Plastics. Numerous varieties, shapes, sizes; methods of production; lifetime; mineralisation rates… or lack thereof. I am no chemist. But I’ll let you in on this big, big secret: the word being circulated like the marine debris in so-called Garbage Patches is that yes, most plastics do break down eventually. Rates of degradation are much slower in the cold of the vast oceans than on land; nonetheless they do decompose. Perhaps after a couple of decades, or a few more, or centuries. We don’t know. But what most plastics do not do, is to break down into CO2, or water, or other inorganic molecules – i.e. they don’t mineralise completely. But what does mineralise is my tolerance to humankind.
“Global sea levels are rising… you even said it in your previous post! We’re never going to run out of water, silly!“, I can hear the horde of sceptics declare. Well, yes. Unless Earth is suddenly blasted with a rocketing comet and is burnt to planetary cinders, of course we’re not going to run out of water. The drinkable stuff is another story, though. “But that’s all filterable, we’ll build filtering stations over the next few decades, we’re fine!”, the general crowd pushes on. Anything to make life easier and continue business as usual, using as much plastic as we can. Again, I might just be more of a mathematician than a chemist, so let’s talk numbers:
- The omniscient WWW informs me here that 2kg of oil is used to produce 1kg of polyethylene. For every 1kg of burnt oil, 3kg of CO2 is produced. Quick arithmetic exercise and we get 6kg of CO2 produced per 1kg of LDPE, for example.
- Plastic bags vary in weight of course, but considering your average 30g supermarket carrier bag, we’re looking at roughly 200g of CO2 per bag. So a weekly Tesco shop may cost you £30. It costs the environment a kilogram of unnecessary CO2 – a much bigger cost. But the average Joe won’t care; a canvas ‘bag for life’ is too expensive anyway.
Many of these bags may be biodegradable – hooray! But more so on land than on water, and it is the oceans which I want to focus my attention on. The following may be a wide error margin, but still 50% – 80% of shoreline debris is in the form of discarded plastic, thanks to its buoyant properties. That’s not a figure to ignore. Picture the scene:
The year is 1997 and en-route from Hawaii to California, we find Charles Moore treading the waters of the Pacific. The oceanographer’s face drops as he encounters masses upon masses of marine debris, congregating along certain ocean current paths… he has encountered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
This is the result of 300 million tonnes of annual plastic production – just under a third of which ends up polluting the Earth’s waters. This is both accidental and intentional waste: industrial and personal. Yes, my friend, personal. Give the ingredients of your exfoliating facewash a quick read and realise that those gentle microbeads scrubbing pleasantly at your skin actually only end up scrubbing away the insides of a fish.
I am evidently overdramatising this all for effect; many scientists claim that even though toxins commonly concentrate in plastics, their dosage is rarely biologically significant – referring to food packaging and whatnot. These things have been made under strict certification rules, so as to not contaminate the product inside. But the story is different when these things are physically ingested by marine lifeforms and bioaccumulate. Excuse the personal slant here, but somehow I feel somewhat uneasy about these toxins entering the food chain through plankton, carrying on right up through to tuna. More so, I feel vile when I come to think that this is us, humans, hindering the lifespan of marine life by ingestion and entanglement, through the junk we overproduce and chuck away without a care in the world.