In recent years, heart-breaking images of sea mammals and fish with stomachs stuffed with plastic have shocked citizens around the globe. Reports indicate that the amount of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans has tripled over the past decade.
And unlike oil spills, which can be remedied with extensive and costly clean-up efforts, there is no obvious solution to plastic “spills.”
Typically, the plastic is discarded onshore and slowly makes its way into rivers and streams that feed the world’s largest bodies of water. Plastic is not biodegradable and because so much of it is also translucent, it is not easy to detect. Even sea creatures often cannot distinguish them from their favorite prey.
In the end, tens of thousands of aquatic creatures – maybe more — die every year from consuming plastics of various kinds.
It’s not hard to figure out why plastics have come to pose such a threat.
First, modern industry is relying increasingly on plastics in consumer products like liquid containers, dishes, cups, straws, and utensils. Other products formerly made of wood, glass or metal are being substituted with plastic. Plastic bags and plastic packaging are ubiquitous. Even many construction and heavy-duty products have shifted to plastic.
Ironically some of this transition stems from a desire to reduce reliance on paper products and to preserve trees. Moreover, plastic packaging prevents food contamination and improves food safety. However, by switching to plastic, a new and dangerous environmental threat has emerged.
A look at the numbers is frightening. Roughly half of all plastics production has occurred since the new millennium. Moreover, during the past ten years, about 60 percent of all the plastics produced either went to landfill or have been dumped in the natural environment. One source notes: “At current rates, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 by weight much of it in the form of small particles, ingestible by wildlife and very difficult to remove.
The rapidly rising volume of plastics might not be a problem if there were effective waste management. While the United States and Europe need to do more in this area, the real culprit turns out to be Southeast Asia where waste management systems are practically non-existent.
The average person in the US and Western Europe consumes five times the amount of plastic of the average person in Asia. But, Asia — especially China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Sri Lanka, as well as Thailand and Malaysia – accounts for the lion’s share of plastic ocean waste. China, at 1.3-3.5 million metric tons, dwarfs the next five countries combined.
An estimated 60% of all sea birds and 100% of all sea turtles have ingested plastic. Sea turtles especially often have a difficult time distinguishing plastic from food sources. A study based on research in California and Indonesia estimates that 25% of all aquatic species have ingested plastic.
Plastic disrupts sea animal digestive systems and as a result, many lose mobility or begin to starve, thinking they have eaten food sources that are actually plastic. Predators that consume those fish also become contaminated and eventually the entire food chain is affected.
In addition, chemicals from plastic also degrade the quality of coral reefs where 25% of aquatic species live and which help sustain the delicate balance of the seas. The presence of plastic increases the likelihood of coral disease from 4% to 89%, according to one recent study.
It is not just that the quality of sea life that is affected. Recent research indicates that consumers that buy and eat fish are also likely contaminated by microbes that are toxic. In an article published in the magazine Scientific Reports, the scholars concluded “The widespread distribution of micro-plastics in aquatic bodies has subsequently contaminated a diverse range of aquatic biota, including those sold for human consumption such as shellfish and mussels. Therefore, seafood products could be a major route of human exposure to micro-plastics”
The Environmental Protection Agency periodically releases advisories to warn consumers when fish get contaminated with chemicals in local U.S. waters. However, a growing share of US seafood now comes from foreign waters, which the EPA does not monitor. In fact, only a small fraction of imported fish is tested for contaminants. As a result, American consumers may be more vulnerable than they realize.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the visual blight caused by plastic waste, especially on some of the world’s most premier beach locations. One of the most notorious waste-scarred areas is Kamilo Point off the Big Island of Hawaii. The North Coast of Oahu is another badly blighted area. Because these areas are highly concentrated, their negative visual impact may be localized. But within Hawaii, these plastic waste beach dumps are hard to ignore and are beginning to affect tourism.
What can be done? Experts have outlined four areas of intervention.
Switch from plastics to bioplastics. About 4% of plastic is made from corn and other vegetables that are biodegradable. In theory, this percentage should be much higher. However, bioplastics have been shown to release a high level of methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide — which means increased reliance on bioplastics may worsen the climate change problem. In addition, the land required to grow bioplastics cuts into food production, and could contribute to the global food crisis.
Reduce the manufacture and use of some kinds of plastic. Above all, “single-use” plastic – plastic that cannot be recycled and typically end up in landfills and the oceans – should be eliminated. Some 60 countries have introduced bans or imposed fees on single-use production. In the US, there are piecemeal bans by states and cities on plastic bags and drinking straws. All countries should impose a ban on single-use plastic
Expand ocean clean-ups. The Ocean Conservancy brings together more than 10 million volunteers from 150 countries to conduct an annual International Coastal Cleanup. Over three decades the group’s volunteers have removed an estimated 220 million pounds of trash from the world’s beaches. That amount sounds impressive but is relatively small compared to the problem. A major new volunteer effort is needed.
Increase plastics recycling. The EPA has begun providing grants to plastics companies to recycle their plastic and many are eagerly joining the effort because it has proven profitable and allows them to hire more workers. In early 2018, the Association of Plastic Recyclers launched a nationwide campaign to increase market demand for recycled resins. A related solution is to use incineration technologies to convert plastic waste to oil, gas, and power.
The ocean plastics problem has not received the same attention as many other environmental challenges. Because so much of the source of the problem is concentrated in Southeast Asia, Western nations have focused more attention elsewhere. However, the issue has reached a level of visibility and risk to public health that an “out of sight, out of mind” approach can no longer be sustained.
The manufacture of plastics is escalating rapidly. The next two to three decades will likely be critical for determining whether the problem is contained and reduced to manageable proportions – or continues to escalate out of control.