I’ve been writing about the marine plastic pollution crisis since I first met Captain Charles Moore – who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) – back in 1987.
The visual of a floating plastic entity the size of Texas captured people’s attention – there was the enormity factor and then the ensuing revulsion. But if the problem was bad then, it’s much worse now.
In 1999 Moore estimated plastic outweighed plankton by six to one in the GPGP; by 2014 he found 100 times more plastic than plankton. It’s now predicted that if we don’t drastically curb runaway plastic rubbish it’ll outweigh fish in our ocean within 30 years.
We’re not actually dealing with a semi-solid floating rubbish continent either. What’s out there is more of a plastic smog situation, because plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photo degrades in the presence of sunlight and fragments into smaller and smaller pieces. Churning ocean currents enhance the fragmentation process.
Microfibres are literally raining down on Paris, somewhere between three to ten tonnes every year.
The 5 Gyres Institute published the first global estimate of how pervasive the plastic smog problem had become in 2014. It estimated microplastics (the ones smaller than a grain of rice) floating in the upper surface of the ocean numbered 5.25 trillion pieces. This number was a lot smaller than researchers anticipated. Where was the rest? Ingested by marine animals mistaking it for food.
So yes, our plastic is now in our food chain. And thanks to a recent report we know plastic microfibres are also in our tap water – 83 per cent of water sampled the world over contains plastic – the US and Beirut, Lebanon topped the charts with 94 per cent of tap water contaminated with microfibers. On the heels of this came the news that bottled water could have twice as much plastic as tap. Microfibres are literally raining down on Paris, somewhere between three to ten tonnes every year. We are breathing in these invisible plastic microfibres.
Could the headlines get any worse? Yes. Just as scientists warn we’re at a tipping point with plastic detritus set to become a permanent blight on our planet, industry is gearing up to increase production by 40 per cent per cent in the next decade. This ramp up has marine biologists and conservation experts on high alert – a total ‘code red’.
However, many westerners still don’t know the ugly truth behind our single-use culture. Religiously recycling our convenience-enabling plastic, we imagine it’s a “mischief managed” type scenario. But with China no longer taking half the world’s “foreign garbage”, recycling has been exposed as being as much a fiction as Harry Potter himself. What we were doing was outsourcing the problem.
Recycling operations in the UK, Australia and the US are scrambling to find other countries willing to take all the plastic scrap. Meanwhile, bales of scrap are piling up on wharves and in holding facilities. For some this recycling myth-busting is a golden opportunity – it highlights how the current linear manufacturing model doesn’t work. An immediate reduction in plastic use and production, as well as a redesign of products so they’re recyclable in domestic markets, is being called for. This would move us toward a more sustainable circular manufacturing system.
5 Gyres recently published a list of the top 20 single-use plastic items littering US waterways. It included everything from the usual suspects – food wrappers, bags, bottles and straws – down to disposable diapers. We also identified the brands responsible for the majority of these single-use items.
83 per cent of water sampled the world over contains plastic – the U.S. and Beirut, Lebanon topped the charts with 94 per cent of tap water contaminated with microfibers.
For our research director, Marcus Eriksen, the idea of calling out corporations by name wasn’t necessarily to shame them. “Some corporations don’t think they’re the source of the problem, or they know plastic is a problem, but won’t take responsibility for it. But data is data—we wanted to show them their brands are on the ground doing harm.”
Five of the Group of Seven (G7) nations recently signed a plastic-reducing charter. It feels good that we’re finally going after plastic in more impactful ways. Banning single-use item like bags and straws one city or country at a time is good, but it’s nowhere near enough. It doesn’t meet the scale of the problem with a solution of the same magnitude; a bit like putting a band aid over a bullet wound. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be writing you a happier tale, but right now we are putting the Big Plastic on notice – your day of reckoning looms.
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