Sunday, October 2, 2011

Plastic islands


In 1907 Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer, was developed: this is the beginning of the plastic age. Since then, and mainly after World War II, plastic is an omnipresent material because it is cheap, waterproof, insulating, resistant and easy to work with. Although there are natural plastics, like natural rubber or cellulose derivatives (celluloid or cellophane, just to name a few), most plastics we use are synthetic, developed from oil. At present, every year 115 billion kilograms of plastic are manufactured in the form of nurdles, small colour plastic pellets from which plastic objects are manufactured (yes, you got it right: 115 billion kilograms are more than 250 billion pounds! Can you imagine the huge amount of plastic it represents?).
Most synthetic plastic can be recycled, but precisely because plastic is cheap and easy to get, it is not always recycled. In fact, most plastic never gets recycled but it ends up in dumps or in the sea, where it starts to break down. However, plastic is not biodegradable, so it just breaks in smaller pieces which can last for a very long time. As it is such a new material, no-one knows how many years it lasts, but scientists estimate that plastic can have a life of about 10,000 years when it is exposed to sun light and air erosion, which is not the case in dumps or in the sea.
Moreover, plastics in the sea pose very serious risks. The amount of plastic dumped into the sea is increasing exponentially. Some of it (20%) is dumped by ships deliberately, but the rest comes from inland. Winds sweep along bags or small bits and pieces of plastic into rivers, sewers and eventually the sea, and all this debris is found to accumulate in sea areas taken by currents. You may think it is a minor problem, but it is not: plastic pollution in the sea is one of the most serious environmental problems we have to face nowadays.
Ocean currents create weak spots where there is almost no drifting, and it is precisely there where most marine debris accumulates, creating plastic islands with a size of hundreds of miles of diameter and hundreds of miles deep. For the moment, there are 11 big plastic islands located in the five oceans. The greatest is found in the North Pacific Ocean, with an area the size of about Texas. These islands, besides the visual impact, are a threat for marine fauna and flora. Many fish eat nurdles and plastic pieces thinking that they are eggs, plankton or krill, which eventually kills them. Moreover, the plastic layer prevents sun light from getting into the water, thus preventing the growth of weeds and phytoplankton, which are the base of marine food chain. And you can image the ending of the story.
At present, some associations like Algalita Foundation or Plastic Pollution Coalition fight to make a positive change, but the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) report reveals that it is not easy to fight against plastic accumulation. Trying to fish this plastic with very thick nets is self-defeating because thick nets also fish all kinds of living beings. For the moment, no-one knows how to get rid of the tons of plastic floating in the sea.
However, even if there is no solution so far, we can do something about it. To start with, we can reduce the amount of plastic we use to prevent plastic islands from becoming even bigger. The easiest way is to reduce the number of plastic containers and bags: when you go shopping, use products with little plastic and never use disposable plastic bags. Also, dispose plastic containers into the corresponding plastic bins. Look into your dustbin and check whether there is any plastic in there: it may end up in the sea, including the garbage bag itself.
But you can also do something else to avoid this catastrophe. As stated at the beginning of this post, not all plastics come from oil. Some of them are natural plastics, so they are biodegradable. These are called EDP plastics (meaning Environmentally Degradable Polymers and plastics), coming directly from biomass (like starch or cellulose), developed by chemical synthesis of biological monomers from renewable sources or by micro-organisms and bacteria, like PHAS plastics. Currently, this type of polymer represents only a tiny percentage of plastic available in the market, but consumers can put pressure so that biodegradable pastic becomes a majority. It is just a question of willingness.

Sources:

  1. Image of a bunch of nurdles: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Nurdles_01_gentlemanrook.jpg
  2. Plastic Island in the North Pacific Ocean: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex/
  3. Marine Research Foundation Algalita: http://www.algalita.org/index.php
  4. Plastic Pollution Coalition: http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org
  5. 2005 report by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) about marine debris: http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/docs/anl_oview.pdf
  6. Biodegradable plastic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodegradable_plastic

6 comments:

  1. We should recycle to help our environment

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  2. I also use biodegradable plastic bags when shopping or going to the market. This allows me to save more cents since there are some establishments that requires a fee when using a disposable one. Recycling can also save not only money, but also the environment. By the way, I support all environmental related advocacy.

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  3. Recycling is a good start for saving our environment. It is good to start within our household and share it to other people so more people would be aware of saving our environment. environmental services

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  4. I agree with the comments. Recycling is one of the ways to save our environment. There should also be a segregation system that will teach every individual the proper waste management.

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