Plastic is everywhere
Not only are plastics an issue for our health, they also pose problems when they´re disposed of. In Europe almost 30 % of plastics are recycled and almost 40% are used in energy recovery processes, leaving more than 30% to go to landfills. In the US these numbers are almost 10% for recycling, 15% for energy recovery and 75% for landfills. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, between 22 percent and 43 percent of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills. That is a lot of plastics in landfills considering that the annual production of plastic is 322 million tonnes (in 2015). All this plastic that sits in landfills will be there for hundreds of years due to limited oxygen and lack of microorganisms to break it down. There they potentially leak pollutants into the soil and water.
Meanwhile, roughly 80% of litter from land ends up in the oceans. When plastic waste is collected and transported to landfill sites, it can be at risk of escaping into the environment. Even when it’s in landfills, plastic is at risk of blowing away and ending up in rivers or oceans. Also trash blown from streets and trash cans can end up in the seas. People visiting beaches and leaving behind their bottles, food packaging and cigarette butts on the sand directly contribute to plastic getting into the ocean. Industrial plastic is another culprit. “Nurdles”, the raw plastic pellets shipped around the world for manufacturing, sometimes get lost during transportation. Furthermore, microplastics (microbeads) from products like toothpaste or from washing your clothes made from/with synthetic fibres.
Once these plastics are in the oceans, they flow around and most of it ends up in of the 5 gyres. A gyre is a large-scale system of wind-driven surface currents in the ocean. Garbage and debris is funneled into the center of these gyres, in a kind of toilet bowl effect or vortex. One of these gyres, the North Pacific Gyre (or Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex), spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The circular motion of the gyre draws debris into this stable center, where it becomes trapped. The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is combined with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes. Also the seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a big garbage can.
Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean. That is one of the reasons why it is difficult to measure how much debris is actually in the gyre. It is too large for scientists to investigate and not all trash floats on the surface. Heavier trash can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex’s area nearly impossible to measure.
About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia and most of it is plastic. Plastics are durable and cheap, meaning that they are being used in more and more consumer and industrial products. Furthermore, plastics don´t biodegrade, they photodegrade. UV exposure breaks all the plastic bottles and bags down into tiny pieces, which, in common with microbeads and fibres, potentially leach toxic chemical additives. Additionally, plastics absorb harmful pollutants. Plastic trash in the oceans is dangerous for marine animals like seabirds, sea turtles, whales, dolphins and seals. They mistake plastic for food and die from ingesting it or they get entangled in it. Even if animals are not killed by plastic particles, the toxic chemicals on microplastics may affect the animals’ behavior and hormone levels.
One plate of plastic, please
Several studies have shown that zooplankton eat microplastic, affecting their growth, reproduction and survival. The chemicals ingested by these tiny organisms might pass into the food chain when zooplankton are consumed by other larger creatures, eventually passing on to the fish humans eat. At this moment the quantities of plastic found in fish and shellfish eaten by humans are low, although contamination is widespread and concerning. However, i t’s only going to increase. If we carry on with business as usual, it will be a different story down the line, in 10, 20 years”, according to Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University. “We’re on the edge of a major ecological disaster. Microplastics in seafood is an illustration of that. There are things we can do, but we need to do them now.” There is even plastic in the salt we consume!
Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle
I agree that the way products are packaged and wrapped should be changed. Big companies like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Coca Cola and McDonalds need to help with reducing the vast amount of plastic that is used every day. But that will take time and in the meantime we can already make a change. By changing our ways and using reusable products instead of single-use plastics. Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle.