Plastic pollution of the ocean is a global problem caused by the enormous amounts of plastic that end up in the ocean every year. This has major consequences for all marine life and even for us. It is important that we clean up the plastic soup and prevent the emergence of the plastic soup. But how can we do this, and how can you contribute to this? In this article you will find out.
How did plastic come about?
In order to fully understand what we are talking about, we should go back to the origin of plastic. The explosive substance ‘nitrocellulose’ was first prepared in France around 1833. This turned out to be a substance for making the plastic ‘celluloid’. It was used for producing the first films and making jewelry. When it was discovered years later that plastic could also be made from coal, the production of plastics took off even more. After the Second World War, many other plastics were discovered with more favorable properties. Since plastics were lighter, less brittle, more easily deformable and cheaper than pottery and glass, the mass production of plastics started. Plastics have been a huge asset to all industries. It was the new gold, but nowadays plastics are less honor bound…
How does plastic end up in the ocean?
The world population is growing and this is increasing consumer demand for plastics. Manufacturers take advantage of this and provide a huge range of plastic products on the market for different sectors. Of these sectors, the food sector produces by far the most plastic. Approximately 40% of all plastic products are intended for single use. These plastics are called single-use plastics or disposable plastics. Examples of disposable plastic are plastic drinking bottles, straws, cigarettes, packaging and bags. About 124 million tons of single-use plastic is produced every year.
It is mainly these plastics that often end up on the street or in nature, the main cause of which is the ineffective way of waste management. Many landfills are uncontrolled, allowing plastic waste to spread into the environment. This is especially the case in low-income countries, such as large parts of South Asia and Africa. Also, little plastic is recycled, namely less than a quarter of the plastic waste. That is only 9% of all plastic waste worldwide.
In addition to ineffective waste management, many people regularly throw used straws or packaging on the street. The Plastic Soup Foundation reports that more than 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day in the United States alone and that approximately 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, which is equivalent to 1 million plastic bags per minute. Often, litter is the result of carelessness and unconscious behaviour.
The vast majority of single-use plastic that ends up on the streets, as well as plastic waste that ends up in landfills, is carried by wind or excess water and ends up in rivers and canals. These transport the plastic to the coastal waters. Today, more than 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year, of which about 12 million tons (4%) ends up in the ocean. Of this, an estimated 80% comes from land and the remaining 20% from marine sources.
How is the plastic soup formed?
Only 1% of plastic waste in the ocean floats on the ocean surface. The remaining 99% has a greater density than seawater and may sink to the seabed. Under the influence of salt, UV light and waves, the plastic that floats on the ocean surface breaks apart into smaller pieces. Ultimately, only the polymers – the long molecular chains that make up plastics – are left. There are no biological processes that can break down the bonds within the polymers. That is why plastics are not completely broken down and very small pieces of plastic are formed, which are called ‘microplastics’. The microplastics that are formed eventually come together by being attracted to ring-shaped ocean currents at the ocean’s surface called ‘gyres’. These gyres are created by the wind pushing the water in different directions. Water in a gyre flows toward the center where it deflects downward. Microplastics flow with the water to the center and float there. The amount of plastic in the middle of such a gyre is around 10 KG per square kilometer. There is no such thing as a thick soup as people often think. It’s more like a plastic broth.
In what way does the plastic soup affect (marine) life?
The plastic soup poses a threat to all life in the ocean. Animals eat or become entangled in the plastic, resulting in injury or death. Approximately 100 million marine animals, including whales, sharks, seabirds and turtles, die due to encounters with plastic. The plastic soup also blocks sunlight, which phytoplankton – sea plants that produce 70% of all oxygen in the world – desperately need.
Besides marine life, the plastic soup is also a threat to humans. Plastic can enter the food chain when fish eat it. When we eat these fish, we ingest microplastics. This way, our bodies can come into contact with different toxic substances, with all its consequences. Reason enough to tackle the plastic soup.
Now that we know how the plastic soup is formed and what consequences it has, let’s look at what is most important: tackling the plastic soup.
What is being done to clean up the current plastic soup?
Globally there are several big organizations that have the mission to clean up the plastic soup. One of the best known is the Dutch non-profit organization ‘The Ocean Cleanup’. This organization was started in 2013 by former Dutch student Boyan Slat. The Ocean Cleanup aims to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution in the coming years. They want to do this with advanced technologies with which they can rid the oceans of plastic. They have developed a large, floating tube called ‘system 002’ and installed it in the biggest ocean garbage patch: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii. This tube is designed to work passively because of the ocean’s currents. It first concentrates the plastic, after which it is effectively collected and removed, ready to be recycled. The Ocean Cleanup also aims to tackle plastic in the top 1000 most polluting rivers worldwide, which approximately 80% of all river plastic worldwide stems from. They have developed interceptors, which are fully solar-powered boat-like constructions that prevent plastic from entering the ocean via the rivers that the interceptors operate in.
Another big organization contributing to cleaning up the plastic soup is ‘4Ocean’. This organization operates worldwide and sells products made out of plastic, such as bracelets, merchandise and bottles. The concept is that for every purchase that is made, a pound of trash is pulled out of the ocean. The organization also takes part in beach cleanups, where much of the plastic that ends up in the ocean washes ashore.
What innovative developments are there to combat the emergence of the plastic soup?
Cleaning up the current plastic soup is one thing, but tackling the source and taking on the root of the problem is another thing. In order to prevent plastic pollution from emerging in the ocean, several innovations are implemented. Because mechanical recycling depends on the purity of the input stream (i.e. the degree to which the input stream consists of one type of plastic) and often additional cleaning technologies are required to make the end product meet the strict requirements for a next ‘life’, mechanical recycling is never 100% pure. Therefore, after being mechanically recycled about six times, the quality of plastic becomes too low for reuse at some point. The plastic is then no longer usable and ends up in landfills as plastic waste. Ineffective waste management allows this plastic waste to spread into the environment, eventually ending up in rivers, canals and sewers.
A method of plastic recycling that is currently being researched a lot is chemical recycling. The compounds in plastics are broken down by means of a chemical process and returned to the original building blocks. These are monomers, the particles that make up polymers. After chemical recycling, the product has the quality of the original polymer again, which increases the possibilities for reuse. Chemical recycling takes different forms, such as dissolving and incinerating plastic. The use of chemical recycling could be especially interesting for the mixed plastic flow in which all kinds of plastic end up together and which are difficult to mechanically recycle. Large-scale application of chemical recycling does not yet exist. However, there are interesting developments and applications on a small scale.
What policies are there against plastic waste?
More and more countries are taking measures against plastic waste by pursuing a specific policy. So is China, the country that has the largest share of plastic pollution in the oceans. In early 2018, the Chinese government introduced an import ban on 24 types of waste from abroad, including plastics, paper products and textiles. China was the largest importer of plastic waste in the world, representing 56% of the global market. The country no longer wanted to be the ‘drain’ of the world. That is why the Chinese government decided to implement a waste import policy at the end of 2017. Since the introduction of the policy, plastic waste imports into China have fallen by 99%. Instead of processing their own waste, many Western countries now transport their waste to other Asian countries. Waste transport from the UK to Malaysia, for example, has tripled since then, according to the Financial Times. As of April 2017, several Asian countries have followed China’s lead by returning illegally imported and mislabeled waste to the Western countries of origin. India has followed China’s lead. The second most populous country in the world, declared in 2018 that it wants to eliminate single-use plastic within 4 years.
The European Union is also taking action against plastic waste with a new policy. On March 27, 2019, the EU approved the European Single Used Plastic Directive.
Are there any substitutes for plastic?
The most effective way to combat plastic waste is to stop producing plastic. Because plastics are sorely needed in all major sectors, they must be replaced in that case. Compostable materials seem to be suitable substitutes. A lot of research is currently being conducted into new compostable materials to replace plastic in the future.
One of these materials is paper. Paper seems to be a more durable material than plastic. More and more shops are using paper bags instead of plastic bags. Paper comes from renewable sources, is easier to recycle than plastic and decomposes faster in nature. Bio-based plastics and nano paper are also realistic replacements for plastic in the future.
How can you contribute to a plastic-free ocean?
Now we get to the most important question: what can you do in order to tackle plastic pollution? Since it’s such a big global problem, it can seem as if your contribution can’t make much of a difference, but that is far from the truth. We consumers are the ones that buy, use and dispose of the plastic, so we can together make a huge difference if everybody does their part.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to ban all plastic from your life. That would be quite impossible since plastics are literally everywhere. But you can definitely take steps to do so as much as possible, following these tips:
· Buy less (conventional) plastic. Instead of buying single-use plastic products that you would throw away after using it once, like plastic bottles and sandwich bags, you could buy and use products that you will use for a long time (e.g. a sturdy water bottle and a cloth bread bag). Also, if the price difference is not an issue, you could buy wooden/bamboo products instead of plastic ones. Think of toothbrushes and chairs.
· Recycle. Everybody produces at least a little plastic waste. Make sure that when you do, you throw it away in a trash can instead of throwing it on the ground or in nature. Even better would be to separate your plastic waste from other waste, which will allow your plastic waste to be recycled.
· Take action. Making sure that your plastic waste is minimal and doesn’t end up in the ocean is great and is the least you could do, but you can do even more than that. For example, you could join a beach cleanup day, or point out to people in your environment how they can contribute to a plastic-free ocean.