In this “story under construction,” we’re reporting on the problem of plastic pollution, the science and economic factors behind it, what you may know about its impact and how this non-degradable substance ultimately ends up back in our food chain.
This story is part of a bigger set of projects under Science in WikiProjects.
- Microplastics can spread via flying insects – A new study published by The Royal Society found that microplastics fed to mosquito larvae living in water remained inside the animals as they transformed into flying adults. Then, if eaten, these plastics would then be transferred into their predators, such as birds, bats and spiders. Other research to be published by Science of The Total Environment found that half of the mayfly and caddisfly larvae in rivers in Wales contained microplastics (The Guardian).
- Machine sets sail to clear up Great Pacific Garbage Patch – The Ocean Clean-Up Machine, devised by young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has started work off the coast of California. The machine features 700 metre-long booms and a mesh which will hold waste but not living creatures. It is already controversial (NBC.com), with some marine biologists saying the machine only scoops up waste near the surface, whereas much pollution is deeper in the oceans. Slat and his team are especially aiming to lift material from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
- More shoppers concerned about waste than price – More British shoppers said waste would be an important factor in what food they would buy in 2030, than price, according to research by Thought Works. 62 percent of shoppers named reducing packaging and using more recyclable materials, as an important factor in what food they would buy in 2030, while 57 percent said the price of food, in a representative sample of 2,000 adults.
- New Zealand to ban plastic bags – The country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that the government will ban single-use plastic bags over the next year. Ardern proposed giving retailers six months to stop using the shopping bags, or they can be fined up to NZ$100,000 (US$66,000), according to the Australian Associated Press. New Zealand’s major supermarket chains have previously said they will stop providing single-use bags by the end of this year.
- Peru balks at ban on commercial use of plastic bags – In spite of the environmental importance of a regulatory framework for single-use plastics, on August 2, five Peruvian congressmen successfully moved to delay implementation of a law banning the commercial use of plastic bags passed in June by the inter-parliamentary Commission of Andean Peoples. “This move is stretching the deadlines,” Congressman Güido Lombardi said. “It is clear this minority opinion is defending the position of (Sociedad Nacional de Industrias),” the private sector association that represents companies across virtually all industrial activities (La Republica, in Spanish).
- Chile becomes first South American country to ban any commercial use of plastic bags – Business use of plastic bags is now forbidden (BBC) in the South American nation of 18 million. President Sebastián Piñera said, “I want to share with you the joy that as of today we’re enacting the law” as he handed out cloth bags in the capital, Santiago (Tech2/AFP). Fines for non-compliance will be around $370 (€319).
- Kenya’s drastic plastics ban review – Eight months after the world’s toughest plastics ban was introduced, the amount of plastic found in the guts of animals taken to slaughter has drastically fallen – from roughly three out of every 10 animals to one in 10, according to the enforcement director of (NEMA) the National Environment Management Authority (The Guardian). However, Samuel Matonda, of the Kenyan manufacturers association, estimates 80 percent of member companies are affected and close to 100,000 people have been laid off because of the ban (The Guardian). In Kenya anyone caught producing, selling or carrying a plastic bag faces up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of $40,000 (£31,000).
Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and South Sudan are considering their own plastic bag bans (The Guardian). Total plastic bag bans already exist in Rwanda, China, Taiwan, Macedonia and Bangladesh, which was the first country to implement a ban in 2002. In February, NEMA shut down Nairobi’s Burma market for a “high level of violation of the plastic ban” until organisers can demonstrate full compliance (Daily Nation). In March, the manufacturer Hi-Plast filed a lawsuit against the government for compensation (Business Daily Africa).
- Indonesian army called in to deal with plastic – In Bandung, Indonesia’s third most populous city, the army was mobilized to clean up rivers and waterways full of plastic. The BBC filmed soldiers who were planning to collect the waste onto trucks, but when they didn’t arrive the troops just used a digger to push the plastic downstream. A huge population rise, a culture of throwing trash into rivers, and plastic packaging replacing banana leaves have contributed to this problem. In an attempt to tackle the issue, authorities in the Bandung area are asking residents to bring plastic items to ‘eco villages’ in return for money. At one trash site the BBC reports that 500 people live off selling freshly dumped plastic bottles.March 2018:
- Great Pacific garbage patch three times the size of France – The Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP) is one of the world’s five major areas of plastic, located in the North Pacific Gyre, between California and Hawaii. Around 8 million tons of plastic enters the world’s seas annually (The Guardian) and some of this ends up in huge gyres – whirlpools of water – where it can entangle marine creatures, is eaten by them, and through the food chain can be eventually ingested by humans.According to a new study (Nature) the GPGP could be 4 to 16 times larger than previously reported and growing fast. The study was carried out in part by members of The Ocean Cleanup foundation, founded by 23-year-old Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, who is launching a device this summer to try and remove half the debris from the GPGP within five years. This is a fearsome challenge, with a recent UK government report warning that the amount of plastic in the ocean could treble within the next decade.
The study found the GPGP spans over 1.6 million sq km (617,763 sq miles), three times the size of continental France, and contains at least 80,000 metric tons of plastic, weighing the same as 500 jumbo jets. It also discovered that plastics make up 99.9 percent of debris in the GPGP, and of this 8 percent are microplastics. The U.S. government National Ocean Service defines microplastics as pieces less than five millimeters long. However, The Ocean Cleanup foundation’s prototype to remove plastic from the GPGP launching from San Francisco this summer won’t be able to catch microplastics under 10 millimeters (0.39in) (The Guardian).
Across the world at the start of 2018, people watched Blue Planet II, a BBC natural history series led by naturalist Sir David Attenborough. The focus is on the sea. The beauty and terror of the oceans, and their inhabitants, can be spell-binding.
But it’s plastic waste in the sea that is one of the less lovely scenes of the show. Scientists, researchers and environmental campaigners continue to warn about the pollution of oceans, which comprise 70 percent of our planet. At the COP23 conference in Bonn, the problem of the oceans exercised numerous sessions.
Attenborough, a naturalist for more than seven decades, himself warned of the plastic peril at the launch of the television series, as the London Independent reported. Some researchers say there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
Environmental organization Greenpeace, in a recent report, Sea of Distress, stated that: “Our world is choking on plastic. It blights communities, causes urban flooding, and provides a breeding ground for diseases. Plastic is even in our drinking water. A recent study found microscopic plastic fibers in 83 percent of drinking water samples in countries worldwide.”
What is the nature and extent of the problem, and what can we do to manage it?
Apart from plastics, the oceans are challenged by other manifestations of modern living. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the pH of the oceans has decreased (become more acidic) by about 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution, less than 300 years. The NOAA points out that although an increase in carbon dioxide could be of benefit to life such as photosynthetic algae, other organisms, including oysters, clams and deep-sea corals, are affected adversely.
How is plastic getting into the sea?
Before attacking the “single-use brands” or “plastics” in general we have to ask a deeper question: who is putting the plastic into the ocean? If all the plastic we used was properly managed (recycled, used as fuel, properly placed into a landfill) then, irrespective of the merits of those management schemes, as far as the oceans are concerned, there’d be much less of a problem. So, which countries are mismanaging their use of plastics?
Although the answer is “everybody”, to solve a big problem we need to address the biggest sources of plastic getting into the oceans and these have been identified by German academics as being 10 large rivers, mostly in Asia and Africa where plastic of all kinds is being dumped upriver and finding its way out into the ocean.
That study, by the German Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and reported by the academic and industry group, the American Chemical Society, found that a large percentage of the plastic getting to the oceans of the world was as a result of the lack of investment and infrastructure in proper waste disposal. According to that report of the estimated total of 1-2 million tonnes/year of plastic entering the ocean from the land, 80 percent of it flows down those 10 rivers.
As WikiTribune collaborator Steven Abbott pointed out as this project developed, it’s perhaps less catchy or motivating to say “We are choking on waste because of poor infrastructure in poorer countries” than “We are choking on waste because of evil plastics manufacturers and a culture of a throwaway society”.
That there is too much plastic in the oceans by whatever means appears unarguable. Isolated tropical islands with beaches covered with plastic trash (Guardian) are powerful evidence of degradation. The North Pacific Gyre is often called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because it contains perhaps five kilograms of small bits of plastic for every square kilometer, which, if we assume an area of 10 million km² is 50,000 tonnes bobbing just beneath the surface.
The risks to the oceans and wildlife vary considerably. Large pieces of debris from fishing vessels such as nets cause different damage (trapped animals) from the small pieces of general, broken-down trash, which cause largely unknown damage to the small lifeforms that are a large part of the food chain. The plastics themselves are largely inert so the main concern is physical damage to gills and guts of wildlife. The additives within the plastics such as catalysts, antioxidants, plasticisers, fillers provide many opportunities for adverse effects to wildlife and to the food chain.
Apart from ambitious attempts to highlight the scale of waste already in the ocean and attempts to remove it — highlighted by the voyage of the “Plastiki” described in this National Geographic, the main choice available is likely to be to reduce the amount of plastics that enter the ocean each year — hence the interest in the 10 rivers report.
The unknown risks are in addition to other man-made problems for sea life such as excess runoff of sewage, industrial chemicals and farm waste, and from the increasing acidity (lower pH) of the oceans caused by man-made increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
It’s also clear that plastics also have huge benefits, including to the environment in some cases with unparalleled practical strength-to-weight capabilities (minimum resource for maximum effect) and are stable, making them ideal for many long-term, re-usable applications. So, the question arises of how to use plastics effectively and without the waste.
We welcome your help in developing this story with evidence-based reporting and additional sources. See separate story: Plastic in the ocean and some inconvenient truths