The first real synthetic polymer, Bakelite, was invented in 1907 – with mass-production of plastics beginning in the 1940’s. Fast forward to just over 100 years since the introduction of Bakelite and plastic is all around us. Taking into account the age of the planet, 100 years is the blink of an eye relatively speaking.
The plastic problem has arisen due to how plastic has been used and what we do to dispose of plastic once it has “served its purpose”.
One method of disposal is incineration which releases dangerous substances such as Persistent Organic Pollutants and other toxins into the air. Being a petroleum-based material, when plastic is burned it releases climate pollutants which are said to contribute to rising sea levels, increased ocean and air toxicity, and the destruction of marine life and coral reefs.
Other methods of disposal include dumping in landfill sites and recycling. Recycling, although good in theory, still contributes to the plastic problem as 91% of all recycled plastics do not actually end up getting recycled. A large proportion of waste and recycled waste still ends up in the ocean.
Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, according to figures published in the journal of science in 2015. This equates to around a bin lorry worth of plastic being tipped into the ocean every minute.
Plastic never fully disappears. Over time it simply breaks down into microplastics (pieces of plastic 5mm in length and less). The ocean is also over-ridden with larger, more identifiable pieces of plastic. These all cause harm to marine life and find their way into our drinking water and food, such as the fish we eat.
Dr. Lucy Woodall found a large number of micro-plastics, in a 2014 study analysing deep sea sediment, from locations across the Mediterranean, the Northeast Atlantic and the Southwest Indian Ocean; the study suggests that there are around four billion microscopic plastic fibres littering each square kilometre of deep sea sediment around the world. These micro-plastics are also found in corals.
The plastic problem was first realised through an accumulation of plastic particles including microplastics on the surface waters of the North Pacific known as the “great Pacific garbage patch”. The discovery of the micro-plastics found in deep-sea sediments could prove to be a much larger issue as the concentrations found by researchers are considerably larger than those found in the great Pacific garbage patch.
When taking into consideration ghost fishing, dispersal by rafting and provision of new habitat, on top of ingestion and strangulation, around 817 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, with 80% of this said to be from plastic. This has increased from 663 species since 2012, representing a 23% increase in total number of species affected.
Globally, 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution.
The top ten debris items recorded by the 2013 International Coastal Clean-up include
Seabirds which feed on the ocean surface are particularly prone to ingesting plastic debris which can be found floating on the surface. It is said 44% of all seabird species are now known to have ingested marine debris (table 1). Adult seabirds then feed this plastic debris to their chicks, with one study finding approximately 98% of chicks sampled containing plastic with the quantity of plastic increasing over time.
Table one below, cited from Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, technical series number 83, shows a clear increase in the number of species known to have been affected between two studies conducted by themselves (2012 and 2016 respectively). This is particularly evident in marine mammals, with 40% of the species group known to ingest marine debris, up from 30% in SCBD’s previous report only four years prior.
*: remains as 66 species (0.39%) if ghost fishing records are excluded.
Moving forward, a report conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states with the current projected growth in consumption, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight).