When is the last time you touched something made out of plastic? A day ago? An hour ago? Are you touching plastic right now? Cups, lids, straws, containers, wrappers, bottles – the list goes on. Plastic plays such a habitual role in each and every one of our lives that we hardly notice how ubiquitous its presence is.
Our dependence and ceaseless use of plastic has led us into a plastic pollution catastrophe, where each of us on average produces 4.3 pounds of trash a day. This is 1.6 pounds more than most produced back in 1960. Now the important question arises, where does it all go?
1. Every Plastic Ever Made Still Exists Today in Some Shape or Form
Have you ever tried to image every plastic you have come into contact with? I mean every plastic, from when you were a kid to the age you are now. It’s an overwhelming thought — but it’s not as overwhelming as imagining this plastic buildup every person has come into contact with throughout their years of existing on planet Earth. Here’s the reality: plastic debris ultimately makes its way into our oceans, degrading over time but never fully disappearing.
According to NOAA, the most commonly used plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics that never fully degrade in the ocean. Instead, they exist indefinitely, and their negative impact on the ecosystem continues in a neverending nightmare. If microplastics exist in the ocean, then it’s safe to assume fish and marine life come into contact with these tiny pieces of plastic regularly, right?
2. There Will Be More Plastic Than Fish in the Ocean by 2050
According to a new report launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the World Economic Forum, new plastics will use 20 percent of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated five percent today. This means that our demand for plastic has increased twentyfold since 1964, reaching 311 million tons in 2014, says the report. The demand is only increasing, and production is expected to double again in the next 20 years and nearly quadruple by 2050.
3. Only Five Percent of Plastics Are Recycled Effectively
With the demand of a substance that is not biodegradable being this high, you would think that plastics are recycled effectively. However, this not the case. In fact, just five percent of the world’s plastics are recycled effectively, while 40 percent end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans. It’s estimated that we dump 8.8 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year – to put that in perspective.
For example, in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, waste disposal is a nightmare, even with the state government intervening. High population density means the waste production is also high, and a critical part of urban waste are non-degradable materials such as plastic bottles.
4. If You Consume Fish, You’re Consuming Plastic Too
We’ve long acknowledged that the fish we eat are exposed to toxic chemicals in the bays, rivers, and oceans they inhabit. Mercury is the substance that has obtained the most attention because it has shown up at disturbingly high levels in some fish.
But mercury is just one of the many pollutants that fish absorb and ingest in their tissues. Our addiction to plastic and our habits of dumping chemicals right into the ocean has directly affected the fish we eat, suggests a study published recently in Nature, Scientific Reports.
“The ocean is basically a toilet bowl for all of our chemical pollutants and waste in general,” claims Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, who authored the study. “Eventually, we start to see those contaminants high up in the food chain, in seafood and wildlife.”
Scientists have been aware for many years that chemicals move up the food chain as predators absorb the chemicals consumed by their prey. It’s for the reason that the fattiest, biggest fish, like swordfish and tuna, tend to have the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, and other dioxins. That’s a bit frightening, considering canned tuna was the second most popular fish consumed in the U.S. in 2012, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
5. There are Plastic Islands – 7 to 9 Million Square Miles Large Each – That Have Been Created From the Ocean Currents
Gyres, or conglomerations of swirling plastic trash resembling enormous garbage patches, are created from the ocean’s circular motion of currents. The North Pacific gyre has created to two large masses of ever-accumulating plastic debris, known as the Eastern and Western Pacific Garbage Patches, collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This gyre of marine litter in the Central North Pacific Ocean stretches for hundreds of miles across the ocean. As shocking as this visual may seem, now imagine the fact that gyres make up to 40 percent of the ocean. That is 25 percent of the globe.
Worldwide, there are five major subtropical oceanic gyres: the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres, the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre, the and North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres. Each behaves much like a vortex, and scientists are certain gyres now exist in each of the world’s oceans.
How Can You Help?
There are a lot of ways in which you can contribute towards a plastic-free world. For one thing, choose to reduce by reusing shopping bags and glass or metal water bottles. This quick and easy fix will significantly reduce the plastic you accumulate. But don’t stop there, incorporate cloth bags, jars and reusable containers. These zero-waste helpers can be used for purchasing bulk food, bulk spices, and even bring your leftover home from a restaurant.
Refuse single-use packaging, sandwich bags, juice cartons, straws, excess packaging, and other disposable plastics. Next, bring your own mug or cup with you when you go to a coffee shop, smoothie bar, or restaurants. Make sure to ask if they are okay with it. Chances are, they will be happy you brought it in because it saves them on materials!
You can also volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters will hold cleanups monthly at the least, and this is a great way to give back to your community and meet new like-minded friends.
Practice your activism by supporting a plastic bag (as well as polyester foam) ban in your area. There is always work to be done on the local scale.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, spread your love for a more sustainable world by spreading the word and educating others. Start with your family and friends, and then lead by example in the workplace and your community. And of course, don’t forget to join One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic Movement!