By Malcolm Davidson
The world is awash in plastic, and it’s choking the planet with discarded trash that effectively will be with us forever. And the problem is getting worse.
The scale of the problem was brought home to television viewers by British wildlife documentary Blue Planet 11, the most watched TV show in the UK in 2017, and it has been shown since around the world. So popular was it in China it was reported to have slowed the internet.
Apart from being a riveting documentary focused on the wildlife in the oceans, the series presented by naturalist David Attenborough hugely increased awareness about the fragility of the global ecosystem.
Top of the list of worries is the scourge of plastic that is thrown away, often after a single use, and much of which ultimately finds its way into the sea.
“For years we thought the oceans were so vast that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them,” said Attenborough. “But now we know that was wrong.”
Almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet.
It is hard to think of a world without plastic. It is everywhere in our daily life, from food packaging, to drinks bottles, the clothes we wear and many of the objects we surround ourselves with.
Modern plastics have become widespread only since 1950. But the growth of the industry has been extraordinary.
Global production of plastic resins and fibers grew from two million metric tonnes (2.2 million tons) in 1950 to 380 million tonnes in 2015, according to the U.S. research report “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made”, led by Roland Geyer at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Billions of plastic bottles used for things like soft drinks or water are produced each year, mostly used once and then discarded. It is the same with some five billion plastic bags. In the UK alone, an estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown away each year. These are hard to recycle because of the plastic liner inside the paper cup.
Since none of the most commonly used plastics will ever degrade naturally into something harmless, almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet in some form. Only a fraction is incinerated.
“Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet,” the Geyer report warned.
It estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. By 2015 about 6.3 billion tonnes of that had become plastic waste. Around nine percent had been recycled, 12 percent incinerated, and 79 percent went to landfill or escaped into the environment.
On present trends, it forecast that by 2050, 12 billion tonnes will have been discarded in landfill or the natural environment.
Some eight million tonnes of plastic end up each year in the oceans, which are home to half of all life on earth today, according to Attenborough. And the seas produce around 50 percent of the oxygen on the planet.
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”
Plastic might be an integral part of modern life, but in the ocean it can be lethal. Plastic does not degrade, but through exposure to sunlight and salt water it becomes more brittle and then breaks down into ever smaller pieces.
As many as 90 percent of seabirds may be contaminated with plastic. That was graphically demonstrated in Blue Planet 11, where the stomachs of dead seabirds were found to be almost completely full of plastic fragments.
It is the same with some species of whales and turtles. And humans, too, could end up eating fish that have accumulated tiny fragments of plastic.
Floating plastic is an ideal home for colonizing bacteria that can trigger disease in corals when they get snagged on reefs that are already under stress from warming seas.
Trash that finds its way into the sea gets moved around the planet by ocean currents, and much is drawn into one of five massive circulating gyres, or spirals, in sub-tropical waters that concentrate the debris. The biggest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which lies halfway between California and Hawaii.
The only way to reduce the plastic in the ocean is to go out there and collect it, says Dutch-based group, The Ocean Cleanup. It is planning to do just that with a giant floating screen that it aims to deploy in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch this year.
If its proof of concept works, it aims to build multiple screens that are weighted to move more slowly than the surface water, thereby gathering surface plastic.
China takes aim at foreign garbage.
So, plastic is increasingly recognized as a global problem. What can we do? Use less single-use plastic. Recycle more. Regulate plastic out of packaging. Those are some of the more obvious solutions.
Deposit schemes are common in Continental Europe and some other countries, where consumers are charged a few cents for each plastic or glass bottle they buy. The deposit is returned when the bottle is returned, often to reverse vending machines in supermarkets and other outlets.
Norway successfully recycles up to 97 percent of plastic bottles, compared with an estimated 50 percent in Britain, which is now contemplating introducing deposit schemes, despite lobbying from the drinks industry.
It’s a common sight in places like Berlin to see poor and homeless people picking up cans and bottles on the street and from bins to earn back the deposits. People discarding beer bottles and cans often leave them beside rubbish bins to make collection easy.
In Britain, the waste problem has risen up the political agenda with China’s decision from January to stop accepting some plastic waste, including PET plastic drinks bottles and mixed paper. China used to take some two-thirds of Britain’s waste exports but has now taken aim at “yang laji”, or “foreign garbage”.
The European Union intends to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030, while a British measure imposing a 5 pence (nearly US$ 0.07) charge on each plastic shopping bag successfully reduced use by 85 percent within a year or so.
According to the Geyer report, Europe recycled 30 percent of its waste in 2014, China 25 percent and the United States 9 percent, about the same level as in 52 other countries.
In the developing world, there is often little recycling. Trees full of plastic bags slowly shredding in the wind and watercourses choked with plastic and other debris are a common sight in many poor parts of Asia.
In fact, eight out of the 10 most polluting rivers on earth are in Asia. The other two are the Nile and Niger in Africa.
Germany’s Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research reported recently that China’s Yangtze River was the most polluting on the planet, carrying up to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic into the sea each year. The next two are the Yellow River in China and the Indus that flows the length of Pakistan and empties out into the Arabian Sea.
U.S. marine scientist Dr Samantha Joye underlined what is at stake for the earth to viewers of Blue Planet 11.
“If the oceans weren’t healthy and if the oceans don’t stay healthy and regain their health, human beings are doomed,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. The oceans make the earth a habitable planet.”
Malcolm Davidson worked for four decades as a journalist in Europe, Asia and Australasia. He served as correspondent with Reuters in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and reported widely from other parts of Asia. He also worked in Brussels and most recently was the London-based editor of Reuters’s Front Page multimedia news service.