Plastic Oceans: An Education
Plastic pollution is a serious threat to our oceans and environment. Although much of the world agrees that we must care for and help protect the environment, there are many misconceptions when it comes to the plastic problem. ‘Fake news’ is prominent in this arena and yet the facts are enough cause for concern and action already, there is no need to exaggerate.
1. Plastic defies nature
Plastic does not decompose, break down or otherwise disappear, it was designed not to. There is not point is guesstimating how long it might take a plastic water bottle or any other plastic item to disappear because as far as we know, it won’t. Remember that plastic was only invented 150 years ago and many different types of plastics are now on the market with chemical additives now blended into their production process to make them more durable, flexible, colourful etc. So, let us be clear about this, plastic is indestructible.
In the ocean, plastic does not break down, it breaks UP into smaller and smaller fragments, and this adds to the insidious nature of the problem. Water-born chemicals attach to its surface, they do not combine with the plastic they simply hitch-hike on it until they find somewhere better to go, and they are easily transported from the gut to fatty storage tissues through the bloodstream, once ingested by animals. The more fragmented the plastic becomes; the more surface areas are available for chemicals to attach to.
2. Recycling is the last resort
Forget the ‘3R’s, there are more to recommend before we come to the last one, recycling. Reduce, reuse, replace, re-think and re-design are much better options because plastic cannot be recycled perpetually. Unlike aluminium, it loses quality with each round of recycling and will eventually end up as a black product that no producers want to use.
With respect to Hong Kong, the fact that China will not accept any more plastic for recycling from December 2017 has probably come as a shock to the HK Government and really creates a massive impact on HK’s use of single-use plastic items and in particular packaging. It also underlines the need to remember that recycling is a last resort, it is barely an option in Hong Kong any more.
Click here for tips on how you can start reducing your plastic consumption today.
3. The Fallacy of Great Pacific Garbage Patch
There is no floating ‘trash island’, no ‘new continent’ of plastic forming in the Pacific Ocean nor in any other oceans. The myth of the huge island of plastic, ten metres deep, ‘twice the size of Texas’, ‘three times the size of Spain’ and any other comparison, all began when a yachtsman sailed through the Pacific and noticed floating plastic that increased as he reached the centre. He told the press and over the years his story has been exaggerated many times and the myth continues to grow at the same rate as global plastic production does! The yachtsman himself has retracted his statement but unfortunately the myth continues. The problem with that is, if we want to do something about the issue then we need the facts. If the media and policy makers simply learn that there is no ‘giant island of plastic’, they will assume that the problem has gone away when in fact the truth is far more insidious and probably impossible to change. There are floating items around and observations of these certainly increase the closer you travel to the oceans centres but the real problem is the microplastics that are the result of years of exposure to sunlight, salt and wave action that the plastic faces as it is slowly swept towards the centre of the giant ocean current or ‘gyre’. With micro-plastic fragments now the same size as plankton and mixed up with it, we know it is entering the marine food chain at the very base and that opportunities to separate and collect it are unlikely to come about.
4. We are not anti-plastic
Plastic is a game-changing material, light, cheap, durable and versatile, it has saved nature many times over. Simple examples like furniture, how many forests might have been destroyed if wood was our only option to make chairs, tables, cabinets etc? Eye glasses, combs, hair decorations, tea caddies etc. were once made from turtle shell, in fact there are many examples of plastic taking the place of animals or plants that would have been destroyed to create something for human use. The problem we have is with ‘single-use’ plastic items, so prevalent in packaging especially but available in multitudes of products that until recently, we have used gratuitously with no thought on where that item might go once we have thrown it ‘away’. With plastic, there is no ‘away’.
5. Plastic has a 2-way chemical transfer
The general public might be aware of the transfer of chemicals from plastic food and beverage containers following the alarms raised in the media concerning BPA’s and the links in particular to breast cancer. However (as the film clearly points out) BPA is just one ‘bad guy’ there are hundreds of chemicals that go into the plastic manufacturing process and the majority of these are unregulated and include other harmful compounds. Chemicals leach more easily into fatty foods including meat and dairy produce and in many cases this is exacerbated when the food or beverage is heated.
Plastic in the ocean attracts chemicals that have been there for decades following run off and effluents from agriculture and industry entering the oceans. These chemicals tend to be hydrophobic and find plastic very attractive, studies show how fast these chemicals are attracted from the day plastic enters the water. (Rochman et al 2012 – paper attached Appendix 1.)
6. Ocean clean-up techniques
One question that frequently arises is, ‘can we remove all of the plastic that is already in the ocean?’ The simple answer is ‘no’ and this is for 3 reasons:
- It is estimated that 70% of plastic entering the oceans sinks to the sea floor and with the average depth of the oceans being close to 4km, the cost and logistics of going there to retrieve it would make it untenable
- The quality of plastic that has been in the ocean for any length of time makes it unattractive and unprofitable to the recycling industry
- Much of the plastic has broken up into plankton-sized pieces and is mixed with plankton, if it were possible to remove this from the ocean surface we would be removing not only the base of the food-chain, but the source of much of the oxygen we breathe.
6.1 – Using a floating oil boom device will not work
- Plastic in the ocean centres is mostly tiny fragments mixed with plankton, removing it would damage the food chain and remove our main source of oxygen because the plant element of plankton ie. Phytoplankton, absorbs CO2 and produces more than half of the world’s oxygen.
- Recycling companies generally do not want ocean plastics anyway – certainly very few would consider it profitable unless it is for a specific item
- Such a device could be deployed close to river mouths to prevent larger plastics from entering the oceans and these are beginning to be designed and trialed.
6.2 - ‘Seabin’ – The Seabin has made headlines as another device that takes plastic ‘away’ form the surface of the ocean. It looks like a little spin dryer that sucks the plastic into its maw where it disappears from sight.
It certainly has a place and is designed for use in marinas and harbours where it will reduce the amount of plastic waste that might float out to sea but it cannot be used offshore because it needs to be powered from the shore itself. It is designed to collect 1.5kg of trash a day so is very small scale. The plastic still needs to be emptied, sorted and sent for recycling. Think of it as a waste paper basket that floats just offshore.
6.3 - Beach clean-ups – These are a great way to raise awareness and to prevent plastic from going into or returning to the ocean. However, what happens to the plastic that is collected? (For Hong Kong, the only option is landfill and those are at capacity or close to it.) It might be sorted, sourced, used for projects etc and that is fine but until we stop plastic waste at source, a million beach cleans a day will not address the problem. It is compared to putting a hosepipe through the window and asking the people inside to mop up the flood, they can never stop until that hose is turned off at the tap.
6.4 - Fishing for Litter campaigns – these are being run successfully with fishermen in Europe in particularly German fisheries operating in the Baltic Sea and UK fisheries in the North Sea. It is a voluntary initiative where the fishermen collect floating trash, often abandoned nets, and bring the back to shore along with their catch. Special bins are places on the harbours and the plastic is then sent for recycling, but often plastic-to-fuel. Not an ideal solution but one that also helps in the battle against ghost nets.
7. Nano-plastics and fibres
The science of nano-plastics is in its infancy but what we do know is that the particles become so small they can be breathed in as well as crossing membranes in the body. This is a topic that is now concerning scientists and new research is underway. Something to keep an eye on.
Fibres from clothing are now a widely-recognized source of micro-plastics in the ocean. Cheap fashion items tend to be made from plastic-derived fabrics and fleece in particular is known for shedding fibres. Scientists and engineers are looking at potential solutions and these include filters, washing bags for clothes, collection devices for the washing machine. All have advantages but all end up with plastic fibres that need to be disposed of and that is something that still needs to be tackled.
8. Biodegradables and compostable plastics
The idea of designing plastic alternative products using plant-based material is excellent and very promising, however we do need to consider these and how they are used because they come with their own disadvantages.
- There is currently no effective separation scheme nor comprehensible way to distinguish between these products and actual plastic ones. If they are perceived to be plastic they may end up in the recycling stream where they will eventually decompose rendering the new ‘plastic’ product unusable.
- They are so well-made and efficient that for weeks they can act as plastic does and if eaten by wildlife can cause just as much damage before the decompose.
- Some ‘compostable’ products need to go to an industrial composter because they do not decompose without heat and oxygen and these are not available in a landfill site. Few cities have access to industrial composters and even when those are in situ, a workable collection and separation scheme needs to be in place.
- Some of the earlier ‘biodegradable’ products were simply made of plastic bound together with vegetable-based substances. These broke down but left plastic flakes and fragments to freely enter that natural environment so probably contributed to plastic entering the food chain.
Education and awareness are of paramount importance in the race to bring our ‘addiction’ to single-use plastic under control and this will be our key to stopping plastic pollution at source and forcing the producers to take into the ‘end of life’ of their products into consideration.