Plastic waste: Now you sea it, now you don’t

Look around. From your chair, to your pen, to that fancy walking jacket you like to wear – plastics are everywhere. But with many of these products being single-use, so too is plastic waste. It is found in the air we breathe (1), buried under the land we live on and floating in the seas we depend upon. Indeed, its presence is so pervasive that it has been proposed as a marker of the Anthropocene epoch, a geological time-scale defined by human-activity (2). The estimated 12,000 million tons of plastic waste (if current rates continue) to be disposed of in landfill sites and the natural environment by 2050 (3) is playing a distinct role in re-writing the geological make-up of the Earth’s surface (4).

As a commons the marine environment is bearing the brunt of this problem, with a massive 73% of any aquatic habitat now composed of plastic (5) which, whilst undeniably worrying, is unsurprising if you consider that, as of 2015, only 9% of the world’s total plastic waste was recycled (3). Of the remaining 91%, a scarily large proportion floats downstream, or is blown, from urban areas to the increasingly polluted seas (6). Here the waste accumulates in two main forms: visible macro plastics, such as discarded fishing nets and single-use bags; and near-invisible micro plastics, which are tiny fragments that, through physical weathering and photodegradation, have splintered off of these larger plastic products (7).

The implications of this are huge. The pollutant acts as a physical threat, entrapping a large number of marine species who suffer and, in most cases, die needlessly. The surface of this floating debris is readily colonised by microbial communities and invasive species that are biological threats to marine ecosystems (8). These contaminants are then ingested, accumulating up the food chain with unknown consequences for human health and the fate of your fish supper. These distortions, in turn, reduce the marine environment’s capacity to provide the ecosystem services we currently benefit from and cause disruption to the multi-billion dollar fishing industries, endangering the food security of many poor coastal nations (8).

But how have we reached this point? Plastics are versatile, highly durable, relatively inert and light. A man-made ‘wonder material’ that, following extensive war-time development, exploded onto the market in the 1950s in the form of cheap goods (9). By removing the limits previously imposed by the availability and properties of natural resources, plastics played an integral role in the conversion from rationing to mass consumption (10).

Plastics were, and are, here to stay. Both, in that they have evolved to play an integral part in our global economy (11) and, literally, in that the properties that make plastic so desirable also make it very hard to dispose of. Indeed, ever-increasing demand has seen the manufacture of plastic products, and consequently waste, transform from a trickle (1.5 million tons in 1950) to a gush (335 million tons in 2016) (12).

And therein lies the crux of this environmental problem. The scale of our plastic production is unsustainable.

Why? As a novel material it doesn’t degrade naturally, and there is no anthropogenic sink (13), i.e. a man-made disposal system, appropriate for the volume of our waste. However, to be sustainable we need to operate within the “assimilative capacity of (our) host ecosystems” (14). We thus need to shrink the scale we operate on; that is, we need to reduce the physical volume of throughput, i.e. the amount of raw material that becomes waste product (15).

Our blinkered economic system has facilitated the development of our plastic problem. As an idealised concept it does not consider our biophysical limits, believing that market pricing (where supply and demand determine affordability) is a sufficient alternative to maintaining sustainable scale (16). However, markets do not account for the environmental consequences of economic activity. Therefore, the tenets of infinite economic growth are fundamentally at odds with the finite, non-growing closed system (17) we live in.

All hope, however, is not lost. Novel solutions have been, and are being, developed to reduce the volume of plastic waste in our oceans (18). Individual consumption patterns are changing. And, though more could be done (have you ever tried a plastic-free shop?), producers, and the institutions that regulate them, are, slowly, helping to facilitate this change through the substitution of plastics for biodegradable materials and changes to packaging waste regulations (19).

Are these solutions enough? Though they may abate the symptoms the underlying cause remains. Without a serious shake-up of our economic system, one type of waste will simply be substituted for another. We need to future-proof ourselves, re-orientating our production and better defining our disposal processes so that we are able to operate within a sustainable scale.



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