Take a look around the room or area you are currently in. The chances are that you’ll be able to spot five or six items made of plastic without too much difficulty. I certainly can. In less than ten seconds I can count six items on my desk all or partially made of plastic. In fact, even the keyboard I am typing this article on is made of plastic! In short, plastic is everywhere.
Over the last sixty years, plastic has become central to our daily lives due to its useful and incredibly versatile nature as a material. The trouble is that irresponsible handling of this material as a waste product has led to a manmade global catastrophe. With around 8 million tons of plastic waste ending up in our oceans each year, plastic pollution has accumulated to a point whereby parts of our oceans have become vast rubbish patches.
Without meaning to in many cases, we are damaging the environment, ecosystems and our own health with our plastic addiction.
The trouble with plastic is that the qualities that make it so durable also make it a bit of a nightmare environmentally speaking, because plastics are not biodegradable.
Plastics photo degrade (sun exposure), taking between 500 and 1000 years to break down. As huge quantities of this material break down gradually into smaller and smaller pieces, some parts of the ocean where it accumulates and becomes concentrated, (like the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch), turn into a dreadfully polluted, ‘plastic soup’.
Damage To The Environment
It is estimated that 13,000 pieces of plastic are floating per square kilometre of ocean worldwide with certain areas being worse affected than others.
Thousands of seabirds and marine mammals perish every year because of waste plastic. Some die when they become entangled in plastic waste and starve, suffocate or drown. Others mistake the particles for their usual food sources including squid or fish eggs and die after ingestion, following issues including internal injury, infection and reproductive failure. This damage jeopardizes the longer-term survival of several species. Marker pens, cigarette lighters, plastic beads, golf tees and the ubiquitous plastic bag have all been found inside dead sea birds.
Plants and coral reefs are harmed by marine debris too; items such as plastic bags or discarded fishing gear can suffocate and alter ecosystems. Some of the efforts that have been employed in the past to remove the plastic debris, such as beach raking have had an adverse effect on habitats along the shoreline, by creating yet more damage to the natural vegetation.
Research has even shown that plastic debris in the oceans has contributed to the spread of invasive species, by enabling some types to float from one body of water to another.
The impact of plastic pollution on the environment can be direct or indirect and the examples above are just the tip of the iceberg.
Toxic Chemicals Can Harm Us When They Enter The Food Chain
Plastic particles floating in the ocean attract and absorb a variety of different toxic chemicals. Upon entering the plastic, the concentration, and toxicity of the chemical increases significantly. These pollutants then enter our food stream via our diet. The concentration of chemical pollutants is linked with health risks including reproductive issues, an increased cancer risk and damage to the immune system.
The Negative Economic Impact
Plastic pollution in our oceans doesn’t just endanger the environment but there is a significant impact on our economy. This manifests itself in a variety of different ways:
Tourism – rubbish on the beach can be dangerous and off-putting to tourists and in some areas, this can have a damaging impact on communities who rely on tourism as their main source of income.
Fishing – when plastic pollution reduces the quantity of stock available, through some of the issues described above including death and lack of reproductive ability, this has a direct effect on the fishing industry in terms of reducing stock levels and catch quantities.
The high costs associated with replacing and repairing gear and vessels when they are entangled in or damaged by marine debris and the loss of productivity during the time whilst equipment is being fixed or replaced is a source of financial pressure and many small businesses fail in these circumstances.
Cleanup – The cost of prevention, removal and disposal is incredibly high, so much so, that over the years as this serious environmental issue has been discussed it has generally been considered an impossible task. This was due to the billions of pounds that would have been involved in tackling such a large-scale problem and on top of the projected costs; the conclusion of many was that such a task could take hundreds, if not thousands of years to complete.
At Last It Appears We Have A Solution!
Then along came Boyan Slat, a 20-year-old Dutch entrepreneur who is the founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup.
Slat was inspired to come up with a solution to this global problem after diving in Greece and finding that there were more plastic bags than fish once he ventured below the surface of the ocean. He subsequently came up with the design for a system of long floating arms that attached to the seabed, using the natural current of the water and wind to transport waste plastic to a collection platform.
This system has been rigorously tested and proven to be a green and most importantly, sustainable way to tackle marine waste. It is thought that at least 50% of the waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could be removed without harming sea life over a period of just ten years.
The Longest Floating Structure In History
Next year, the first of Slats systems will be deployed for the first time off the coast of Tsushima, between Japan and South Korea to collect waste plastic. Spanning 2000 meters, it will be the longest floating structure in global history!
It appears that this innovative young man may have come up with the ideal solution for a long overdue big clean up of this man made mess. If we can combine the Slats system with the right preventative strategies to reduce this type of pollution at it’s source, then this dreadful problem could become a thing of the past.
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