Swimming in plastic
Nadia Kabir
Imagine standing on a stretch of beach by the ocean. You close your eyes and feel the warm air caressing your face, you can taste the salt on your lips. Your feet sink deeper in the sand as the waves lap over them, the rhythmic ebb and flow of the water is one with your breathing.
Then you feel something graze against your leg. Maybe it’s a fish. You feel something else. You open your eyes. No, not fish -- plastic. Tons and tons of plastic washed up on the beach, the rest floating on the surface of the water. The fantasy rapidly turns into a nightmare or, in our case, a reality.
In fact, it is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic make their way into our oceans every year on top of the 150 million metric tons already residing in them.
This is not to say that since its invention over a century ago, plastic has not delivered benefits. It is cost effective, lightweight, used in almost every manufacturing sector, and played an invaluable and irreplaceable role in many medical innovations.
In our more environmentally naïve and innocent past, the impact of plastic on the environment was not widely considered, let alone understood. But what we have come to realize is that starting from production (plastic is made from petroleum gases, natural gas liquids, and natural gas), its ubiquitous use (even clothes can have plastic in them) and disposal (most of it ends up in landfills and oceans) is highly detrimental to the environment and a major cause of pollution. We are the unwitting architects of a global crisis which is not only affecting us, but also marine and wildlife.
Currently we are producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic globally each year. According to the ocean conservancy, the way we are going, in about 10 years, there will be 250 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean and by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish.
Considering 71% of the earth is made up of oceans, it’s a sobering thought.
When we first started recycling in our household, I just thought that as long as we separated the paper, glass, tin, and plastic and put them in their respective recycling bins, we were helping the environment.
We were, but not quite in the way I had thought. What became clear very quickly was not only the mindboggling quantities of plastic used in day to day life but also that most of it is not recyclable or rather not biodegradable (or compostable).
Single use plastics account for 40% of plastics produced every year, of which packaging is the number one offender. In other words, you can’t put them in your recycling bin. A small percentage of plastic waste is incinerated, the rest ends up in landfills all over the world and ultimately a large proportion makes its way into the ocean.
Images of dead birds, turtles, and even whales washing up on the shore with their stomachs full of plastic, or becoming entangled have been another wake up call for us. We are rapidly destroying their natural habitat and causing untold harm.
But it doesn’t stop there. What we need to understand is that once in the water, these plastic items break down into microplastics due to the effects of sun, sea, wind, or just from being battered by the waves.
These, along with microfibres that enter the water from washing synthetic garments, find their way into fish as well. Unsurprisingly, ingesting microplastics and microfibres can have life-threatening consequences on marine life, and when we consume these fish, we are also ingesting those minute particles.
In 2002, Bangladesh was the first country to ban the thinner plastic bags. This was a monumental step in the right direction with countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, China, Australia, and Italy following suit.
In recent years, governments around the world have begun to acknowledge the issue and try to address the ways in which plastic production and consumption can be reduced. Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment says: “Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.”
One aspect is to actually increase, incentivize, and also enforce the recyclability rate. People should be made aware of how to recycle, what to recycle, and where plastic waste can be recycled. On the flipside, the private sector needs to invest in research and innovation into producing recyclable materials such as bioplastics or products that are environmentally sustainable.
It is also shocking that up until very recently, many countries such as the US were exporting their non-recyclable plastic waste to other, and quite frequently, poorer countries. According to the UN, in a deal signed by 187 nations, it has been agreed that exporting countries will now have to obtain permission from the governments of those countries receiving their mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste.
The plastic waste was being sent to private companies in developing countries without the need for consent from the government.
Our ancestors left a legacy which included the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, to name a few. Let us hope that what we leave for posterity is not just landfills and oceans of plastic bottles and bags, which I might add can take up to 450 years and 1,000 years respectively to decompose.