Afloat on a Raft of Plastic

Written by Robbie Platais

If trends continue, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the World’s oceans than fish [1].

This is an especially shocking prediction seeing as though only 30 years ago, thanks to the publication of the Brundtland report, we set sustainable development as a goal of mankind [2]. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which serve as a measure of our progress, highlight a need to Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” [3]. It appears that on our current course we are set to miss our mark by a longshot. A key component contributing towards this failure, is the inability of the Earth’s marine ecosystems to deal with the vast quantities of waste plastics that leave our shores each year.

In a relatively short time, plastics have become the most commonly used of all man-made materials. By 2015 global plastic production had risen to 322million tonnes per year [4].

A number of desirable properties, such as durability and strength, combined with low production costs and wide-reaching versatility, mean that plastics are of vital economic importance to a range of sectors [1]. The role of the plastic industry as a driver of economic growth throughout the world is undeniable. If business continues as usual, plastic production is expected to double again over the next 20 years [1,5].

Our global marine ecosystems are bearing the brunt of this exponential growth by capturing the unaccounted waste. A large proportion of the plastic we discard ends up in the oceans [1,4]. Today, in the waters surrounding the UK, plastics make up 78% of all sea floor litter [6]. It is sobering to think that as much as 12.7million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the Earth’s oceans each year [7].

Almost half of all plastic produced globally is made into single-use products such as packaging [5]. Annually, only 14% of this is recycled, compared to 40% that is dumped into landfill [1]. Plastics that escape into the environment account for a hefty 32% of what is produced per year [1]. It is often more economically viable to produce new plastic than it is to recycle [1]. This poses the question; how important are economic gains at the cost of the natural world?

Entanglement and ingestion of plastics by marine organisms causes death and toxic effects [4,5]. The resulting impacts on marine biodiversity could lead to irreparable damage of ecosystems and the services they provide [4,5,8]. Life as we know it depends on these services. On top of this we may be directly poisoning the food we eat. Tiny fragments of plastic enter the marine food chain. These fragments, and the chemical pollutants they contain accumulate as they are transferred from prey to predator. It is not fully understood what effect this may have on consumers of seafood. What is apparent, is that the chemicals within this debris are toxic, and the quantity in food is increasing [5].

How have we allowed our love-affair with all things plastic to poison our oceans and potentially threaten our existence? The way in which we tend to use economic growth as a measure of human development may provide one answer.

Our current economic system does not take into account the physical size of the economy in relation to the finite global ecosystem [9]. Weather accounted for or not, economic growth relies on the transfer of resources from the environment, in the form of raw materials, and back to the environment, in the form of polluting wastes. This throughput is metabolised by the economy to drive economic growth [10].

It is clear that the scale of throughput associated with plastic consumption is greater than the environment’s ability to break down wastes. In essence, our economy is being kept afloat on a raft of waste plastic. This problem is compounded by the fact that the raw materials used to produce plastics are derived from fossil fuels which are becoming increasingly scarce. There are some renewable alternatives [11] but rates of development do not match the rate of depletion of non-renewable source materials [1].

The solution to our problem relies on reducing the scale of the economy below the limits set by the natural world. It is clear, in the case of plastics, that we must change our consumption habits so that we recycle and reuse more. We must also invest in renewable alternatives such as bioplastics [1] and move away from a reliance on non-renewable resources [12]. This will lessen the burden imposed on the sources and sinks within the natural world. The problem of marine plastics is so wide-reaching [7] that any successful attempt to introduce regulation would need to be implemented on a global scale [4]. Setting an acceptable threshold of marine plastic pollutant concentrations may be a starting point, but ultimately, we must address the underlying economic system that prioritises economic growth over the health of our planet.

References

[1] World Economic Forum, 2016. The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the future of plastics, l.: World Economic Forum.

[2] Brundtland, G. H., 1987. Our Common Future. [Online] Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm [Accessed 2 November 2017].

[3] United Nations, 2017. Sustainabile Development Knowledge Platform, Sustainable Development Goals. [Online] Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs [Accessed 6 November 2017].

[4] Borelle, S. B. et al., 2017. Why we need an international agreement on marine plastic pollution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(38), pp. 9994-9997.

[5] Worm, B. et al., 2017. Plastic as a persistant marine pollutant. Annual reveiw of environment and resources, Volume 42, pp. 1-26.

[6] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2017. England Natural Environment Indicators. [Online]
Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/england-natural-environment-indicators [Accessed 10 November 2017].

[7] Jambeck, J. R. et al., 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 13 February, pp. 768-771.

[8] United Nations General Assembly, 2016. The first global integrated marine assessment, World Ocean Assessment I, l.: United Nations.

[9] Daly, H. E., 1992. Allocation, distribution, and scale; towards an economics that is efficient, just and sustainable. Ecological Economics, Volume 6, pp. 185-193.

[10] Daly, H. E., 2004. A guide to what’s wrong with economics. London: Anthem Press.

[11] Flieger, M. et al., 2003. Biodegradable plastics from renewable sources. Folia Microbiologica, 48(1), pp. 27-44.

[12] Posen, D., Jaramillo, P., Landis, A. E. & Griffin, W. M., 2017. Greenhouse gas mitigation for U.S plastics production: energy first, feedstocks later. Environmental research letters, Volume 12.