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Monday, November 11, 2013

Our World is So Plastic - What Can We Do?

If we continue to produce and use plastic at our current rate, future populations will look back on the extinction of homo sapiens and find a thin line of plastic. 
This statement shocked me when I first read it so many years ago, and I wish I could remember who had said it. Plastic is a part of our everyday lives. It's everywhere, but it's detrimental effects on the world's ecosystem is astounding.

Take the 'plastic island's in our world's oceans. Their existence was first hypothesized by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists in the 1980's. The discovery of the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' by competitive sailor Charles J. Moore in 1997 brought the overwhelming pollution of our oceans into the limelight and over the past 2 decades, 'plastic islands' have prompted more media exposure and scientific study. The world's oceans have 5 areas known as 'gyres', where oceanic currents create relatively stationary zones that accumulate debris.

Unfortunately, the problem is not getting any better. The Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Climate System Science recently released a study stating that "humans have put so much plastic into our world's oceans that even if everyone in the world stopped putting garbage in the oceans today, giant garbage patches would continue to grow for hundreds of years".
Scary, isn't it? But is there a solution?

A relatively recent proposal by Boyan Slat gained a lot of exposure as the 'cure for oceanic pollution'. Check out his website, The Ocean Cleanup Project. The concept seems unbelievable really, and it's amazing that such a project hasn't gained massive backing from the international community. Or is it? Maybe it hasn't because it really is unbelievable. Here's a disclaimer on their website:
The last couple of months several (spontaneous) articles have been published, claiming The Ocean Cleanup Array is a 'feasible method' of extracting plastic from the gyres. This is an incorrect statement; we are currently only at about halfway our feasibility study. Only after finishing that study, we believe such statements should be made. Although the preliminary results look promising, and our team of about 50 engineers, modellers, external experts and students is making good progress, we had and have no intention of presenting a concept as a feasible solution while still being in investigative phase.
Many (if not most) marine scientists believe the project to be infeasible. While the details of the proposal have remained relatively obscure, experts have pointed out numerous reasons. Some have said it's great that Slat's proposal generated more interest in trying to solve the problem, though others have been vocal of its negative effects (this is a good article: The Fallacy of Cleaning the Gyres of Plastic With a Floating "Ocean Cleanup Array"), including fundraising efforts. 

Think about this: plastic never fully decomposes.

Unfortunately, we may not even have time to remove the plastic from the ocean.There's plenty of arguments as to the half-life of plastic and with so many different types, there really isn't a correct answer. The fact is that plastic never fully decomposes; instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, making it's way into the ecosystem and releasing toxic chemicals.

These toxins are referred to as POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) and they're linked to numerous health risks for humans, including cancer, diabetes, altered immune system, genital defects, endocrine disruption, and child development problems.
I'm hopeful that one day, someone will find a solution to removing plastic debris from our oceans. As a surfer, I don't really want plastic barrels like the one shown above (obviously I love barrels like this, just without the plastic!). As a human and citizen of this Earth, I definitely don't want to die from plastic ingestion as it makes its way into the food chain.

The best ways to fix the problem?
  • Decrease your use of plastic: packaging, plastic bags, etc.
  • Education on the harm plastic does to our world.
  • Clean up: pick up your own trash, other people's trash, and recycle!

Be informed and be involved. Read about it, talk about it, and make a difference. Plastic Oceans has a lot of great information on their site about plastic and its detrimental effects on our environment.

All photos sourced from online

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