Choking oceans fuel calls to ban plastic

Fake food: Scientists claim that over half the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic debris.

Time to ban plastic? A report released yesterday claims the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean could treble by 2025. Animals and humans alike are set to suffer the consequences.

Approximately 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste gets dumped into the world’s oceans every year. That is the same as one garbage truck of rubbish every single minute. But now scientists think things could get a whole lot worse.

A report released yesterday forecast the amount of plastic in the sea to treble by 2025, amounting to a possible 250 million tonnes.

And the consequences for wildlife could be disastrous.

Turtles die from eating plastic bags they mistake for food; seabirds ingest bellyfuls of toxic debris as their beaks skim the ocean; and even microscopic creatures miles from the surface have been found with plastic fibres in their guts. According to one estimate, over 100 million marine animals die every year from plastic pollution.

But it is humans, as well as animals, that face health hazards. Plastic litter on beaches can accumulate E.coli, posing the risk of infection.

And as microplastics accumulate inside fish, they reappear in our food. A third of UK-caught fish contains plastic — including cod, haddock, and shellfish. This could cause some people to inadvertently consume 11,000 plastic fragments every year.

Plastic has also been recorded in drinking water, and even the air we breathe.

But why is there so much plastic contaminating our world? A major factor is the lack of recycling. Of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste humans have produced since 1950, only 9% has been recycled.

By contrast, 79% of waste ends up in landfill, or as litter dumped across the environment — much of it single-use items like plastic bottles, cutlery, and straws.

Governments and business have begun to act. For example, the EU has pledged to make all plastic packaging in the continent recyclable or reusable by 2030. And a shop in Amsterdam has opened the world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle. But some think these steps do not go far enough.

Should we ban plastic all together?

Last straw

We must take radical action, some argue. Plastic waste stays in the environment for centuries, and the more we create, the deeper our problems become. A blanket ban would force manufacturers to innovate and devise sustainable solutions — by using different materials or making biodegradable plastics. Only drastic measures will heal our sick planet.

We must not be hasty, others respond. Plastic has many life-changing applications, from being used in intricate medical devices, to hygienically storing food. What is more, banning plastics could worsen other environmental problems. For example, despite being biodegradable, paper shopping bags may have a bigger carbon footprint than plastic ones. We need evidence-based policies, not panic-driven bans.

You Decide

  1. Is it immoral to use plastic?
  2. Would a world without plastic be better or worse than it is now?

Activities

  1. Plastic is all around us and plays a part in many things that we do. But there are ways for us to use less. In pairs, small groups, or as a class, come up with 10 ways that people can cut down on plastic. Once you have compiled your list, discuss how practical each step is. Do you think you could follow all your rules?
  2. Read the article in Become An Expert about the family who gave up plastic for a week. What sacrifices did they have to make? How difficult was the challenge? Did it have any positive effects? Do you think you could give up plastic for a week?

Some People Say...

“You can’t change the world; you can’t fix the whole environment. But you can recycle.”

Patti Smith

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is extensive evidence that plastic pollution holds grave threats for marine life, due to animals ingesting or becoming entangled in it. By far the biggest plastic polluting nation is China; the UK is responsible for only 0.2% of plastic waste entering the ocean each year.
What do we not know?
We do not know exactly how much plastic will end up in the ocean by 2025. The Future of the Sea report cites three different projections: low, mid, and high. The best-case scenario sees less than 100 million tonnes of pollution by 2025, the worst almost 250 million tonnes. In terms of the pollution’s risk to people, scientists are yet to determine the precise health risks that human consumption of microplastics pose.

Word Watch

12.7
According to Greenpeace.
Report
The Foresight Future of the Sea report assembled for the UK government.
100 million
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
E.coli
Infectious bacteria which can cause extreme food poisoning, and in some cases can even be fatal.
Microplastics
Extremely small fragments of plastic. These can be consumed by plankton, which are subsequently eaten by larger sea creatures — causing the plastic to accumulate across the food web.
Plastic fragments
How harmful it is for humans to consume microplastics has not been definitively determined, however a UN report claims that they “may present an attributable risk to human health”.
Drinking
One study of 11 different bottled water brands found that over 90% of bottles contained plastic fragments.
Breathe
For more on this, see the final link in Become An Expert.
9%
According to the paper: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” by Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law (Science Advances).
May
For more on this, see the Wired link in Become an Expert.