The Problem with Plastics


  • Author: Leila Battison
  • Date: 16 Dec 2015
  • Copyright: First image appears courtesy of Getty Images. Second image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons License No. 3.0, Author: Seegraswiese)

In October 2015, England introduced a five pence-charge for disposable plastic bags from large retailers, joining the growing list of countries taking action to reduce the amount of plastic polluting our planet. While the charge has provoked outrage from many members of the public, the U.K. government estimate that the new restrictions will have a positive impact on both the environment and the economy. But why are the worldwide charges and bans being imposed? Exactly what is the problem with plastic bags, and will the restrictions really have an effect?

thumbnail image: The Problem with Plastics

Plastic bags have become a staple of the modern era. As a handy, disposable means of carrying a wide variety of objects, it is hard to imagine life without them. How will you carry your weekly shop back from the store? How else would you heave the kid’s Christmas presents around town? And what would you use to line the bathroom bin? Some estimates suggest that 500 billion plastic bags are currently being used worldwide, and that more than one million bags are used every minute. This wouldn't be a problem if these bags were reused, but unfortunately around 100 billion bags are simply thrown away each year in the USA alone. As a result, plastic production has continued apace, with 12 million barrels of oil being required to meet US plastic bag demand each year (1). Estimates suggest that we have produced more plastic in the last ten years than in the preceding 100 – approximately half of this is thrown away after a single use (2).

So where does all this plastic go? While recycling efforts have expanded in many western countries, we still only recover around 5% of the plastic we produce; the rest is hauled off to landfill sites (3). There, the plastic will sit until it degrades, which is no short-term project. The synthetic polymers of most plastics are resistant to both non-biological and microbial degradation, and will linger for between 500 and 1000 years. So we are stuck with our plastic landscapes. But this is not the end of the story. Winds can tear at the long-standing landfills, and poorly controlled dumping in many areas worldwide sees vast quantities of plastic being transported to the oceans. Once adrift, these materials follow ocean currents, and the plastic ceases to be a manageable local problem, but a global one with wide-ranging ramifications.

The effects of bioaccumulation

The global oceans represent 25% of Earth’s biodiversity (4), and its food chains support the fish stocks upon which almost every country worldwide depends upon. With an increasing amount of resilient plastic making its way into global waters, our ocean resources are becoming severely threatened. Although the oceans themselves are vast, plastic tends to collect like floating scum in calm water or on shorelines. Most notably, the spiralling currents in the north Pacific currently concentrate millions of pounds of floating plastic in a gyre that covers an area twice the size of Texas; it is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and plastic outnumber sea life six to one (5).

Now, while the plastic can’t be broken down, it can be broken up, and flimsy plastic materials like plastic bags are especially prone to being shredded and eroded into so-called micro-plastics. These microscopic fragments are less than 5 mm in diameter – small enough to be swept along in the tiniest of ocean currents, and critically, small enough to make their way into the food chain. Filter feeders such as Copepods and other small zooplankton can take in the minuscule particles, mistaking them for food, but will be unable to digest them. As the zooplankton form the basis of the entire marine food chain, the micro-plastics are passed up through the trophic levels, increasing in concentration with each consumer.

Floating plastic bags can be mistaken for food (Available under Creative Commons license 3.0. Author: seegraswiese)

Some studies have shown that a person eating an average amount of seafood will ingest 11,000 plastic particles per year, and some estimations suggest that by 2050, any seabird found dead will have plastic in its stomach (6). But just how does the plastic harm these animals? With some reports claiming that one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic every year, we need to understand the cause and effect behind polluting plastic (7). All too familiar are the images of creatures deformed and strangled by loops of plastic and fishing nets, but in reality the killing agent may be much more subtle. A 2012 study from San Diego State University revealed that plastics, and especially the micro plastics with their large surface areas, are able to effectively absorb toxic chemical pollutants while floating in the ocean (8). So by passively accumulating the plastic in their digestive systems, the higher consumers are also passively poisoning themselves.

Can we save our seas?

There is little doubt that action needs to be taken to preserve the natural state of the oceans, as well as our precious marine biodiversity. In fact, many countries worldwide have already taken action, some more severe than the bag charges that the UK has imposed. For instance, Ireland was among the first to enact restrictions in 2002, with a €0.15 tax levied on every disposable bag supplied by retailers. This measure saw the use of longer-life bags increase by 90% in just one year. Some countries have outright banned the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags, including Italy, Brazil, China, and Belgium. In Bangladesh, a full ban was imposed in 2002 after catastrophic floods were thought to have been caused by the buildup of polluting plastic bags. In all countries and cities where bans, charges, taxes and fines are in place, the reported use and disposal of plastic bags has decreased dramatically (9).

So in fact, England has been uncharacteristically slow on the uptake, lagging behind by several years in what is really a very simple and effective measure. Why the delay when this change was already in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Well, the public’s response to the charge could go some way to explain the general feelings towards the problem, a response which is based mostly on ignorance (10). Much of the population is unaware of our dependence on ocean resources, and of the effects that plastics are having on them.

Some studies have shown that a person eating an average amount of seafood will ingest 11,000 plastic particles per year, and some estimations suggest that by 2050, any seabird found dead will have plastic in its stomach. But just how does the plastic harm these animals? With some reports claiming that one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic every year, we need to understand the cause and effect behind polluting plastic.

Nevertheless, the charge is in place now, and public outrage at the inconvenience has calmed. Remembering to carry long-life bags to the supermarket has become a habit, and will soon be second nature. The U.K. government are hoping to see an 80% reduction in disposable bag use, which had increased during 2014 for the fifth year running. As well as making an impact on the 7.6 billion single use bags given out, the charge is expected to inject up to £780 million into the UK economy and enable savings of £60 million in litter cleanup (11).

Facing the consequences of a disposable culture

All of the countries that have taken notice of our global plastic problem have taken the best possible action to reduce their individual contributions. But we are left wondering whether this will be enough. The vast quantity of plastic that is already polluting our land and oceans is still there and won't be going away any time soon. Even if we halted all plastic disposal today, left unchecked, every plastic fragment will remain in some form or another for centuries. And with an average density of 46,000 pieces per square mile, there is plenty left in the ocean to endanger ecosystems, and to give us trouble for a long time time to come.

Mitigation techniques such as mass collection and recycling of this non-biodegradable material are among our last hopes for rescuing the natural marine environment. Until action is taken on that front, we must be prepared to face the consequences of our disposable culture.




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