Photo credits: http://cligs.vt.edu/humanitys-plastic-footprint-iv/
A Hotline for the Environment
If there was a hotline for the environment, someone should call in immediately cause there’s a planetary emergency that needs urgent care, and that emergency is plastic floating around in our oceans. This article will look at the current state of plastic pollution in the world, and what is, can and should be done to fix it, including in a Danish context, and why calling it an ‘emergency’ is appropriate.
Everyone has by now seen the tragic photos of straws in turtle noses1, plastic bags causing whales to choke2, and birds dying from a stomach full of tiny pieces of ingested plastic. Animal life is paying the price for our often massively excessive global plastic production juggernaut, and our oceans can’t keep up.
And let’s face it – plastics are like the ‘smart’ phones we carry in our pockets; they have become such an integrated part of our modern existence that we rarely stop to think about why they are not necessarily all that ‘smart’, especially when considering their impact on the world and ultimately, our health.
Following its initial heyday during and after WW II, the manufacture of plastics has exploded, with 320 million tons of polymer – the long chain synthetic molecules which go under common misnomer ‘plastics’ – being produced globally in 2015 alone3.
Every year, about 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans4. That amounts to about one garbage truck of plastic every minute5. Of those, an estimated 236,000 tons are microplastics6.
While we do not have exact data as to how much plastic is actually floating around in the world’s oceans, (partly because some types of plastic sink to the seafloor – up to 11 km below sea level – and thus making them difficult to measure7), an estimate through beach surveys, computer models, and trash entering the oceans has been calculated to be around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic based on the surface alone8.
Following oceanographer Charles Moore’s discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 19979, 4 massive patches of plastic have since been found floating around in the world’s three major oceans; one more in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean. Sounds like something out of a horror movie, doesn’t it?
Photo credits: http://www.oceansentry.org
Meanwhile, the amount of plastic in the ocean is expected to increase tenfold by 202010, and based on current trends recent studies project there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish by 2050, when counting by weight11. One plastic bottle in comparison, takes around 450 years to biodegrade12. It is estimated that up to 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic8.
Moreover, many of the fish humans consume have at some point during their lifecycle ingested plastic microfibers13, found in synthetic clothing and washed into our rivers, lakes and oceans, creating a dangerous full circle of consumption which brings our plastic trash back on our dinner plates. The emergency doesn’t become any less frightening given our current lack of knowledge of the long-term impact of microplastics in fish ending up in our digestive systems14.
Solutions to a Planetary Problem
While these numbers may seem discouraging and even frightening, the good news is that clever solutions to this accumulation of plastic pollution are surfacing around the world, most famously the Ocean Cleanup founded in 2013 by then-18-year old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat15, which aims to clean up half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years’ time.
However, the solution to arguably the greatest environmental emergency facing the planet today is not merely to clean up what is already out there; it is simultaneously establishing the necessary and effective recycling infrastructure and culture which can preempt this global trash horror story and thus deal with the problem at its source.
In this regard – the world is slowly starting to wake up and initiatives, laws and regulations aimed at tackling the issue are popping up, being forged and preparing enforcement in all parts of the world.
Cities in the U.S. and states such as California have banned plastic straws in full-service restaurants16, and the EU recently approved a sweeping ban on single-use plastics, including aforementioned straws, cotton swabs, disposable plastic plates and cutlery and 90% of plastic bottles recycled by 202517. Italy and France have already banned plastic bags.
Photo credits: Ecowatch.com, Bill Hickman
Bangladesh was the first country in the world to implement a ban on thin plastic bags, dating back to 2002 when it was found that they had played a key role in clogging drainage systems during a disastrous flood18.
In Africa, Kenya completely banned the usage of plastic bags in August 2017, with anyone found selling, producing or even carrying any kind of plastic bag facing up to 4 years in prison or a fine of up to $40,00019. Meanwhile Rwanda has had an effective ban on plastic bags already since 2008, and plans to become the world’s first plastic free nation20.
While many of these laws are in their infancy and need to be continually improved, regulated and enforced, it is nevertheless a sign that the world is slowly waking up to the plastic emergency.
The Danish Perspective
In Denmark, effective recycling of household plastic has been impaired by the lack of a common system for collecting and sorting trash in the respective municipalities around the country. With the very recent plastic action plan ‘plasthandlingsplan’ which garners support from all parties in the parliament, this major flaw in Danish recycling culture now seems to have been acknowledged with the plan’s major proposal is establishing precisely such a common system21.
Photo credits: https://www.maxpixel.net/Recycle-Trash-Recycling-Bins-Environment-Waste-373156
The plan also paves the way for the creation of an independent ‘plastic centre’, which will be mandated to develop and communicate the most cutting edge knowledge about plastic to consumers and businesses. Lastly, the plan allocates funds to the cleanup of plastic in oceans not only in Denmark, but also strengthening the efforts to create better systems for recycling in Asian countries22.
Calling plastic pollution in our oceans an emergency is thus not only pertinent to the actual, observable predicament, it also aims at bringing out the best in humans, as emergencies tend to do to us. As this is a problem that requires far more resolute and informed consumer choices and demands, hand in hand with well-designed legislation that paves the way for effective regulation, trash collection and a new recycling paradigm, it is thus not something that can be left to one actor independently. The plastic emergency, and its solution, is within all of us.