WATCH our plastic explainer special above, which aired on Global National. Over the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than all of the 20th century. We look at exactly how our trash and plastic ends up in our oceans and the impact it’s having on our environment.
Several countries are closing off their beaches to tourists. Thailand shut down Maya Bay, famously featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach. The Philippines announced the temporary closure of Boracay – which has been called a “cesspool.” And disturbing videos and images of plastic-filled Bali have been emerging after authorities declared a “garbage emergency.”
“It’s an atrocity. Here we are polluting our ocean, initially out of ignorance. This shows how poorly we are able to leave the planet for the next generation,” Erik van Sebille said, an oceanographer from Utrecht University who studies the oceans’ currents.
Local authorities have been forced to close beaches so they can get a handle on the mounting piles of trash and plastic, some of which ends up being swept into our oceans.
Oceanographers say it is not only having an impact on our idyllic paradises but our ecosystems as a whole. Plastic is non-biodegradable.
Every year, about 8-million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans, which is equal to five bags filled with plastic going along every foot of coastline in the world, according to Plastic Oceans, a non-profit organization. By 2025, they estimate the annual input will be about twice that.
But how exactly is so much plastic and waste ending up in our waters? And what happens to that plastic once it is swept away by the oceans’ currents?
The ocean currents may push trash and plastic to a gyre — think of them like large slow-moving whirlpools in the ocean. When garbage enters a gyre, it’s slowly pulled into the centre where they form a huge garbage patch.
There are five giant garbage patches located in the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
The biggest of the garbage patches is the North Pacific Garbage Patch, between Hawaii and California. It is accumulating trash faster than ever and is now three times the size of France or 1.6-million square kilometres. The patch contains 1.8-trillion pieces of plastic, which equals 250 pieces for every human being in the world.
The total mass amounts to 80,000 tons. That’s almost the equivalent of two Titanics.
It is also possible that a lot of the plastic swirling around in these great garbage patches could end up moving back to shores. Think about it like a message in a bottle: what goes out into the deep and wild ocean, could come back.
“Within the garbage patches, it’s not beach balls or rubber duckies or big things floating… some of it is, but most of it is actually really small, millimetre-size plastic pellets,” van Sebille said.
He says the thing about plastic is that wildlife mistakes it for food.
“Plankton grows on the pellets, birds eat them, fish eat them, and because they contain a lot of toxins, that becomes part of the food chain.”
But he says the big overarching issue here is that all this plastic waste in our oceans is having an impact on our planet. Over the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than all of the 20th century, according to Plastic Oceans.
According to Algalita, an organization that researches how to solve the plastic pollution crisis, we should use alternatives to plastic products such as paper or glass.
We should also be avoiding “single-use” products such as water bottles, plastic bags or straws. They also say that it is our responsibility to recycle all materials properly, and municipalities need to improve their waste-management systems.
When it comes down to it, van Sebille says there is no way of filtering out the trillions of millimetre-sized plastic bits that have ended up in our oceans, but we can stop the problem from getting worse.
“We can stop the problem from getting even worse by reducing plastic, by asking and demanding better waste-management systems, by just making sure that whatever we do with the plastic in our economy, in our daily lives, that that plastic doesn’t end up in our environment. Really, it just doesn’t belong there.”
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