Fighting Ocean Plastic Pollution

A crisis of planetary proportions

Plastics are one of the most successful inventions of modern times due to a combination of attributes that are difficult to find in other materials: high resistance to corrosion, high strength relative to weight, high durability, low electrical and thermal conductivity, low toxicity, low cost, and visual aesthetics. As a result, these synthetic organic polymers have countless applications in packaging, construction, transportation, machinery, textiles and, electrical and electronic products, among others. The world has produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastics since 19501 , implying an 8.6% compounded annual growth rate, which is more than twice the world’s GDP average growth. In 2017, global production of plastics was close to 410 million metric tons, equivalent to more than a billion kilograms or 2.5 billion pounds per day.2 By contrast, global production of steel was 138 million metric tons in the same year.

However, as it is well known, “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and our increasing reliance on plastics has come at a high price. Plastics do not degrade naturally. In addition, from the nearly 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste generated by humans as of 2015, only 9% was recycled and 12% was incinerated. The remaining 79% was deposited in landfills or the natural environment. If these trends continue and there is no significant change in the consumption of plastics and the management of plastic waste, there would be nearly 12 billion metric tons of plastics garbage by 2050.

An ocean of plastic

When improperly disposed, plastics can cause great damage to the planet’s ecosystems, and the ocean in particular. Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year. This is equivalent to the full load of a garbage truck every minute. 4 Images of fish, turtles and marine mammals trapped and suffocated by abandoned fishing nets, beaches completely covered by plastic debris, or pictures of seabirds and whales killed by the accumulation of pieces of plastic in their gastrointestinal track have outraged the public. The discovery of massive amounts of plastic waste concentrated by ocean gyres like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has an estimated area of 1.6 million square kilometers, twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France, illustrates the colossal scale of the problem.  

Cleaning the ocean of plastics is extremely difficult if not impossible. There is evidence of plastic contamination in the surface, the seafloor, the coasts and even the arctic ice. Plastic waste has a multiplying effect. This is because, although they don’t biodegrade, plastics are slowly fragmented by the combined effect of sunlight and water. This process ends up in large amounts of tiny (less than 5 mm long), often microscopic (less than 100 nanometers), bits of plastic that aquatic organisms confuse with food. Once incorporated into the food chain, plastics ultimately reach the human body through the consumption of seafood. Micro-plastics are not only produced by natural fragmentation. Microbeads (a manufactured version of micro-plastics) are used in marine, boat, road and building paints, as well as cosmetics and personal care products including toothpaste, which make their way into water systems every time they are rinsed out. Once in the water, micro-plastics are virtually impossible to remove. Presence of micro-plastics has been identified in some of the most common commercial species for fisheries and aquaculture.6 Plastics and fibrous material has also been found in the guts of fish across markets in California and Indonesia. 

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