Plastic Pollution – Part 1
I never really understood the magnitude of the plastics problem until news broke of ocean containers filled with our garbage being refused by foreign countries and being rerouted back to Canada. What was going on? Didn’t we have a recycling program for plastics? What I learned rocked me and made me, my family and our businesses vow to become as plastic free as possible.
Plastic pollution is found everywhere in the world. In Canada, only 11% of plastics are recycled. The worst offenders are what we classify as single use plastics such as plastic bags, food packaging and straws. So what happens to all this plastic if we are not recycling it?
Burying plastic in landfills is ongoing but expensive. Poorer countries have been receiving our plastic garbage and incinerating it. The manufacture of plastics is a major user of fossil fuels. 8% of the worlds oil production goes towards manufacturing plastics. When these plastic wastes are incinerated CO2 is released into the atmosphere. So instead of reducing our carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change, we are actually enabling it.
What about these deeply buried plastics in our landfills? Turns out these plastics basically live forever. Their breakdown rate is estimated at 400 – 500 years. Over the past 50 years, world wide production of plastic has doubled with only 9% being recycled. It is an unimaginable as to the mountains of plastic garbage we have accumulated.
Right away my mind asks, “What are the impacts to us?” This is new territory. We are just starting to understand. It seems 2 culprits are coming to light. The first is vinyl chloride. The second is polystyrene. The degradation chemicals from these 2 culprits leach into our ground water. Then these chemicals are absorbed into our bodies. Polystyrene has been listed as a probable carcinogen to humans. Research is ongoing trying to determine how they alter human hormone levels.
Our plastic trash on land issues pales in comparison to what is happening to the worlds water supply. In my ignorance, I assumed some plastics escaped the landfills or recycling programs and eventually found their way to our streams and lakes. My reasoning was way off.
As I write this article, 270,000 Tons of plastic are floating in our seas. By 2050 the mass of the plastic in our worlds oceans will exceed the mass of all fish that live there. This plastic is pervasive. It is even in Mariana’s trench – the deepest section of our oceans. How did it get this way? Basically, the world is using our oceans as a toilet. Communities, worldwide, toss all their garbage into rivers that eventually connect to our oceans. Most poorer communities have no landfills for their garbage not alone a recycling program. The easy answer is to dump the garbage into the waterways and it becomes someone else problem downstream. Well, the time has come where it is now everyone’s problem – the plastic trash is on everyone’s doorstep.
The plastics dumping into our oceans is so enormous that we now have worldwide garbage patches. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the Northern Pacific ocean. It is actually 2 distinct debris fields in the Eastern and Northwest Pacific ocean. These are spinning debris patches are linked together by the convergence zone where warm water from the South Pacific meets cooler water from the Arctic. This convergence zone acts as a highway between these 2 patches. The larger items, such as fishing nets have created huge entanglement issues for marine wildlife and birds.
What I want to know is, “How were we so blind not to see all this trash floating around in our oceans, especially these garbage patches?” Again, never a simple answer. We didn’t see these patches, even with satellite help, because it didn’t look like plastic. Now we get down to the nitty gritty of it all. Micro plastics.
So what are micro plastics and where do they come from? Micro plastics are formed in water when a combination of UV light from the sun reacting with O2 and wave action break larger pieces of plastic to smaller bits. Micro plastics are less than 5 mm in size. Believe it or not, the next biggest source of plastic pollution is our clothing. Yup – synthetic fibers. These synthetic fibers are shed with each laundering into the waste water. Our waste water filters do not trap these microfibers allowing them to escape into our waterways and ocean. And the last shocking source of micro plastic is from micro beads. Micro beads are tiny plastic particles used as an abrasive in many personal care products like facial scrubs, soaps and shampoos.
Since these micro plastics are so small, these ocean patches were not detectable except for larger plastic debris pieces, such as fishing nets. The micro plastics alter the look of water to look more opaque and soupy. So these ocean garbage patches didn’t look like garbage islands since most of it was made up of micro plastics. 70% of this marine plastic waste ends up on the ocean floor. Because the Great Pacific Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility for cleanup.
The Great Lakes are in worse shape than our oceans. The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people. Micro plastics have been found in all 5 Great Lakes. The average concentration of plastic in the Great Lakes are higher than that of the ocean garbage patches. We are consuming plastic through the fish and seafood we eat and through the tap water. As a matter of fact, 10,000 MT end up in the Great Lakes every year. We are ingesting approximately 70,000 micro plastics per year.
We can all take a round of responsibility for micro plastics. We all have laundry waste water loaded with synthetic fibers and waste water containing micro beads. The worst plastic pollution events occur around urban runoff after rain or melting when articles of foam, films, plastic from litter such as water bottles, food wrappers and cigarette butts hit the waterways.
What absolutely puzzled me was why wildlife deliberately ingest plastic. Can they not see plastic is not real food? It is staggering to think that plastic is found in the guts of more than 90% of sea birds and in 50% of stomachs of sea turtles and whales. 100,000 marine creatures and 1 million sea birds die annually from plastic consumption. We are accelerating extinction rates. Larger pieces of plastic when swallowed result in stomach and intestinal blockage. Micro plastics ingestion result in malnutrition, intestinal blockage or slow poisoning from chemicals leached from the plastics.
It seems that all marine wildlife and birds are drawn to intentionally eat plastic because of what is on it. Algae. Plastics in our waterways and oceans become covered by algae that releases a natural sulfur compound (DMSP) dimethylsulfoniopropionate. This natural compound is detected by wildlife and mistaken for decomposing food.
Micro plastic consumption by humans is unavoidable. They are in the water, food and even the air we breath. Researchers know micro plastics are accumulated in our bodies but they don’t know the full health implications, yet.
The final part of this plastic pollution article will deal with how to combat plastics and journey towards a net zero plastic lifestyle.