Our Plastic Planet
Globally, 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics have been manufactured; that’s equal to 16 times the weight of the world’s entire population. Put another way, if all the plastic produced had been turned into Lego blocks, there would be enough to cover the surface of the Earth 16 times. Of that massive pile of plastic, 76 percent is still with us, with most of it existing as waste.
Plastic Creates New Epoch
University of California environmental scientist Roland Geyer is the lead author of a study that was published in Science Advances in July 2017.
His team found that of all the plastic produced just nine percent has been recycled, 12 percent has been incinerated, and 79 percent clogs up landfills or simple lies around in the natural environment.
According to the study “… plastics’ largest market is packaging, an application whose growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use containers.”
Yes, packaging. A “product” that makes a trip from the store to the home and, mostly, one more trip to the garbage dump. And, of course, almost none of it is biodegradable, so it will remain in the environment forever.
And, we’re still on the up curve of production. Professor Geyer told The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “Between 2004 and 2015 we made as much plastic as we made between 1950 and 2004.”
A co-author of the study, Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, said “Our estimate of eight million metric tonnes going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. This annual input increases each year, so our estimate for 2015 is about 9.1 million metric tonnes.”
Future palaeontologists, if such animals exist, will see a layer in the fossil record that will mark our age, just as the bodies of long extinct life forms identify earlier epochs. Some scientists have called our age the Anthropocene era, meaning created by humans.
North Pacific Garbage Dump
A gyre is a system of rotating ocean currents. One of these is in the North Pacific and it circles clockwise touching the coasts of Japan and California. This North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is honking big and covers an area about three times the size of the continental United States.
As the gyre circulates it picks up debris and slowly moves it to its centre. According to Greenpeace, this “trash vortex” covers an area the size of Texas. Its constituent parts are plastic bags, food containers, pop and water bottles, and children’s toys. And, Greenpeace lists some of the other flotsam “All too often there are polyurethane foam pieces, pieces of polypropylene fishing net and discarded lengths of rope. Together with traffic cones, disposable lighters, tyres, and even toothbrushes …”
This rubbish is not good for aquatic life. Seeturtles.org says “Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, and other marine mammals, and more than one million seabirds die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.”
Some animals mistake the refuse for prey. Sea turtles think plastic shopping bags look like jellyfish, one of their favourite diet items. The result is a blocked digestive system and death.
Sea birds also die because they mistake floating junk for food. Dead birds have been found with balloons, cigarette butts, and bottle caps in their stomachs.
It’s estimated that for every kilo of plankton is this raft of garbage there are six kilos of plastic.
Another Island of Plastic
Now, scientists have discovered an island of floating plastic in the South Pacific Ocean.
It swirls around in the South Pacific Ocean in a counter-clockwise direction. Some call it an island, but the word doesn’t do justice to its scale. It’s more continental in size. It’s bigger than Mexico and it drifts around off the coasts of Chile and Peru.
Shaena Montanari of National Geographic writes that, “The pieces of plastic are not necessarily floating bottles, bags, and buoys, but teeny-tiny pieces of plastic resembling confetti, making them almost impossible to clean up.”
A lot of these microplastics, the size of a sesame seed or smaller, are used in products such as toothpaste and cleansers. They are too small to be captured by filtration systems and end up in the ocean, where they do harm to aquatic life.
Henderson Island in the southeast Pacific is just 36 square kilometres in size; that’s about half the area of Manhattan. Nobody lives on this patch of land that is 5,000 km distant from the nearest landmass. It is about as far away from anywhere else that you can get on our planet, and yet, Google Street View has been there.
Despite its remote location Henderson Island is home to an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic garbage. Ocean currents deliver 3,500 new pieces of trash every day. The rubbish drifts in from Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa.
A team from the University of Tasmania spent more than three months on the island studying its accumulation of plastic litter. They marked off areas of beach and counted and sorted every item of waste found in it. They then extrapolated these numbers to cover all the island’s beaches.
As The Atlantic reported “The total junk on Henderson—all 17,000 kilograms of it—represents just two seconds of the world’s plastic production …”
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade like wood or other vegetable matter. Under the influence of sunlight and wave action, plastic items become brittle and slowly break down into smaller pieces. Greenpeace says that “A single one-litre bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world.”
Education Database Online says:
- Americans consume 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water every year, and that only one in five bottles is recycled.
- “40% of all of all bottle water is taken from municipal water sources (aka tap water).”
- “17 million barrels of oil are used in the production of water bottles yearly … enough to fuel one million cars for a year.”
- “Plastic Garbage Patch Bigger Than Mexico Found in Pacific.” Shaena Montanari, National Geographic, July 25, 2017.
- “What Are Microplastics?” National Ocean Service, undated.
- “How an Uninhabited Island Got the World’s Highest Density of Trash.” Laura Parker, National Geographic, May 27, 2017.
- “Production, Use, and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made.” Roland Geyer et al, Science Advances, July 17, 2017.
- “Humans Have Produced 8.3 Billion Tonnes of Plastic, Researchers Say.” Nicole Mortillaro, CBC, July 19, 2017.
- “The Trash Vortex.” Greenpeace, undated.
- “Ocean Plastic & Sea Turtles.” Seeturtles.org, undated.
- “A Remote Paradise Island Is Now a Plastic Junkyard.” Ed Jong, The Atlantic, May 15, 2017.
- “The Facts About Bottled Water.” Education Database Online, undated.