The fact that we are cluttering our oceans with plastic debris is no longer a secret. Most of us are and should be aware of the negative effects that our gross overconsumption of plastic goods, especially disposables entails. What most of us are not aware of however, is how long lasting the negative effects are, of the waste that we create today. It is admittedly easy to forget about plastic waste when it is covered meters under the surface of the earth in a landfill or drifting somewhere off-shore in the Pacific Ocean. In this sense, how long do everyday items stay in our oceans, until they are broken down?
It is known that every material breaks down over time, through erosion driven by natural forces such as either wind, water or sunlight, or all of them. Even the toughest stone will eventually be faded away and so are plastic items. Yet the disposal and the natural erosion of plastics is not at all proportionate to one another. When you are thirsty, you might empty a 330ml water bottle in a matter of a few minutes. In sharp contrast is the fact that the ocean takes up to 450 years to break down that same plastic bottle. This estimation stems from the “US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration” (NOAA) that was collaborating on research with the “Woods Hole Sea Grant”, gathering data that details the time needed for man-made marine debris to biodegrade in the sea.
As the depicted chart below shows in detail, fishing lines, one of the more common man-made marine debris is one of the worst offenders, as they take up to 600 years to break down. Whereas plastic beverage holders take 400 years and aluminium cans 200 years to biodegrade. Even minuscule items such as cigarette butts take up to 10 years to break down and plastic grocery bags even as much as 20.
The NOAA classifies “any man-made object discarded, disposed or abandoned that enters coastal or marine environments” as marine debris. In this sense every year, about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean. If this trend continues, we will end up with more plastic than fish in the oceans by the year 2050. Once the debris is in the waterways, it cannot easily be recollected and is left to potentially harm marine life. Earlier in 2018, a stranded whale off the coast of Thailand was found to have swallowed 80 plastic bags.
As governments as well as organisations around the world start increasingly recognising the hazards arising through ocean plastics and the negative impact this has not only on marine environments but lastly also on humans, there was a UN resolution signed into action last year. This resolution aims to end plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. In October 2018, the European Parliament supported a complete ban on most single-use plastics including articles such as bags, cutlery and straws, which it hopes to step into action by 2021.
A lot of the plastic pollution is however still stemming from developing countries, as the chart above shows. The plastic pollution stems from mismanaged plastic waste that ends up as marine debris.
To counteract this, in September, the World Economic Forum launched a partnership program to stem the growth and increase of plastic pollution by the year 2025. This partnership is backed and funded by the UK and Canadian governments as well as major conglomerates such as the Coca-Cola Company, Dow Chemical and the PepsiCo Foundation. It is named the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) and will collaborate with countries bordering on a coastline, and especially developing countries, to battle waste. The GPAP has planned to start with the country of Indonesia and will try to reduce its plastic consumption and waste output by 70%.
In conclusion, we tend to forget about the plastic pollution problem as most of us aren’t exposed to it every day. Hearing the actual time it takes the environment to biodegrade our waste however, is a certain wake-up call. As consumers, we must make conscious choices regarding the products we buy and use, as if we opt for sustainable products, the conglomerates will be forced to offer them, which is the only way we can start to counteract this problem. Be proactive!