It could be argued that plastic pollution may be the greatest problem ever faced by the human race. A seemingly-incredible scenario, given the out-of-this-world reception that this durable, strong, versatile new material received when it was first synthetically created last century. And, after its discovery, there was no turning back: how could anyone resort back to a world without plastic?
And that is the issue. Plastics’ properties allowed them to be used for an extremely wide range of products, which – combined with the fact that they were relatively low-cost, waterproof and easy to manufacture – made them very appealing to manufacturing companies. This new material took off but, like many creations, little was known of the detrimental side effects until much, much later.
The list of issues with plastic is seemingly endless. For one, plastic is not biodegradable – meaning that it takes thousands and thousands of years to break down. Even though plastic does break down eventually, this only leads to more problems: since smaller plastics (e.g. micro-plastics) are so small that they are being consumed by sea life and other creatures, and therefore are entering the food chain. Then, the toxic chemicals that make up plastic REALLY do their harm… As plastic decomposes, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – contributing to yet another of our environmental problems: climate change.
Ocean plastic already congregates in gigantic ocean ‘dumps’ within gyres – large swirling ocean currents, of which there are 5 major ones: the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific and Indian Ocean gyres. The volume of plastic existing in these locations is beyond comprehension – researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (within the North Pacific gyre) covered 1.6 million square kilometres. 1.6 million. Just let that sink in.
Plastic pollution is quickly being realised as a major threat but, one must ask, is it too late? Only time, and our collective willingness to respond, will tell.