Created: 06/08/2021 08:00
Drowning in plastic: ourOceans are filled with plastic garbage that takes centuries to biodegrade
Kyla Smith, Dive Safety Officer at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science
On World Ocean Day, Kyla Smith explains how single-use plastics are endangering the oceans and the planet. This is the first in a series of articles on the marine environment and pollution
Imagine that the Sea Venture was full of plastic water bottles during its voyage. More than 400 years later, these bottles were still there, floating in the ocean as tiny pieces broken by the sun and waves. We have been collecting plastic pollution for more than 70 years and producing more every year. Single-use plastic products like water bottles and food packaging can exist in nature for centuries. It is unclear how long it takes for some plastics to fully biodegrade; Estimates range from 450 years to never. These products that we now depend on are drowning us. Plastics are one of the greatest threats to our planet’s ecosystems and our very existence.
The first synthetic plastic was developed in 1869 to mimic natural products and to replace and preserve materials such as ivory and tortoise shell. Inventor John Wesley Hyatt has been called “the savior of the elephant and the turtle” with his revolutionary discovery. It’s hard to imagine that plastics are helping the environment these days, but that’s exactly what they have done during that time. It wasn’t until the 1950s that plastic products took the planet by storm, advertised as making everyday life easier. The lightweight, durable, cheap, and disposable properties made plastics extremely attractive. The “material of a thousand uses” enjoyed rapidly growing popularity, but production remained relatively low for 40 years. It wasn’t until the 1990s that single-use products skyrocketed and have grown annually since then.
The strength and durability of plastic are its main attributes, but the reason it haunts our planet. Plastics are made up of a mixture of toxic materials that also contain non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels. These materials do not degrade naturally. Instead, they break into tiny pieces when the sun’s rays weaken the polymers that keep the plastic products intact. This microplastic is attracted to other pollutants in the environment, making it extremely toxic to any animal that eats it incorrectly. After consumption, the plastic leaches out toxic chemicals that remain in the digestive tissues and fat stores. These toxins accumulate in the food chain and end up in the food we eat.
We ignored the words of environmentalists like Rachel Carson in the 1960s. She shed light on the dark side of our plastic obsession and how these toxic pollutants are harming our planet through our waterways. We know how to fix this and what to do. We don’t have to reinvent the entire energy system to make important changes. Many brave souls like Carson have since spoken up, but we still face the real danger of losing the edge of what our planet can handle.
We all need to raise our voices; if not with our voice, then with our actions. We have to tell big companies that make single-use plastic products that we don’t want plastic. We need to be conscious consumers and avoid buying single-use plastic products altogether.
We can all do our part by reaching for ourselves and others. More than half of the plastic produced is intended to be used once and thrown away within minutes after purchase. If we can end this addiction to single-use plastic, we can drastically reduce the 300 million tons of waste we produce each year.
In his famous book The Lorax, Dr. Seuss: “If someone like you doesn’t care very much, nothing gets better. It is not.”
• Kyla Smith is the Dive Safety Officer at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences
Hammer, Jort & Kraak, Michiel & Parsons, John. (2012). Plastics in the Marine Environment: The Dark Side of a Modern Gift. Pollution and toxicology reviews. 220. 1-44. Available online at: www.researchgate.net