You may or may not know that Earth Day is celebrated annually by people all over the world on 22nd of April. This is done in order to raise the awareness of people about environmental safety and to signify the environmental protection measures. The first world Earth day was celebrated in the year 1970 and then commenced celebrating annually on global basis by 192 countries. The last three year’s themes for Earth Day have been “Environmental and Climate Literacy”, “Trees for the Earth!” along with “Water Wonderful World” and “Clean Earth – Green Earth”. This year the theme for 2018 is Plastic Pollution.
Let’s be honest, the majority of us don’t or can’t get through a day without using some sort of plastic. This may include any and most food and drink items, the remote control for your tv (the tv also being made of plastic), computers, some cooking utensils, stationery – the list goes on and on. Plastics are manmade, synthetic polymers made from long chains of carbon and a number of other elements. Through a procedure called cracking, crude oil and natural gases are converted to hydrocarbon monomers like ethylene, propylene, styrene, vinyl chloride and ethylene glycol to make various house hold, business and industrial plastic products. Plastics do make our lives easier in one way or another but it has deadly consequences for the environment. Once we throw away that chip packet or bottle of soda, it may go to landfill sites, it may get recycled, but some trash whether it be human negligence, wind or rain finds its way into the ocean. Let’s take our chip packet, if it flows down a river and into the sea it is not going to remain intact as you bought it in the super market, it is going to break down into smaller tiny pieces called micro plastics. The breakdown of some plastics may take hundreds of years while others less.
THE TOLL OF PLASTIC ON MARINE AND BIRD LIFE
Plastic pollution is carried throughout the world’s oceans by the wind and surface currents. This has been seen in the northern hemisphere where long-term surface transport (measured in years) leads to the gathering of plastic litter in the centre of the ocean. Studies confirm similar patterns for all southern hemisphere oceans as well. Surprisingly, the amounts of plastics measured for the southern hemisphere oceans are within the same range as for the northern hemisphere oceans, which is strange because the inputs are much higher in the northern than in the southern hemisphere. This could mean that plastic pollution is moved more easily between oceanic gyres (which are large areas where circular currents flow) and between hemispheres than previously thought, leading to redistribution of plastic items through transport in oceanic currents, There are 5 gyres across the world’s oceans.
Different studies have different averages of the amount of plastic found in the oceans across the world. Here are a couple, 580,000 pieces per km², 269,000 tons and 10–20 million tons. If you thought that was bad an estimated 4.4–12.7 million metric tons of plastic are added to the oceans annually. Scientists predict that in a number of years there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish! Plastic affects wildlife in two ways, entanglement and ingestion. It is also not picky as to what size or species it affects. Small zoo plankton, turtles, birds and whales are just a few. Just two months ago a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) washed up on a Spanish beach with 29kg of waste found in its stomach and amongst this waste plastic bags, ropes, nets and a drum… yes a drum.
The repercussions from the ingestion of manmade items for sea turtles can be devastating and includes internal injuries and intestinal blockage, disrupting with swimming behaviour and buoyancy, or accumulation of plasticizers or heavy metals and other toxins, such as PCBs. Sea turtles also eat plastic bags because they resembles their favourite food, jelly fish. Many species of marine birds such as albatross, petrels and gulls ingest small bits of plastic floating on top of the water. They also feed their chicks small bits of plastic that leach into their bodies. If the birds don’t get enough nutritional food they will die. Who can forget the picture of the dead albatross with a stomach full of small plastic pieces.
These are just some of the plastic bits and pieces I found on the beach the other day while out for a walk.
In the same vain, plastics in consumer products have become subject to increasing attention in regards to their potential effects on human health. Bisphenol a component of poly carbonate plastics is suspected of being an endocrine disruptor. This is one of the most widely known chemicals of interest. The components of plastics, as well as the chemicals and metals they release, can travel into the bodies of marine organisms upon consumption where they may concentrate and climb the food chain and ultimately end up in the people who eat them. The likely presence of human made marine debris in seafood raises several questions regarding human health. For example, human made debris can elicit a biological response through both physical and chemical mechanisms of toxicity. Small human made debris has been shown to cause physical damage leading to cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations of tissues in the gastro intestinal tract. As such, human made marine debris may cause physical harm to people when debris is ingested via seafood (e.g., in whole sardines, mussels and oysters). Moreover, in nature, human made debris is recovered from the marine environment with a cocktail of chemicals, including chemicals accumulated from surrounding water in addition to the ingredients of the debris itself. Some of these chemicals can transfer from human made debris to fish upon ingestion. In turn, the ingestion of marine animals that have consumed human made marine debris has the potential to increase the burden of toxic chemicals in humans.
What is being done about it
A £61.4 million war chest fund against plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has been announced by the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May. £25m will go to research in regards to scientific, economic and social studies. A further £20m will go to reducing plastic and other environmental pollution made by manufacturing in developing countries and inhibit it from flowing into the oceans. The last £6m will go towards improving waste management, nationally and at city levels in order to reduce and ultimately stop plastic entering the oceans at all.
Over 200 countries have promised to reduce and hopefully stop throwaway plastic packaging that is threatening marine life and their ecosystems. The United Nations Environment Assembly gathered in Nairobi recently with a resolution being passed which aims to end marine plastic pollution.
In Cape Town there are monthly beach clean ups where you can voluntarily go and pick litter up on different beaches.
A man in India took this to a whole new level when he decided to clean an Indian beach which was knee deep in plastic waste. Of course he got people to help him and WWF said it was the largest beach clean-up in history, where the entire community pulled together to save their planet. A little while later sea turtles were found laying eggs on the same beach.
In 2016, a team of Japanese scientists sorting through plastic waste found bacteria capable of breaking down and “eating” one of the world’s most popular plastic type- polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It was pronounced as a great breakthrough at the time. However a new twist in the tale came when British and American scientists announced that while studying this bacteria, they accidentally created a mutant enzyme that’s even more efficient at breaking down plastic bottles. The breakthrough came when a group of scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. studied an enzyme produced by the Japanese bacteria to find out more about its structure. By shining intense beams of X-rays on it, 10 billion times brighter than the sun (I didn’t think man could make anything brighter than the sun but you have it) they were able to see individual atoms. Altering the structure to better understand how it worked, they accidentally made the mutant enzyme
“The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes currently being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels ― the technology exists,” said McGeehan. It’s possible that within the next few years there could be an industrially viable process for turning PET into other substances or back into its “original building blocks” so it can be sustainably recycled, he added.
Recycling is a key part of reusing the plastic that is not needed anymore and is much more beneficial than leaving the plastic in landfills. But is it enough? In the United States, only 9% of plastic (2.8 million tons) was recycled in 2012. The remaining 32 million tons were disposed of, adding up to nearly 13% of the nation’s municipal solid waste stream. I can understand this because when I was in New York two years ago, we were on the streets just before the rubbish trucks picked the waste up and the amount of plastic and waste piled up next to the streets was horrific. The United States depends mostly on China and Hong Kong to absorb its plastic waste why I don’t know, although some is sent to Canada and Mexico. On other continents collection of plastics is even lower. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 57% of plastic in Africa, 40% in Asia, and 32% in Latin America is not even collected, but instead littered or burned in the open. Come on guys it’s not that hard to pick up after yourselves. The largest waste plastics exporters are the United States of America, followed by Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Europe exports about half of the plastics it collects for recycling and is the largest global exporter of waste plastic earmarked for recycling. On a positive note The UK’s biggest coffee chain Costa Coffee is determined to undertake a recycling revolution by recycling 500 million coffee cups a year Around 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK and 99.75% are not recycled. The cups have a mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining – designed to make them both heat- and leak-proof.
If nothing else the Brits are going the extra mile and doing a stand up job. Well done Chaps.
What can we do about it
- There are a number of ways we as an individual can help
- Try buying veg and fruit plastic free and use re-usable bags.
- Don’t use plastic straws, rather sip than suck or use eco-friendly straws. Along with this don’t buy any on the go plastic cutlery.
- Instead of using plastic boards to prepare our master chef dishes at home rather use wooden boards, we can also use wooden spatulas and spoons for stirring instead of plastic ones. This is also healthier for us.
- Recycle!……..….Recycle!………Recycle!. It may seem pointless after reading the above section but every little bit counts and is important. The sea turtles will thank you.
- For those who live close to the sea, go for an early morning walk on the beach and pick up some litter, remember to wear gloves and use a recyclable bag. You’ll get some exercise as well. Even if you’re not close to the sea, litter is everywhere so take a walk to the park.
Take home message
Very few places in the world don’t have plastic pollution in or on them. It may seem that there’s little to no hope in curbing this plastic tide but every little bit counts, whether it’s at work or at home, whether in a group or in your own personal capacity change can occur. We only have one planet to live on and that’s this one, let’s do our best to save it. When we throw a piece of plastic away, just remember there is no away and sometimes it can have knock on effects to the environment and to us as human beings. I would like to leave you with a quote from one the greatest and most courageous men I think ever lived
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” (Winston Churchill)
Yes a bit extreme, I know, but we are fighting something that could be a lot more threatening in this day and age which is plastic. This Sunday is EARTH DAY – I would like to put out a challenge for all of us and I include myself in this challenge – to make a small change or good deed to try and help save this beautiful planet we call home.
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