The Plastic Problem

 Plastic waste, Kauai, Hawaii

Plastic waste, Kauai, Hawaii

The use of plastic is an epidemic which is:

1) Damaging the ecosystem

2) Detrimental to the health of living organisms (including humans) 

3) Exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions through its production

Approximately 320 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured annually, 40% of which is for single-use items. Only 5% of plastics are effectively recycled, which means that the remaining 95% – almost all the plastic ever made – remains on the planet. 

The volume of leakage into the ocean is equivalent to pouring a garbage truck of plastic into it every minute. (World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

In summary, we have a significant moral, social, environmental, health and economic disaster to manage. 

The big deal with microplastics

Years ago, when I learned of how toxic chemicals from plastic bottles leach into your water I made the switch to a reusable BPA free water bottle (Bisphenol A is used in most plastic packaging and has been linked to numerous health issues). On a larger scale, there is a great deal of concern surrounding the health implications of plastic waste in the ocean, particularly microplastics.

Microplastics are extremely small pieces (less than 5mm) of plastic debris produced from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products. Microplastics not only contain toxic chemicals, but they also absorb toxins from the water. The microplastics are then ingested my marine life, and the chemicals accumulate in the flesh and muscles of each organism, eventually making their way up the food chain to our dinner tables. In this year alone, every man, woman and child will consume about 300 lbs (136 kilos) of single use plastic. (A Plastic Ocean). Endocrine disruption is one of the most concerning implications of this toxic absorption, whereby growth, metabolism, reproduction and early development are adversely effected. A study conducted by Uppsala University, Sweden, on the impact of microplastics on Perch (Perca fluviatilis) larvae, showed that exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastics inhibits hatching, decreases growth rates, and alters feeding preferences and innate behaviours of the European perch larvae. These results are frightening, especially when you extrapolate them throughout the food chain. Dr Oona Lonnstedt declared "the effects on aquatic ecosystems could be profound".  (Lönnstedt and Eklöv 1213-1216). 

The adverse health effects are of significant concern, and yet more research is needed to identify the true consequences of plastic waste on our health. The sooner action is taken to remedy the plastic problem, the better. As plastic journeys to our dinner tables, it also suffocates and kills a staggering number of marine life and sea birds. 

impact of plastic on industry

Given that most of the bottled water on the market is glorified tap water, we have no real reason to use plastic bottles beyond perceived convenience. However, you may deem it fairly inconvenient on your next beach break to wade through tonnes of garbage. It is also a great inconvenience to those whose livelihoods depend on the health of the ocean. It is estimated that ocean plastic costs the tourism, fishing and shipping industries in the Asia-Pacific region alone, $1.3 billion. (United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)). It is a further inconvenience to the marine life who ingest plastic mistaking it for food. Countless seabirds and marine life starve to death: they have ingested so much plastic that their digestive systems are clogged, they do not feel hunger and inadvertently, they die of starvation. (A Plastic Tide). Professor Janssen from Ghent University, Belgium, who led the aforementioned research, correctly stated that "the wildlife tells us what we are doing wrong" and "in the end everything we do to wildlife we do to ourselves".  As plastic accumulates, by the end of the century we are likely to be consuming 3/4 million pieces of plastic every year. (A Plastic Tide). 

 Glass bottle waste, Kauai, Hawaii 

Glass bottle waste, Kauai, Hawaii 

Even on an isolated, paradisiacal beach on Kauai, Hawaii, I was unable to escape the pollution currently amassing in our oceans. 

A report produced by the World Economic Forum has approximated the negative externalities (the additional costs of plastic production and consumption not included in the market price borne by society) to be c. $40 billion annually. (World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

These externalities include the reduction in productivity of natural systems and urban infrastructure due to blockages created by plastic waste, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from plastic production. 

Click here for live environmental statistics. 

Taking Action against plastic

One of the key goals of WildeNest is to address the plastic bottle problem. My main objective was to source a bottle you could drink from which embodied the following:

Plastic free | Recyclable | No adverse health affects | Reusable | Convenient | Resilient | Sustainable

The discovery of a collapsible, 100% plastic and BPA free water bottle made from siliconE and stainless steel was a true game changer in the plastic pollution revolution, one I am delighted to share with you.

Global movements are taking place to address the plastic problem. A company called Newlight has developed the technology to combine air and greenhouse gas to produce AirCarbon, a carbon negative plastic. The material is by weight, approximately 40% oxygen from air and 60% carbon and hydrogen from captured methane emissions, and naturally biodegradable. (AirCarbon). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and The Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit have launched the $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize. Anyone interested please click here. The UN has also launched their #CleanSeas Campaign calling on governments around the world to legislate plastic reduction policies. Here in the UK, single use plastic bags are taxed, and leading supermarket chain, Tesco, is trialling a phase-out of plastic carrier bags. Bangladesh was the first country to introduce an outright ban on plastic bags in 2002, with a number of other countries following suit. As of last year, plastic bags were banned in France, the first EU country to introduce a ban of this nature. These are examples of some of the amazing steps being taken already to disrupt the disruptive oil and plastic industries. 

Overall, we must not become complacent. By 2050, the plastic in the ocean, based on current trends, will weigh more than the fish. (World Economic forum). Make a conscious effort to use less plastic in your daily life and lobby your local supermarket and politicians to initiate change. 


References

World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications). Give it a read. 

A Plastic Tide. Sky News, 2017. film. Have a watch. 

A Plastic Ocean. 2017. Plastic Oceans Limited. Available on Netflix. 

Lönnstedt, Oona M., and Peter Eklöv. "Environmentally Relevant Concentrations Of Microplastic Particles Influence Larval Fish Ecology". Science 352.6290 (2016): 1213-1216. Web. Find out more. 

"Aircarbon". Newlight.com. N.p., 2017. Web. Check them out. 

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Valuing Plastics: The Business Case For Measuring, Managing And Disclosing Plastic Use In The Consumer Goods Industry. 2014. Some light reading.