The world is drowning in plastic trash. On land most of the waste gets buried and hidden from the naked eye, but in the world’s oceans, and increasingly washed up onto our beaches, the true extent of our infatuation with single use plastics actually becomes apparent.
A Throwaway Culture
Every minute of every day the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic finds its way into the ocean. Sometimes it is thrown there, by companies looking to get rid of their plastic waste quickly, other times it slowly makes it way there, from our kitchen bins to landfill, slowly being carried to sea by rivers. Regardless of who dumps it there, 8 million tons are added yearly to the oceans and this number is set to double by 2030.
More than half of the plastic currently ending up at sea comes from Asia. A 2015 Ocean Conservancy report stated that the developing countries of China, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia are the largest plastic waste polluters. Combine that with no understanding of recycling and a throwaway culture, and this leaves our oceans full of water bottles, coffee lids and carrier bags, amongst other things. But while it is easy to blame these countries for the current state of our oceans, they learned their habits from the western world.
Very little of the plastic used in Europe or America actually gets recycled, despite the fact that almost everything we use can. This is partly because companies are not required (or charged) for the waste they produce, and the long term health and environmental costs to society are not factored into the price of plastic goods. Germany is one of the leaders of household recycling and yet they only recycle two thirds of all their waste. Just as Asia could do more, so could Europe and other developed countries.
How Plastic Is Destroying Our Oceans
Plastic is no longer fantastic, and the earth is struggling to keep up with our fascination with this man made material. Plastic is a byproduct of crude oil mixed with other chemicals, and thanks to its durability has created a cheap, moldable material. Plastic itself is not the problem, but it is how we discard it. Instead of recycling and reusing, we throw it into landfill, where it will take up to 300 years to biodegrade. Most of the plastics break down into smaller microplastic particles, of which the UN environment programme estimates 51 trillion particles are already in the ocean.
Plastics big and small are reeking havoc on natural habitats worldwide. Some plastics float and this means birds, mammals and fish mistake these for food and eat them. Birds and turtles are the most at risk, and some studies suggest that over half of sea turtles today will have ingested plastic, causing internal damage. Turtles are also famous for getting tangled in plastic rings and bags, while it is estimated over 1 million seabirds die each year from plastic in their stomachs. These deaths have ripple effects on the whole food chain, and humans are not exempt. The smallest particles are called nano-plastics, and are invisible to the naked eye. These are mixed into sand on beaches, some are even in the air, but most are eaten by plankton, which are then eaten by fish, which we later consume. Scientists are now estimating that humans may be consuming up to 50,000 microplastic particles a year and these tiny plastics have been found in everything from beer to sugar and salt.
The Impact On Our World
Due to the ocean's natural currents, the majority of plastic ends up in certain spots. Midway Atoll, a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is one of these spots. Nicknamed plastic island, the small region has plastic washing up on its shores daily, with more being carried inland by seabirds.
The Coco Islands are 27 tiny islets that are branded as Australia’s last unspoiled paradise. However, increasingly plastic products are also washing up on the beautiful beaches, some items coming from as far as Western Europe. Meanwhile, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a region of the ocean where currents converge, has become three times the size of France. And just east of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch lies Hawaii, island paradise to many, but also becoming one of the most plastic polluted regions too.
A Future Of Plastic?
The images and the evidence look scary and overwhelming. With so much plastic being dumped into oceans and landfill on a daily basis it’s hard to see the end in sight. As individuals, we can change our lifestyles, avoid single use plastics and ask companies to provide better packaging. Governments are finally starting to pay attention, especially when plastic is turning up on their beautiful beaches. Some companies like Marda have also taken a stand to ensure their products and production lines are recycling all the way, and some nations are experimenting with novel recycling concepts. A lot of the plastic that ends up in the oceans can be recycled, repurposed and reused, and it is up to everyone to strive to make our earth cleaner and to start reusing our waste again.