Every single piece of plastic ever created still exists to this day somewhere on our planet
Let that fact sink in for a bit and whilst you’re thinking about it take a look around the room, count how many objects you can see that are made of plastic, I bet you it is over half of the objects that surround you. Plastic is perhaps the most versatile material invented by mankind. It ticks all the right boxes.. It's cheap and easy to manufacture, its virtually indestructible and it can be used for a staggering variety of applications.
Plastic was first synthesized back in 1907 by a gentleman called Leo Hendrik Baekeland in New York, when at the time it was heralded as a wonder material. It wasn't until the 1960’s however, that plastic became widespread in manufacturing and we saw the spread of plastics overflow into the single use market. Let me be clear here in saying that plastic itself can be useful, the main problem we have is that it's being used for purposes where it’s used once (often for an incredibly short time) then thrown out.
This ‘Single Use’ attitude is what is doing the damage to our oceans, not plastic itself;
It's the reason that over one million plastic bags are used worldwide every single minute..
Add that to the millions of plastic straws, food packaging, bottles, lollipop sticks, cotton ear buds, takeaway containers, utensils, fast food junk, toys, cups, fishing gear, balloons, coffee cups and other single use plastic items and you might be able to get a grasp of the sheer amount of plastic used once and thrown away each day.
Now I know you might be thinking “I always put my rubbish in the bin so why does it matter?” and this is a valid point.. However to answer this question we need to look a little deeper into what happens when we put something in the bin.
100 years ago only the most wealthy people could afford to have their rubbish collected, the common person had to deal with it themselves. They did so firstly by only using things that they could deal with themselves, secondly by recycling non food items such as glass jars and cutlery. And lastly their food scraps were either fed to livestock or composted to form organic rich compost for their garden, essentially returning the energy left in the food back to nature. In turn growing richer and better food for their gardens. This method has been used for thousands of years and it's the same method that a rainforest, ocean or any ecosystem on this planet uses. It's a sustainable cycle, in which waste products end up being recycled for plants and animals to use again.
We may think that recycling is a new invention but in reality it has been occurring since the formation of life on earth. Take for example the humpback whale; The humpback whale spends its summer in the waters of Antartica eating as much krill as it possibly can before migrating north again to spend winter mating and calving in the calmer tropical waters near the equator. These whales are part of a self perpetuating ecosystem that feeds itself.
The whales eat krill, a small shrimp like creature, that once processed by the whale is excreted back into the water which in turn, is consumed by krill, starting the whole process again. This is sustainable as long as the whale doesn't eat too much krill. This is the fundamental principle in which an ecosystem operates, balance is the key and balance is what we as a species are lacking.
Now that we aren't putting sustainable items in our bins we have had to come up with a solution. Unfortunately this solution is to dig a massive hole in the ground and pile all of our non-recyclable and non-compostable items in it until it is full and then dig another one. However the point to take away from this is that the things we throw in the bin never truly go away, they get buried in the ground, only to get unburied at a later date. Unfortunately a lot of this waste makes its way to our oceans via waterways and rivers that are all connected. The prevailing winds of the world then lead this floating plastic waste to large conglomeration sites called gyres. These are areas sometimes the size of small countries that collect all the floating waste and eventually lead to the formation of micro-plastics.
Micro-plastics are the eventual product of the break down of plastic, unlike metal or organic products which eventually rust or rot away, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. These oceanic gyres provide the perfect place for this process to occur. The plastic spends it’s day floating around rubbing up next to its neighbor whilst baking in the sun, the ideal recipe for micro-plastics.
Micro-plastics not only present a massive health risk to the animals which consume them but also us. Bioaccumulation is the process in which toxins biologically accumulate in larger amounts as they move up the food chain. It is for this reason that almost all sharks are unsafe to eat as they have toxic levels of heavy metal within their flesh.
A small zooplankton species may only be unlucky enough to eat one microplastic particle in its lifetime however the small fish that feeds on zooplankton on a daily basis will consume a substantially larger amount. This number will continue increasing as you move further and further up the food chain until you reach an apex predator such as a Yellowfin Tuna. By the time the humble Yellowfin Tuna makes its way into your sushi or onto your dinner plate, the amount of microplastic particles in its flesh will be borderline toxic. You can see how this may be a problem?
So with all this talk of doom and gloom, how do we look at solving this?
Well there are plenty of grassroot organizations that are taking initiative to help curb this problem. I have linked the relevant sites and articles below and hope you are able to find an extra $5 to donate to this worthy cause. However we cannot pay our way out of this one so here is what you, yes YOU can do to help..
Perhaps the most magical part of consumerism and certainly the most forgotten aspect of it is that people hold the power. When a union goes on strike due to a pay dispute or an issue within the industry, that industry normally grinds to a very inconvenient stand still. We often forget that as the consumer we have the power to make the changes that we want to see. Companies produce products to make money, this is how a capitalist society works. They are always looking to find a cheaper way to produce something and if given the option between an environmentally friendly product and one that makes them more money, all but a very few companies will choose the environmentally friendly option.
This is where we come into the equation, we as consumers have the ability to choose what product we buy. We have the ability to politely refuse single use plastics. We have the ability to leave unnecessary plastic packaging on supermarket shelves to make a point that we neither want nor need this. When given the choice between a glass and plastic bottle for a drink, choose the glass; even though the energy needed to create the glass one is substantially larger it can be reused and each time it is reused, the carbon footprint is halved, making it better for the planet, in the long run.
It's up to you to slow life down a little and be present for each and every moment to avoid mindless consumption. Do you really need a straw or is it just something that we have grown up thinking we “need”? Is it really that hard to remember your reusable coffee cup or will it actually make you appreciate the coffee more? Do you really need that plastic bag for the two items you bought at the shops or can you just carry it straight to the car and then into the house?
It's a weird society that we live in today where talking about these things can get you labeled as a hippy or a tree hugger, however the time has come where we need to start talking about these issues, without fear of being an outcast. Our planet is amazing, full of wonderful places, people, sights and animals and if we continue down this dangerous path, it won't be long before this isn’t the case.
Just remember that we are the last generation of mankind to exist on this planet with not only the knowledge but ability to save it. All we need to do is act….NOW