Whether you are at the beach tanning, surfing or diving (or in the office on social media watching someone else on holiday) you would probably notice trash. Plastic bottles, bags, wrappers, straws and other debris have become pervasive in our oceans and on our beaches – much like this.
As the foundation of our “throw-away” consumer lifestyle, plastic has become an epidemic with 8.3 billion tons in circulation. In 2015 we produced 322 million tons of plastic globally but failed to recycle 91% of it (Parker, 2017). Many scientists, environmental groups and States have acknowledged the scale of the problem. This has led to the adoption of #BeatPlasticPollution as the 2018 theme for the United Nations World Environment Day on June 5th (World Environment Day, 2018). But how exactly is plastic impacting the environment, what is micro and single use plastic, and what can be done about it on World Environment Day and in the future?
“If you can’t reuse it, refuse it” – World Environment Day, 2018
Plastic pollution damages the environment in multiple ways depending on the size and composition of the plastic, and how it decays (or fails to decay). Most plastics are not biodegradable and are expected to “persist for decades, probably centuries…for the large majority of plastic items, even if they disintegrate by breaking down into smaller and smaller plastic debris under the influence of weathering, the polymer itself may not necessarily fully degrade into natural chemical compounds…” (United Nations Environment Programme & Grid-Adrenal, 2016, p. 7).
A lot of this plastic finds its way to the ocean through runoff from landfills, lost fishing equipment, coastal tourism, the shipping industry and waste lost during the waste management process (United Nations Environment Programme & Grid-Adrenal, 2016, p. 28). This pollution is then carried around the globe by ocean currents, causing a multitude of problems as it floats along.
Animals (including dolphins, turtles, whales, sharks, and birds) often get entangled in larger pieces of plastic and discarded fishing equipment, leading to their death. Another culprit identified by the European Commission is single use plastic – plastics discarded after one use such as straws and disposable coffee cups. Single use plastics are estimated to constitute 40% of marine pollution in Europe (European Commission, 2018). Microplastics (plastic between 1nm>5mm in size) are frequently ingested by virtually all marine life, with studies showing that “once the particles were ingested they were able to move from the gut to the circulatory system and be retained in the tissues” (GESAMP, 2015, p. 43). Other studies have shown that microplastics are passed through the food web. One such study fed mussels exposed to microplastic to crabs, finding evidence of the same microplastic in the stomach, ovaries and gills of the crabs for up to 21 days after they ingested the mussels (GESAMP, 2015, p. 45). These ingested microplastics often contain chemicals that can cause chemical toxicity in marine animals (GESAMP, 2015, p. 48). This has a tangible impact on the food chain as shellfish consuming Europeans are estimated to ingest 11,000 microplastics per year (GESAMP, 2015, p. 53).
World Environment Day & the Future
The environmental situation described above may seem insurmountable but it is not. Measures are already underway including the European Commission’s proposed ban on single use plastic, and awareness and clean-up events such as the World Environment Day. If we are to overcome these challenges we need to exercise our consumer choice, and we need to come together to support these initiatives. In today’s digitised world even one person can make a difference, so go to http://worldenvironmentday.global/en, find a clean-up event near you and tag your plastic on the Littertati app to make a difference and #BeatPlasticPollution.
European Commission. (2018, May 28). Single Use Plastic. Retrieved from European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/news/single-use-plastics-2018-may-28_en
GESAMP. (2015). Sources, Fates and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: a Global Assessment. London: International Maritime Organisation.
Parker, L. (2017, July 19). A Whopping 91% of Plastic isn’t Recycled . Retrieved from National Geographic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
United Nations Environment Programme & Grid-Adrenal. (2016). Marine Litter Vital Graphics. Nairobi.
World Environment Day. (2018). Beat Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from World Environment Day: http://worldenvironmentday.global/en
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