Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic enters our oceans. Most of this comes from debris on our streets, beaches and highways that float down storm drains. This consists of plastic bags, bottles, straws, balloons and food wrappers as well as fishing gear and nets. Some of this plastic washes up on our beaches while some of it gets consumed by marine life or fed to their offspring. Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic in the ocean. Sea turtles commonly eat plastic bags and other items causing blockages in their guts, ulceration, perforation and death. When seabirds eat plastic it remains in their stomach causing them to eat less actual food and slowly starve.
The plastic that doesn’t get eaten or washed up on the beach stays in the ocean where it collects and slowly starts to break down into microplastics (less than 5mm diameter). There is currently a mass in the Pacific Ocean of plastic 3 times the size of France, or over 2500 km, often called the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. There is also another similar one called the ‘North Atlantic Garbage Patch’. This is not a big pile of plastic bottles and straws that we can take pictures of from space or easily cleanup. It is spread out more like garbage soup with small bits of plastic floating just under the surface.
But how does this effect my health you ask. As plastic breaks down, chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) leach into the water. Plastics also absorb chemicals such as PCBs and DDT from the surrounding water. The concentration of PCBs in plastic in the ocean has been found to be up to 1 million times higher than the surrounding water. Aquatic organisms that live near the surface consume these microplastics and chemicals. These chemicals bioaccumulate, meaning the concentration grows the more the fish eats. Then a bigger fish eats them (along with many of their chemical saturated friends) and the chemical concentration just continues to grow. We then consume these fish, chemicals and all. PCBs from fish consumption can cause circulatory, nervous, immune, endocrine and digestive system problems. A study in California found a quarter of the fish at markets contained plastic in their guts. This is a BIG problem, and it is only getting bigger.
Gone are the days when you could feel good about yourself for recycling. China used to take most of the world’s recycling, but they are now refusing all but the cleanest recycling from countries. This is leaving Australia with a million tons of metal, paper and plastic that it would have sent to China, but now has to deal with on home soil. Some councils have already put some recycling into landfill. Canada also used to export most of its recycling to China with some cities there now saying that recyclables may end up in the dump as well. Others are trying to meet the new purity standards set by China, which includes no glass mixed with plastic, and no food stains on paper. This will mean that only the cleanest recyclables will be sent to China, and the remaining will be sent to landfill.
There are some local Australian recycling companies. Replas takes the soft plastic recycling from the REDcycle program and turns it into over 200 products including bollards, signage, outdoor furniture, decking and more. Don’t feel so good about returning your plastic shopping bags to your local grocery store just yet. The only thing that makes this a viable option, is if people buy the recycled products they make.
Although plastic slowly breaks down, it will never go away. The EPA (USA) says that every bit of plastic ever made still exists. We can’t keep going like this, we need to use less plastic!
So now you know about the problem – plastic isn’t going away and we can’t rely on recycling all of it. In my next article I’ll discuss some steps that you can take to make a difference by using the 6 Rs (yes six!) – Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. I hear you thinking – just one of us reducing our plastic isn’t going to change anything, but if we all do our best, we can make a big difference.