Plastic Waste: Last Nail in the Coffin of Marine Life

A new global study published in July broke new ground by presenting the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastic ever manufactured. It is estimated that 8,300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date worldwide and the vast majority has ended up in our environment.

The first synthetic plastics appeared in the early 20th century. Widespread use of plastics started after 1945. The ensuing rapid growth in plastics production is extraordinary, surpassing most other man-made materials. Plastics’ largest market is packaging, an application whose growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use packaging or containers.

The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics, such as ethylene and propylene, are derived from fossil petroleum hydrocarbons. Plastic takes 400 years to degrade. As a result, it accumulates, rather than decomposes, in landfills or the natural environment. The only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive thermal treatment, such as combustion or pyrolysis (burning or exposure to very high temperatures). The, near-permanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste is a growing concern. Contamination of freshwater systems and terrestrial habitats is also increasingly reported.

Of all the virgin plastics produced to date, 2500 Mt (30%) are currently in use. Between 1950 and 2015, cumulative waste generation of primary and secondary (recycled) plastic waste amounted to 6300 Mt, around 9% of which has been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the land and marine natural environment by 2050.

Plastic production in the recent 13 years, between 2002 and 2015, is double the entire production for the 52 years before that. At current trends it is estimated that plastic waste to be generated for the 35 years between 2015 and 2050 will be 5.4 times more than the waste generated in the previous 65. Notwithstanding that recycling and incineration activity is expected to increase 15 fold in the coming 35 years, the waste that will end up in landfills and in the natural environment is still expected to increase by 2.5 times from 2015 levels. Plastic waste is increasing exponentially. It is out of control.

Plastic poisons our groundwater. There are tens of thousands of landfills across the globe and buried beneath each one of them, plastic leachate, full of toxic chemicals, is seeping into groundwater and flowing downstream into lakes and rivers and ultimately into the seas and oceans.

Plastic affects human health. Chemicals leached by plastics are in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is said to be linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.

Plastic waste that finds its way to the ocean tends to accumulate in gyres (areas of slow spiraling water and low winds) and along coastlines. Gyres are clockwise currents that trap the plastic within, while the exposure to sun and sea breaks up the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. There are 5 such garbage patches. These are located in the North & South Pacific Ocean, in the North & South Atlantic Ocean and in the Indian Ocean.

The garbage gyres are each millions of square km in area and contain chemical sludge, plastic debris, such as bottles crates etc, all the way to micro and microscopic plastic particles. The North Pacific Gyre is home to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a large area that is approximately the size of Texas with debris extending 6 meters down into the water column. It is estimated that this “plastic island” contains 3.5 million tons of trash and could double in size in the next 5 years.

Seabirds are picking up plastic from ocean and sea garbage patches mistaking plastic for food and plastic granules for fish eggs. The parent birds are taking this toxic garbage mix and feeding it to their chicks until their chicks’ stomachs are so full of plastic that there is no space for actual food. The chicks then die of starvation. The record for pieces of plastic found inside the stomach of a bird is 276 pieces found in a dead 90 day old chick. Hundreds of thousands of 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. Common marine debris includes things like fishing lines and nets, cigarette butts, cans, plastic bags and bottles, styrofoam, balloons, lighters, and toothbrushes.

Countless billions of one-celled organisms, called phytoplankton, saturate the sunlit upper-ocean waters worldwide. These tiny plants and bacteria capture the sun’s energy and, through photosynthesis, convert nutrients and carbon dioxide into organic compounds. On the coast, sea weed and sea grasses do the same thing. Together, these plants are the primary producers of the organic carbon that all animals in the ocean food chain need to survive. They have also produced no less than 70% of the oxygen present in our atmosphere and continue to do so. When plankton feed on plastic debris they absorb the toxins. This ultimately kills the plankton or passes toxins, instead of nutritive algae, up the food chain.

A survey carried out in 2015 in relation to the Mediterranean Sea established that it contains 1000 Mt of plastic waste translating into 500 billion pieces of plastic that are mostly microscopic. There are more than 892,000 pieces of plastic marine litter per km2 in the most polluted areas. The Med has one of the highest concentrations of plastic in the world, ranking 3rd after the 2 Atlantic Ocean Garbage Patches.

There is no technology today that can be used to clean the oceans and seas of micro and microscopic plastic. This is a ticking time bomb. Plastic must be stopped from reaching the oceans and seas. The visible plastic pieces must be collected in order to stop it from breaking down to irretrievable dimensions. Unless we do something now, there will come a point, in the not too distant future, when the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and underground water will be saturated with toxic microscopic plastic particles running into millions of trillions. Our children will witness an irreversible mass extinction of marine life.

We should be alarmed by plastic pollution because the oceans & seas and the lakes & rivers produce the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe; because nature does not need people; because this is the only Earth our children and grandchildren have to live on in any foreseeable future; because plastic leaches toxic chemicals; because marine life and birds are dying in the hundreds of thousands annually from it; because you are eating it.

Article published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 20th August 2017