Updated: Mar 23
Imagine a summertime at the most beautiful beach you have ever visited. The sun is shining through, coconut in one hand and ice cream in another, surfing the waves, snorkeling, and diving.
Then, there is plastic. There are more than thousands of plastics in various shapes and sizes. The sunscreen bottle, straw, ice cream package, plastic bags floating around the corals, abandoned fishing nets, food and drink sachets, children's toys, plastic bottles, and many more stranded ashore. It gets in your way on a perfect summer break with a beautiful view.
How could such a thing exist and even be found in the most remote place on Earth?
Plastic is a synthetic polymer created by the polymerization of monomers derived from petrochemicals added with various additives. It can flow and be extruded, molded, cast, spun, and applied as a coating. It is also cheap, strong, durable, lightweight, corrosive-resistant, and has high thermal and electrical insulation properties. The first-ever plastic, Bakelite, was produced in 1907. But the mass production and distribution of plastics began in the 1950s (Thompson et al., 2009).
The emergence of single-use plastics culture creates a huge environmental problem considering the durable properties of plastics. Some plastics undergo recycling, but most of them end up in landfills, spilled into the rivers, entered the oceans, and concentrated in gyres. The famous one is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A Journey of Plastic
As you sit on your surfing board afloat near the shore and waiting for the waves to come, you wonder how far the journey of one plastic could be. Nowadays, almost all life aspects involve plastics, from clothing, packaging materials to furniture. However, the trend is imbalanced with the development of plastic waste management. Due to mismanagement and littering, plastic debris is widespread in the natural environment. A plastic that you disposed of can have three fates:
Brought by a trash-collecting truck to a landfill and stays there until degraded. The harmful chemical content in the plastic can be washed away by rainwater forming leachate. It can diffuse to soil and nearby watersheds, contaminate the surrounding environment, and kill organisms.
Enter the river and end up floating in the ocean. It flows following the ocean current and accumulates in gyres, forming a plastic island like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Sorted in a trash bin, brought by waste management service to be recycled into plastic pellets, and formed into new products.
In 2018, from 359 million tonnes (Mt) plastics produced, about 14.5 Mt entered the ocean. 80% of plastic marine debris comes from land, transported via natural waterways, sewage systems, wind, or human neglect. The fishing industry and coastal tourism contribute 18% of plastic marine debris. The remaining 2% is from accidental losses during ocean transport or runoffs from processing units (Wayman & Niemann, 2021).
The Danger of Plastic
All plastics are added with chemical additives to give them specific properties during their useful life and contain impurities or unintentional chemicals. The degradation of plastics into microplastics (< 5 mm in size) and nano plastics will increase the surface area for the toxic compounds to reach the surface of plastic fragments (Rillig et al., 2021).
Potentially harmful chemical additives like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) raised concern because they could be transferred to humans directly from plastics. The additives could be present in a toy mouthed by children, or food and drink packaging (Thompson et al., 2009).
To marine life, plastics are foreign objects that will not exist without human activity. It should not be there in the first place. It created a mess in the ocean by confusing the marine animals with food, entangled them, polluted their home, and spread disease. Micro and nano plastic can harm biota by causing inflammation, oxidative stress, and disruption of hormone signaling. Micro and nano plastics are super tiny and can bioaccumulate from the food chain (Wayman & Niemann, 2021).
The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit foundation established in 2013 by 18 years old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, in Delft, Netherland. Their goal is to reduce 90% of ocean plastics with advanced technology and reduce the inflow of plastics from rivers. During the eight years journey in developing the technology and cleaning up, they have encountered various wastes. In the open ocean, the waste is mainly plastics. Meanwhile, the type of waste is more varied in the river. Besides plastics, there are organic wastes (vegetation, animal carcasses, food waste) and also other materials that float (furniture, dolls, mattresses, refrigerators) (The Ocean Cleanup, 2020).
They develop ocean systems, a passive ocean clean-up technology that employs the ocean currents to catch the plasticsー just like the movement of the plastics. It was estimated able to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years. The concentrated waste will be brought ashore to be recycled and managed with international standards. Their very first product from the waste collected is The Ocean Cleanup sunglasses.
Let's get to know the interceptors, which help the team clean up the rivers in many countries. It is 100% solar-powered and works autonomously. They aim to clean up the 1000 most polluted rivers in five years with this technology.
How to stop plastic waste from entering the ocean
If you want to stop plastic waste from entering the ocean, we need to start from land. We need to have better waste management and awareness of the waste we generate. We must ban single-use plastic and adopt the 4R concept — reduce, reuse, recycle, and refuse. Reduce plastic consumption, reuse plastic products, recycle plastic, and refuse the unnecessary use of plastic. There is also an alternative to fossil-based plastic. Bioplastics from bio-based material can biodegrade, but still, need a strict guide for disposal.
Keep in mind that we live in this world together and share a place to live with other species. One small act can impact all lives on Earth because we are more connected than ever, can be good or bad. We can either toss our plastic waste into the river or implement the 4R concept — reduce, reuse, recycle, and refuse. It is a choice to make!
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Rillig, M. C., Kim, S. W., Kim, T. Y.,and Waldman, W. R. (2021). The Global Plastic Toxicity Debt. Environmental Science & Technology, 55 (5), 2717-2719. DOI:10.1021/acs.est.0c07781
Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2018). Plastic Pollution. OurWorldInData.org. [Online Resource]. Retrieved on 10/6/21 from https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
The Ocean Cleanup. (2020, April 15. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE EXTRACTED RIVER WASTE?. Retrieved on (9/6/2021) from https://theoceancleanup.com/updates/what-happens-to-the-extracted-river-waste/