It seems like every day we are regaled with stories of plastic pollution. If all these are to be believed we have a plastic pandemic with the world’s oceans a morass of floating ‘single use’ plastic. But what are the facts and what can we do as individuals and as a country to ameliorate the current situation?
Well, first of all, we could try and put the problem of ‘plastic pollution’ into perspective and whilst no-one in their right mind wants to minimise the problem, it is imperative to have some objective analysis to target our actions towards trying to solve the problem.
The pollution of the world’s oceans
Unfortunately, the BBC Blue Planet II has a lot to answer for – or do they? The programme showed areas of the ocean full of floating plastic film with a scuba diver videoing large pieces of plastic as they drifted about on the oceans currents.
They then showed an albatross chick spewing plastic and later scientists dissecting dead sea birds to find plastic in their innards. The UK viewers were appalled (quite rightly) and ‘plastic paranoia’ was born. But why was there was no mention of where this filming took place? In fact it was Indonesia.
In the very same programme David Attenborough informed viewers that no less than 10 million sharks per year (every year) die simply by becoming enmeshed in fishermen’s nets – that’s 100 million sharks dying unnecessarily over 10 years. So, whilst the plastic spewing albatross chick made horrible viewing there was no follow through on the decimation of the shark population.
Even more damning was the information Mr Attenborough gave us about the world’s coral reefs. He said over 25% are currently dead or dying with no less than 66% of the coral reefs in all the world threatened by extinction from rising sea temperatures due to global warming.
To give some perspective of the scale of this potential catastrophe. Coral reefs form less than 1% of the world’s sea bed but the programme told us they support some 25% of all aquatic sea life. Mr Attenborough then said just 1% more increase in temperature due to CO₂ emissions and global warming would result in a 50% reduction in aquatic life on the reefs (check it for yourself). As a consequence, whatever action we take to prevent plastic pollution in our oceans, action of a much greater order of magnitude is required to reduce their demise due to global warming.
It follows therefore, that the replacement of plastic in packaging, by glass (or God forbid) aluminium is wrong as it contributes significantly to global warming. Meanwhile pollutants from paper and board manufacture (particularly in the third world) poisons these countries rivers, in some cases to the total extinction of all aquatic life.
So what can be done?
Let’s take the example of the dead whale recently washed up off the coast of Indonesia. An autopsy showed over 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach including 115 plastic cups, 25 bags, 4 bottles and 2 flip flops!
This discovery was hardly surprising as whales capture their food by opening their mouths to the full and scooping in all before them using their stomachs to process their catch.
This whale ‘fished’ off the coast of Indonesia, a country of 260 million people, producing 3.2 million tonnes of plastic, of which (by their own admission), they dump circa 1.3 million tonnes directly into its rivers and oceans as their preferred method of domestic waste disposal (see photo of the Citarum River).
The response to this tragedy in Indonesia by Minister of Maritime Affairs, when told of the whale’s stomach contents, is even more unbelievable and I quote, “This discovery should raise public awareness to reduce plastic use”!
But isn’t this what our own Government and media are saying? The problem is the plastic! If we focus on its replacement with current alternatives we simply add to global warming.
We know that Indonesia is the second largest plastic polluter in the World, only China which accounts for some 40% at 3.3 million tonnes of plastic dumped beats Indonesia for pollution. These countries need to be stopped, vilified and penalized for their domestic waste disposal ‘strategies’. Even landfill is a better short term solution, but do we here in the UK hear our politicians suggesting any actions to penalize these countries?
In the UK the biggest contribution we make to water borne plastic pollution is microfibres from clothes washing, car tyres, cosmetics etc. If we significantly improved the filtering process of our waste water, we have the technology to capture most of these fibres and we should simply ban the use of microfibres in agricultural products, cosmetics etc.
With regard to the other ‘single use’ plastics utilised in the food industry, 80% are recyclable. The largest components being PET and HDPE bottles as well as rigids for fats, yoghurts etc.
However, there is no value in their recovery as a consequence only circa 20% of the UK’s local authorities have bothered to invest in their separation and recycling facilities. This needs to change as a matter of urgency.
None of the foregoing implies there are not problems associated with plastic disposal but these are not insurmountable. The benefits of use of plastic packaging by saving millions of tonnes of food waste and millions of extra motorway miles as well as reducing global warming when compared to the alternative packaging cannot be denied – If they are that’s ‘Plastic Paranoia’.
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