Oceans, caught between devil and the deep blue sea… (Pun intended!) – XIX

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Plastic garbage in the oceans

You will be shocked to know that world-over one truckload of plastics garbage goes into oceans, every thirty seconds!  This year till now, we have already dumped over 5 million tonnes of plastics trash into our oceans, and we are well on our way to achieve new records!  By the time you will finish reading this article 150 more tonnes or 15 more truckloads of plastics would have gone in oceans somewhere on this planet.

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Today, we realize that the socially-conscious and healthy way to live is without disposable commodities like plastics. Humankind in the future will be forced to achieve a life without single-use plastics by halting the consumption of oil and innovating technologies to close the loop to the lifecycle of plastics and waste.

Alexander Parkes invented the plastic molecule in the mid-19th Century.  However, the technology remained dormant almost for a century following that.  Two German giants, Bayer AG and BASF SE also were established during the same period and after the war started focusing on the development of plastics.  During World War II, Americans first utilized the technology as piping around the wires found in its war machinery. Postwar, European and American companies flooded resources into perfecting plastics’ technology and plastics’ capabilities. 

Fossil oil industry, which was an industrial revolution itself, quickly devised a new plan to continue fostering industrial growth.  Since plastic is a derivative of oil, oil companies decided to fill the factories with the tools they needed to begin mass producing single-use commodities made from plastic. So began the “Throwaway Living” era, a time which glorified the convenience of single-use plastics. Ever since then, plastics have outgrown most human-made materials and have long been under environmental scrutiny.

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During the conversion from oil to the resin and then to a plastic product, a wide variety of additives—including fillers, plasticizers, flame retardants, UV and thermal stabilizers, and antimicrobial and coloring agents – are added to enhance plastic’s performance and appearance. The result is a class of materials that have highly versatile and desirable properties (including strength, durability, lightweight, thermal and electrical insulation, and barrier capabilities) and can take many forms (such as adhesives, foams, fibers, and rigid or flexible solids, including films).  Many such additives mimic hormones or disrupt hormone systems in the marine animals (when plastic garbage enters oceans) and work their way up in the food chain, up to human beings.  The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which would be released into those ocean ecosystems.

Omnibus presence of plastics litter in the environment is in itself a manifestation of our dependence on plastics in everyday life.   Marine debris (or marine litter) consists of any manufactured or processed solid material that was discarded or transported into the marine environment, including glass, metals, paper, textiles, wood, rubber, and plastics. Some of these materials are readily biodegradable (e.g., paper, wood, or natural fibers), whereas others are long-lived in the marine environment. Persistent non-biodegradable marine debris has existed in the oceans throughout maritime history.  E.g., Ceramic artifacts contained in the sunken ancient wooden vessels. However, plastics are unique in that they are both persistent (resistant to biodegradation) and—because of their lightweight—readily transportable by wind and water.

Researchers estimate that industry has produced more than 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastics till date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Million metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment like oceans.

While studying marine debris, plastics are the most abundant material collected floating on the ocean surface, collected in beach surveys and beach cleanups, and they are also commonly observed on the seafloor. With the continued growth of plastics production worldwide, the abundance and risks of plastics in the marine environment warrant concerns. This plastics abundance in marine ecology also motivates research not only to quantify plastics contamination and its biological, ecological, social, and economic impacts but also to inform solutions.

We will see these impacts and solutions in forthcoming articles.  Till then enjoy your sea-food soup, as long as it doesn’t contain micro-plastic particles in it!

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References:

  1. Sciencemag
  2. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made – by Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law
  3. Darrin Qualmann – Global Plastics Production
  4. How much Plastic is there in the ocean – World Economic Forum
  5. Statista
  6. Ecowatch

 

Milind Joshi

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