If the tone of this article offends you, I apologise in advance. It’s not easy to address this subject without emotion.
Instead of nurturing our planet, for the sake of future generations and our long-term survival as a species, we humans are systematically abusing it and treating it as a rubbish dump. One of the most telling examples of this desecration is plastic disposal.
Although the earliest origins of plastic date back to the late 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the industry started to take off with the patenting of Polystyrene by BASF and Neoprene, Nylon and Teflon by DuPont. The first polythene bags were introduced in the 1960s and plastic bottles arrived soon after.
What appeared to be a boon to humanity, used in everything from medical equipment to parts of planes, is rapidly becoming a curse. Some of the very traits that have made plastics so popular – they’re cheap and therefore easy to throw away – have also made them an insurmountable problem in our landfills and oceans.
A huge part of this predicament is the nature of the material itself. Plastics are in general non-biodegradable and merely break down into smaller and smaller pieces with exposure to sunlight. Some plastic products are known to take decades if not hundreds of years to completely erode.
Almost every piece of plastic we’ve ever made still exists and, in less than a human lifetime, plastics have become the principal type of waste material found in our seas.
Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit organisation that arranges annual coastal cleanup events in over 150 countries worldwide, has reported that plastic waste comprises more than 85 per cent of all the litter collected from beaches, waterways and oceans – and that’s just the stuff we can see!
As well as the vast quantities of plastic floating on the surface of marine waters, which in some areas have collected into seemingly endless platforms of debris such as the now famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, starving our oceans of light and oxygen, there are also untold amounts of extremely small plastic fragments underwater.
Included with these microplastics are a relatively recent phenomenon – microbeads – tiny pearls of plastic which are added to health and beauty products. These are unfortunately being consumed by marine life and we in turn are in danger of ingesting quantities of them when we eat fish and other species from the sea.
For this reason, many countries have now banned their use, including the U.S., and the UK government will also disallow microbeads in cosmetics and cleaning materials by the end of this year.
Words Iain Blackwell