The dire consequences of plastic pollution continue to mount. We must all resolve to avoid using this abysmal material
The Biologist 63(4) p11
Primates are often untidy. Witness the mess left under tropical fig or jackfruit trees by monkeys after a feeding frenzy. Luckily, a host of organisms from bandicoot rats to bacteria, process the leavings.
Humans produce a great deal more 'waste' than almost all other animals put together. However, in the last 70 years our waste – notably, non-biodegradable plastic[1,2,3] – has created an indelible stain that threatens the biosphere.
Tragically, the bulk of this waste is single-use packaging or consumables such as cups, bottles, straws, bags or expanded polystyrene. Most of it is not recycled, and up to a third ends up in the oceans. The trouble is that plastics are chemically stable for hundreds to thousands of years and generally only break down into smaller particles that end up contaminating food webs. Sir David Attenborough believes that the 8 million tonnes of plastic being dumped in the oceans each year is worse than sewage, reports The Times.
Since 1974, global plastic production has increased by more than 620%2 and is not slowing down. There are five vast accumulations of plastic in the oceans of which the north Pacific gyre represents the largest, a plastic stew at least 300,000 square miles in extent. About 30% of this is from China, which tops a list of countries (followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka) with a poor waste infrastructure (PWI), although the average US consumer probably produces the most plastic waste, at 2.5kg a day.
In South Africa, plastic bags littering trees have earned the sad title of "the national flower". In Sri Lanka, the availability of free plastic bags, which have blocked sewers causing floods in Colombo, only began around 1980; before that, shoppers used rattan baskets, and provisions were wrapped in newspaper or banana and other leaves tied with organic string.
Thousands of turtles are dying as a result of ingesting plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish – leatherback turtles are especially affected. A third of the chicks of Laysan albatrosses, of a dwindling population of 1.5 million, die on islands as their parents feed them plastic. Discarded nets and lines in the oceans kill vast numbers of marine life in a process in part described as ghost fishing.
Meanwhile, sewage treatment plants struggle to deal with plastic microbeads from toothpaste, soaps and cosmetics that readily pollute waterways – there are already more plastic particles in the Danube than fish fry, and it is predicted that oceanic plastic debris will outnumber fish by 2050.1 It is highly likely that we are also unwitting consumers of the stuff, plus all the associated chemicals on their surfaces such as flame retardants.
US company Ecovative is producing a lightweight polystyrene alternative from fungi, although such innovation is still disappointingly rare. In Sweden, waste to energy plants produce 20% of the heating in populated districts and 99% of waste is either recycled or incinerated so efficiently that they need to import 800,000 tonnes of waste, including from the UK.
However, the most important solution is the reduction of plastic usage and disposable waste as outlined by the World Economic Forum we as consumers have a key role.
Why did it take so long for England to ban free plastic bags? Usage has already plummeted by 80% (China got there in 2008). The governments of New York and Washington DC have now initiated bans of styrofoam and there will be a partial ban on microbead use in the US by 2017.
With well-developed waste practices in Scandinavia, Taiwan and increasingly the US, why does the UK continue with a relatively PWI? Our governments need to ban or tax disposable plastic such as bottles and straws, and incentivise biodegradable or recycling solutions, such as the sanitise and reuse glass policy in Denmark, a great deal more.
Next time you get that modern status symbol, a takeaway coffee (ideally in a biodegradable cup), try refusing the seemingly mandatory plastic lid that has to come with it – it may just bring you closer to addressing our growing waste footprint.
Rajith Dissanayake AMRSB is a freelance naturalist
1) World Economic Forum. The new plastics economy – Rethinking the future of plastics. Geneva, Switzerland (www.weforum.org, January 2016).
2) Jambeck, J. R. et al. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347(6223), 768–71 (2015).
3) Eriksen, M. et al. Plastic pollution in the world's oceans: more than five trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS ONE 9(12), e111913 (2014).
4) Barclay, E. How plastic in the ocean is contaminating your seafood (www.npr.org, 2013).
5) Ketler, A. Sweden runs out of garbage: only 1% ends up in landfills (collective-evolution.com, 26 November 2014).