Plastics are forever, sadly our oceans aren’t

By Sridhar Subramaniam
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One thing is certain. We are messing up the planet with our plastic. The situation is alarming and we are fast heading to a point of no return

Plastic is ubiquitous. Since the 50s plastic has revolutionised the way we live and become an integral part of our everyday existence. It is the workhorse material of the modern economy. Not a day passes without us using some sort of plastic.

The properties of plastics clearly lend themselves to their extensive use. It helps food stay fresh longer. Owing to its low weight, can lead to massive fuel savings while being transported, other materials like glass, metal, wood etc being heavier. It is corrosion resistant and chemically inert. Plastic is water resistant and has good adhesiveness. It is strong, good and economical to produce. Because it is light-weight, it is easily moulded into shapes, and can be dyed into colours making it a great choice for numerous applications.

While we concede that plastics has made life easier, the disposal of plastics poses a major challenge. For instance, we use a lot of plastic packaging, mostly for one time use products or for one time use like the carry bags but the package itself continues to exist for a long time as they are not bio-degradable. It is anybody’s guess that a lot of this packaging and other plastic products litter and end up in the ocean.

The recent decision by Australia’s big two supermarkets to phase out free single-use plastic bags within a year is just the latest development in the debate that has been going on for several years now but is a step in the right direction.

There is so much debris floating in the oceans that the challenge has become gargantuan. Owing to ocean currents, all the flotsam and jetsam in the ocean has coalesced into some kind of an island in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the enormity of the problem is finally beginning to exercise the collective consciousness of policy makers and general public alike. We have similar stories unfolding across the planet.

It would be of interest to note that there are five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the World’s Oceans. Of these, the largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) located halfway between Hawaii and California.

According to informed sources, an estimated 2.50 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean from the rivers. More than half of this plastic is less dense than the water, meaning it will not sink once it encounters the sea.

The stronger, more buoyant plastics show resiliency in the marine environment, allowing themselves to be transported over great distances. They persist at the sea surface as they make their way off-shore, get transported by converging currents and finally accumulate in a patch.

Once these plastics enter a large system of rotating ocean currents or a gyre (of which there are five major ones), they are unlikely to leave the area until they degrade into smaller microplastics under the effects of the sun, waves and marine life. As more plastics get discarded into the environment, microplastics concentration in these offshore plastic accumulation zones will only continue to increase.

Not only does plastic pollution in these accumulation zones pose risks for the safety and health of marine animals, but there are health and economic implications for humans as well.

The impact on wildlife is incalculable. Marine animals confuse the plastic for food , causing malnutrition; it poses entanglement risks and threatens their overall behaviour, health and existence. Animals migrating through or inhabiting this area are likely to be consuming plastic in the patch. This could prove toxic for these sea surface feeders.

Once plastic enters the marine food web, there is possibility that it will contaminate the human food chain as well. Efforts to clean the ocean will also cause significant economic burden.

The manufacture of plastic, as well as its destruction by incineration, pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic or cancer inducing. Synthetic plastic does not biodegrade so easily. It just sits and accumulates in landfills or pollutes the environment

Around 100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement. Approximately 1 million sea birds also die from plastic. A plastic bag can kill numerous animals because they take so long to disintegrate.

Plastic bags tend to disrupt the environment in a serious way. They get into soil and slowly release toxic chemicals. They eventually break down into the soil, with the unfortunate result being that animals eat them and often choke and die.

Only if we adopt a multi- pronged strategy at the policy level and a workable tactical plan for implementation at the ground level, will have hope of solving this seemingly insurmountable problem.

Moonshots and more

The recommendations of the World Economic Forum a way forward to address this challenge posed by plastic.

The World Economic Forum has recommended mobilising large-scale, targeted “moon shot” innovations, such as bio-benign and self-destructive materials, improved formats, sorting technologies, and chemical and technical markers.

What is a moonshot innovation? In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States was planning to land a manned spacecraft on the moon. The intensive mechanical and mental effort behind that mission became known as a moonshot project, an immense wave of human exertion to achieve something that delivers enormous results. Innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.

 

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