Where no man has ever been, diver finds plastic bag

Going down: The submarine, called DSV Limiting Factor, cost around $48 million to build.

An explorer has completed the deepest-ever, solo dive, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. There he found a plastic bag and some sweet wrappers. How do we stop the desecration of nature?

The Mariana Trench is the deepest natural trench in the world. It is found in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,400 miles west of the Philippines. Its seafloor is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Dive down, and the pressure is the equivalent of 50 jumbo jets piled on top of one person.

That did nothing to put off American explorer (and millionaire) Victor Vescovo, who descended 10,927m into the trench to complete the world’s deepest-ever, solo submarine dive.

He spent four hours on the seafloor, as part of an expedition to reach the bottom of all five of the world’s oceans. While he was there, he collected what is thought to be the deepest-ever rock samples, and discovered four possible new species of crustaceans.

“Unfortunately, the presence of man finds its way even to these extraordinarily remote places,” he told The Times. He had spotted what he believes to be a plastic bag, and several sweet wrappers.

About eight million tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans each year. In 2017, David Attenborough’s documentary series Blue Planet II highlighted the devastating effect that this is having on sea creatures.

But yesterday, the TV presenter put his weight behind a new report which focuses on the dangerous impact of plastic on humans. It found that plastic pollution is killing up to one million people every year, mostly in the world’s poorest countries.

This is because developing nations often do not have the infrastructure to dispose of plastic waste safely: just one in four people in the world have their rubbish collected. As a result, it often ends up in the environment.

From there, it becomes a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes, or it blocks drains and causes flooding. In places with poor sanitation, this can spread diseases like cholera.

Then there is air pollution. If plastic is not thrown away, it is often burned — which gives off toxic fumes (and contributes to climate change).

It is time to act, “not only for the health of our planet, but for the wellbeing of people around the world”, Attenborough said.

Last straw?

But act how? There has been a huge drive to reduce plastic use in the UK. A plastic straw ban is planned for later this year. Some coffee shops have introduced “latte levies” (extra charges for single-use coffee cups). Is it on us, as individuals, to keep reducing our plastic use to the absolute minimum?

Or is that just a drop in the (poisoned) ocean? The problem is bigger than straws and cups. “We need leadership from those who are responsible for introducing plastic to countries where it cannot be adequately managed,” says Attenborough. In other words, it is companies who must finally put the planet above their profits.

You Decide

  1. Should plastic be banned outright?
  2. Whose responsibility is it to reduce plastic waste?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have five minutes to interview Victor Vescovo about his record-breaking dive. What three questions would you ask him?
  2. For the next 24 hours, keep a record of all your plastic use, such as water bottles, food packaging and plastic bags. If it is single-use plastic, make a note of whether it is recyclable or not. Discuss your findings the next time your class gets together. Were you surprised by how much plastic you used? Did it make you think twice about some items?

Some People Say...

“If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves.”

David Attenborough

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The report suggests that plastic pollution is harming poorer communities in more subtle ways too. For example, large amounts of plastic on beaches can put off tourists, impacting the economy. It also does damage to fishing and agriculture. When fish or animals have ingested too much plastic, it is bad for their health. This has a knock-on impact on those who rely on the animals for food.
What do we not know?
Whether the world can tackle the problem. There is currently no known way to retrieve large amounts of plastic from the ocean. Last week, countries around the world signed up to a UN plan to reduce the flow of plastic into poorer nations which are being “turned into dumpsites”. The US did not sign up, but it will still be bound by the rules. Will this be enough?

Word Watch

Mariana Trench
A crescent-shaped dip in the Earth’s crust, below the Pacific Ocean. The trench is about 11km (seven miles) deep, and 2,550km (1,585 miles) long.
Victor Vescovo
A pony-tailed explorer with a US Navy background, who made his fortune as a private equity investor. He scaled the highest points in each continent before turning his attention to the bottom of the oceans. His expedition, called Five Deeps, is being documented for the Discovery Channel. The submarine, research vessel and its scientific team are estimated to have cost him at least $100 million.
Crustaceans
A group of invertebrates which includes crab, shrimp, lobsters and wood lice.
Eight million tons
According to the United Nations (UN).
New report
The report was carried out by the charities Tearfund, Fauna & Flora International and WasteAid. It estimated that between 400,000 and one million people are dying each year as a result of mismanaged plastic waste.