‘The conservationist’s most Important task, if we are to save the earth, is to educate.’Peter Scott, founder chairman of the World Wildlife Federation, quoted in the Sunday Telegraph, November 6, 1986
It’s ‘plastic-free July’ we are told, but as you go about your day, it’s unlikely that you will come across much evidence of this. Plastic is just so damn useful. It’s everywhere. Virtually every container that surrounds what you buy, every item you use, every vehicle you travel in, every seat you sit on contains a great deal of plastic. And the biggest issue is that the bulk of this material is there for one reason only: convenience. The convenience of unwrapping and discarding; the convenience of a material that bends and shifts easily to any shape you need, at a low cost to produce. Why bother reusing a material that costs more to repurpose than manufacture afresh?
So we throw it all away – at best into a recycling bin, at worst onto the roadside, or into a river. Both of these sources lead inexorably to the sea, of course, and this is where the plastic pollution problem grows into numbers that most humans can’t (or won’t) comprehend. Over 90% of plastic produced is not recycled, and a staggering 25 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans on an annual basis – and this amount is both conservatively estimated and growing each year. Plastic doesn’t go away. It’s tough stuff; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. To quote a research document:
The reduction in size of plastic particles to the millimetre and micro-scales allow plastic to settle within deep sea sediments, with perhaps four times as much plastic ending up within sediments compared to surface ocean waters. Plastics are now a part of complex biogeochemical cycles with living organisms, such as cetaceans, seabirds, mammals, and bacteria, ingesting plastic.
This makes horrendous reading. The scary statistics can be quoted in manuscript form, each one adding another nail to the coffin of life’s sustainability. Due to evaporation and rainfall, those micro-scales mentioned above are in the water you drink and the food that is grown in the earth, and in the animals that graze there – everything. Therefore – it’s in you. Did you know, for instance, that thousands of tons of plastic fall on the earth each year – in snow? In 2012, a study thought that there was about 250 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean; in 2020 a more comprehensive look worked out that there was actually about ten times more pollution than that in the Atlantic Ocean alone. By 2050 the weight of plastic pollution in our seas will exceed the weight of marine life. Think about that.
There are garbage patches in the sea, too. Known as ‘gyres’, these immense slow whirlpools of water in mid-ocean capture floating and sub-surface pollution, and hold it in the spiralling swirl. The best known – and biggest – is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at a known 100 million tons, but there are numerous others in all the oceans, including South Africa’s two coddling seas, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Nowhere is safe: 2017 research reported ‘the highest density of plastic rubbish anywhere in the world on remote and uninhabited Henderson Island in South Pacific as a result of the South Pacific Gyre. The beaches contain an estimated 37.7 million items of debris together weighing 17.6 tonnes. In a study transect on North Beach, each day 17 to 268 new items washed up on a 10-metre section’. This on an innocent, uninhabited island, where the only things that suffer are the creatures of the sea, land and air. Will it go away? No, not really. It takes over 450 years for an empty plastic bottle to decompose, and 600 years for the lost fishing lines and nets that strangle fish, turtles and seabirds by the million to start breaking down. Into micro-spores that poison them.
The informative United Nations Environmental Program estimates that for every square mile of ocean on planet earth, there are ‘about 46 000 large pieces of plastic’. Remembering, of course, that plastic as a consumer item has not even been around for a hundred years yet: 9.2 billion tons have been made between 1950 and 2022. Oh, and here’s something else worth considering: it takes more energy to convert petrochemicals into plastic than it does to make steel from ore, glass from sand or paper from wood. So we are using up valuable natural resources at a great loss of energy to save … what, exactly?
As we head towards a global population of 8 billion humans, who is going to stop this catastrophe? The answer is not simple. Yes – it’s you and I and our daily habits; but it’s also the raising of awareness of the larger, absolutely uncaring, culprits. The Ocean Conservancy reported that China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic in the sea than all other countries combined. The greatest litterbugs of them all at sea are the Chinese cargo ships. This isn’t necessarily the forum to advocate boycotting these culprits products, but then again…
This Plastic Free July is not only a time to come up with individual plans to cut down on plastic waste, but also a time to increase our awareness of the problem. It’s time to read, study and investigate the causes and potential solutions to this – we’ll use the word again – catastrophic problem, and educate those around us who either don’t know or, sadly, care. Waterfront Charters make a tiny dent in the load by picking up any and all litter we find in the ocean. If every person picked up ten pieces of litter a year that’s 80 billion pieces less likely to end up killing wildlife or polluting. Statistics can look good as well as bad.
In July we’ll be looking for suggestions to reduce plastic usage in our lives. Post your thoughts on our FaceBook page and we’ll reward the idea we think is the most inventive with a voucher for two for a coastal cruise. Let’s save our planet from, literally, being shrink wrapped into extinction.