It’s as if plastic has always been there, given how much we rely on it. After all, plastic was designed to last forever. But somehow, we as humans became confused along the way, and that began in the ’50s when we were told that this indestructible product was disposable. We started designing thousands of items with it that we used just once and then we threw them ‘away’.
There has been a lot of focus on plastic pollution in the marine environment lately, and for good reason. However, there are a number of myths surrounding our perception of this that need to be debunked.
We decided to talk to the experts to find out the truth behind some of the sweeping statements that you so often hear in the media.
We’ve spoken at great lengths with Jo Ruxton, Co-Founder of the global non-profit organisation, Plastic Oceans, and Producer of
the documentary feature film, ‘A Plastic Ocean’ (on Netflix and Amazon Prime).
Alongside our own research, Jo has helped us understand the facts behind some of these myths, which we’ll be publishing each day of this week.
We’ll be covering everything from the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and microplastics, to long plastic takes to break up, “biodegradable” plastics, recycling and more. Tune from Monday to Friday to learn the facts behind a new myth each day; At the end of the series, you can download a PDF guide for free. Sign up to receive the guide directly to your inbox here.
A common misconception is that ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is a large swirling mass of garbage floating around on the surface in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The truth is that this accumulation of plastic does not consist of a large island of plastic bottles, plastic bags and other discarded plastic debris. The plastic found here is far less obvious, yet far more deleterious. It’s more of a plastic soup of microplastics, consisting of tiny plastic particles and fibres that may not even be visible to the naked eye. In a report by the IUCN, it was stated that 35% of all primary microplastics in the oceans originate from machine-washed synthetic textiles, making this the largest source of microplastics, with car tyre wear in second place at 28%.
On their expedition to film A Plastic Ocean, Jo went to this very place to see the extent of the problem. Jo explains how “at the centre, the nets were more concentrated, as that is where they all collect.” She recalls, “if you were to stay out there for an hour, you might collect a crate full of larger pieces that typically come from shipping (things being dumped from ships at sea).
Plastic doesn’t break down, plastic breaks up. Because plastic was designed to defy nature, to last forever, it will not decompose and will persist in the environment for a very long time, we cannot begin to guess how long. Rather than simply decomposing naturally, it tends to break up into smaller and smaller bits of plastic which eventually become microplastics. Although really small, these tiny bits of plastic pose a huge threat to both environmental and human health.
Microplastics are estimated to make up over 90% of the estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the global ocean and tend to accumulate in the ocean gyres, where they are now ubiquitous and simply impossible for marine animals to avoid. What makes them particularly dangerous is that unlike larger pieces of plastic debris, they are either invisible and therefore unwittingly ingested, or they are mistaken for food particles and ingested by mistake. Consequently, they are consumed by marine organisms of all sizes. Animals that consume others whole will consume the plastic particles too, but that is only part of the problem.
From the day plastic enters the ocean, it starts to attract the chemicals there like a magnet. These chemicals have come from decades of industrial and agricultural run-offs and are persistent in the marine environment. But they are hydrophobic, they don’t like water and they stick to plastic and intensify the longer that plastic remains. Once consumed the one thing they like better than plastic, is fat and they are released and stored in the fatty tissue of the animal that has eaten the plastic. So, although we might not eat the guts of fish, where the plastic might be, those chemicals still make their way up the food chain, magnifying in intensity as they go so that top predators, and that includes us, end up with the biggest load. To add to that problem, the chemicals used in the manufacturing process of plastic also leach out into the bodies of the animals that eat it – so plastic really is double-trouble once eaten by marine animals.
So, while the image of a floating island of trash does a good job of generating awareness of the extent of the problem, in reality, the problem is far subtler but far more damaging to the marine environment. Marine trash does exist in huge quantities, it is just not concentrated in one area but rather spread out across the oceans.
There have been claims about how long plastic takes to break up. A trending statistic that you will see floating about it that things like plastic bottles take 450 years to break down. However, plastic was only invented 150 years ago, and was really only introduced to the common household in the 1950’s, – in most of our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, and when Earth’s population was only 2.5 billion.
So how would anyone really know how that plastic can take 450 years to break down? There has been no research or evidence to prove exactly how long it takes plastic to fully break up. The best assumption to make, is that any number of years is far too long, and that plastic was designed not to break down/decompose – it defies natural processes.
We take into consideration water input, energy input, land use, eco-toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, human toxicity, availability, and price. We also looked at garment care implications, like microfiber shedding. Every time you wash synthetic clothes they shed small plastic pieces called microfibers, which is leading to plastic pollution of our waterways. That is why we chose a plant-based alternative.
All plastic degrades, it just does it very, very slowly, but, it doesn’t biodegrade. Biodegradable and/or compostable plastics are often touted as being an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional plastics. However, some manufacturers are mis-labelling their products and confusing consumers and many environmentalists refer to this practice as ‘greenwashing’. In some cases products have been labelled ‘biodegradable’ when they are in fact plastic, such as HDPE, mixed with plant material. Over time these items appear to photodegrade however, it is only the plant element that breaks down resulting in small pieces of plastic that will end up in the environment.
Compostable products made completely from plant material are a better alternative because they will eventually biodegrade. However, in many cases, labelling them ‘composable’ is confusing since consumers assume they can be buried in the ground like household compost. The majority of compostable plastic replacement items need to be sent to an industrial composting facility where they are exposed to heat and oxygen. This means they would need to be sorted, separated and collected in a separate waste stream to normal plastic recycling. There is no such scheme in place. Consumers cannot easily identify whether the item is plastic or not, they might try to do the right thing but placing the item in the plastic recycling and if they do then the whole batch would be contaminated and unable to be recycled. The current alternative option would be landfill where it would not be heated enough to decompose.
So, it seems we have some of the answers but not the infrastructure to make them work. Not yet. And plant-based plastics, although they will eventually break down in the ocean, it might still take a few years, during which time they can still choke and entangle marine life there.
Extremely large volumes of plastic items are produced and discarded each and every day. “We are producing plastic at an exponential rate, every piece of plastic that has been created ever is still there.” Jo Ruxton points out, “Only a small portion is incinerated. So, what to do with the rest? Yes, it can be made into decking and park benches. But how much of this planet are we going to cover with black plastic? Imagine if all of our roads were made of plastic, we could then be breathing it in – especially on a hot day “.
Recycling programs, where recovered plastic is recycled and used to fabricate new products, can (and do) help to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up on a landfill, and ultimately the ocean. However, it is a myth to think that everything we send to the recycling depot gets recycled. Currently, recycling is not that efficient and about half of the plastic stuff we recycle is not actually recyclable, so it ends up being dumped anyway. To improve recycling efficiency, consumers need to lobby to get recycling centres or drop off points that accept a wide range of plastics made available for local communities.
Furthermore, Jo points out that we don’t exactly want to cover our entire planet with plastic either. “A piece of plastic loses quality each time it’s recycled. If plastic is recycled between 10-20 times, it loses colour and quality. Then finally, it’s buried or incinerated.” Plastic loses quality each time it is recycled. After 10 – 20 times it is no longer valuable and any mixed plastics end up black. Little can be done with the end product so we still have the same mass of plastic that has no use. Considering the exponential way we are producing plastic we are still ending up with that amount in the environment at the end of its life. Where will it all end up?”
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