, allowing customers to buy as many as they need or can afford. These plastic sachets are the lowest value plastic, and do not get recycled, rather they end up in landfills or the ocean.