Much of the plastic debris that enters the environment ultimately finds its way into the ocean’s “gyres.” The North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which takepart.com calls “the largest ocean garbage site in the world.”
“The floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life by a measure of six to one,” it states on the website.
The problem with this plastic waste — in addition to it being impossible to completely clean up — is that the material is comprised of long-chain molecules that degrade but never completely disappear in the environment. In fact, the very qualities of plastic that make it appealing for producing consumer items (e.g., durability, weather and microbe resistance) make plastic difficult to deal with as a waste: the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (mostly from sunlight exposure) but the microscopic particles will be around for 500 to 1,000 years, or longer.
Worse, these microscopic particles attract and absorb toxins. Over time, the material may become thousands of times more toxic than background pollution levels. In the ocean, microscopic organisms that are the foundation of the aquatic food chain bind to these particles (you can think of them as riding on little rafts), and are consumed by larger organisms. The plastics and toxins get absorbed and biomagnified up the food chain, with results that no one completely understands, but which are no doubt deleterious to the environment and its inhabitants.
With the average North American tossing about 185 pounds of plastic per year, and 8 per cent of the world’s oil used for plastic production, the challenge of reining in this ocean-plastic pollution is formidable.
Consider, as takepart.com notes, the effect of plastic beverage containers, or the 380 billion plastic bags used in the United States each year (1,200 per resident). And that’s just the United States! This is a global problem, as the oceans have no borders.
The plastics industry has a lot to atone for here. It’s such a shocking and unexpected phenomenon, this plastic ocean waste, and demands a worldwide response, on the same level of earlier actions undertaken in response to ozone depletion.
Perhaps an outright ban — globally — on plastic bags is in order. Or a requirement that they be truly biodegradable, in such manner as can be proven not to contribute further to the problem.
It’s now clear that we need to end all litter of plastic beverage containers, and — really — their use in the first place. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made in favor of refillable PET soft drink bottles as are used in Germany and elsewhere, but only if virtually all of them can be recovered at the end of their useful life, and either fully recycled or burned in a high-temperature waste-to-energy facility, if that’s the only way to permanently destroy them and prevent their escape into the sea.
Personally, I favor not only deposit-refunds for all used beverage containers, but a shift to refillable containers, preferably made from glass.
I’ve thought this for a long time, even before the discovery of the marine plastic pollution. But now that this horrifying story is out, it’s time to take dramatic action, and listen no longer to the lobbyists for either the plastics industry or the large soft drink companies, at least on this front. Their power is so strong in the United States that I wouldn’t look for leadership in that country; instead, other countries (especially in Europe) must fully shift to refillable systems, and threaten or implement trade sanctions against the United States and other countries if they don’t clean up their act on this front.
I’ve mentioned only used plastic beverage containers and plastic bags here, but there are no doubt hundreds of other applications that will need scrutiny, followed by material substitution or product stewardship programs that credibly retrieve close to 100 per cent of discarded material.
Online petitions have begun to circulate on this important matter. Seek them out, sign them, and get active in this issue!
Here’s one website to get started. There are many others.