Plastics are everywhere around us – in our homes, our vehicles, our computers, as packaging – replacing more traditional materials such as wood, metal, glass, leather, paper and rubber because they are lighter, stronger, more durable and corrosion resistant, and often cheaper.
But that durability means that most plastics do not biodegrade, so almost all the plastic ever produced is still here somewhere on the planet in one form or another, and will remain here for centuries to come, possibly thousands of years – nobody knows for certain yet.
A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that plastics production has increased twenty-fold since 1964, reaching 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is predicted to double again in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. Only 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40% end up in landfill.
The report says that every year “at least 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050
In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025″.
About 20% of this comes directly from shipping, some is intentionally fly-tipped, the rest comes from the land, swept by tides, wind, rain and floods into streams and rivers and out to sea. 70% eventually sinks to the ocean floor. The rest floats, much of it ending up in oceanic gyres as massive islands of waste such as ‘the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. It can float around for decades before breaking down into smaller particles and becoming absorbed into the food chain or sinking and becoming part of the ocean floor sediment.
Quite rightly, much attention has been focused on the dangers of plastic litter to seabirds, whales, dolphins, turtles, seals and other marine life. It’s thought to cause the deaths of over a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals each year, but researchers are now warning that the risk of hidden contamination could be even more serious.
Unlike biological materials, plastic doesn’t decompose. Instead, it photodegrades when exposed to sunlight, fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces without chemically breaking down. But, no matter how small they become, these plastic bits never become digestible by any living creature. In addition they contain additives such as pigments and plasticizers, known to be endocrine disruptors, plus toxic metals such as cadmium and lead. Research by the University of Plymouth has shown that the particles also attract toxic chemicals from the surrounding seawater and concentrate them on the surface of the plastic, acting as ‘magnets’ for poisons in the oceans.
These small poisonous particles, found throughout the oceans and mixed with the sand on beaches, are now threatening the entire food chain. The toxins they contain are known to be a threat to human health. In the water the particles are mixed in with and resemble the plankton, and are being eaten by filter feeders, which are then consumed by large creatures. The process of bio-accumulation has the potential to further increase the concentrations of toxins as they pass along the food chain and into our human diets.
- The Plastic Age: A Documentary feat. Pharrell Williams (Full Film) Co-designed by Pharrell, G-Star’s RAW for the Oceans collection is the world’s first denim line created from plastic that has been fished out of the ocean and recycled.
- Plasticized – Documentary Film an account of a journey by the 5-Gyres Institute through the centre of the South Atlantic Ocean studying the scale and effects of plastic pollution.
- The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics (Report)
- Friends of the Earth Information Sheet on Plastics
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