We produce just under 300 million tonnes of plastic every year; 50% of this we throw away after using it just once, often for a few minutes, even seconds. However the reality is that there is no ‘away’. Plastic is so permanent and so indestructible, that it simply does not go away.
Much of this waste ends up in our oceans, floating on ocean currents known as gyres. There, currents transport the plastic to every corner of the globe. There has been a great deal of media interest in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been portrayed as a floating island of plastic twice the size of Texas. However, in truth, it is nothing like this. There is an enormous amount of plastic in the oceans but over years it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, creating a kind of plastic soup. The harm that this causes is far more insidious than first presumed, as it enters the food chain allowing the toxic chemicals the particles contain to contaminate what is ultimately the food we will eat. While much work has been done in the Pacific, we know that the problem extends far beyond these boundaries – it is very likely that the major issue will be the Indian Ocean, where the population growth of surrounding countries and the move to more market orientated economies on an unprecedented scale will inevitably lead to an environmental catastrophe.
All that glitters is not plankton in Time South Pacific (Australia/New Zealand edition); 12/22/97 Issue 57, described the death of a 70-ton male Fin Whale, aged between 8 and 12 years old, who was found beached on the northern coast of Spain. The autopsy identified a compressed ball made up of more than 20 kg of plastics. Biologists suggest the ball blocked the whale’s pylorus, the circular opening leading to the intestines, meaning it could not properly absorb food. Seals, dolphins, whales and other large sea creatures have also been found overdosed on plastic detritus.
Research has shown that in some of the convergence areas in the oceans that there are six times as many plastic particles floating in the upper layers as there is plankton. Another important fact to consider is that these figures take no account of the plastic that sinks (around 50% of the total) which is moved around by deep ocean currents, but does not break down at the same rate due to the lack of sunlight, wave action and reduced oxygen levels.
Research from the University of Tokyo shows that plastics in the water can adsorb toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDE, a breakdown product of the notorious insecticide DDT. Moore suggests that the toxins ingested on plastics may work their way through the food web. An international convention called MARPOL bans the dumping of plastics at sea, but enforcement on the open ocean is nonexistent. The best solution would be to stop using plastic altogether but this would be difficult to achieve. However, the use of plastic bags can be stopped with a simple change in consumer behaviour and wider use of reusable bags.