Plas­tic Thoughts

Scuba Diver Ocean Planet - - Cousteau Divers - By Pierre-Yves Cousteau

On a calm, sunny day of sum­mer 2010, I was div­ing in one of the most beau­ti­ful marine pro­tected ar­eas of the Mediter­ranean, the Cabrera Na­tional Park in Spain. Af­ter an hour of peace­fully glid­ing along the lush seascapes team­ing with mas­sive groupers in crys­tal clear wa­ters, it was time to as­cend to the safety stop. As I hov­ered at five me­tres below the sur­face, I was slowly sur­rounded by tiny par­ti­cles brought in by the cur­rent. Within sec­onds, a soup of plas­tic had clouded the en­tire site, and I sur­faced, ap­palled by the con­trast of what I had wit­nessed. The sea knows no bound­aries, and nor do the re­volt­ing pol­lu­tions that we con­stantly pour into its depths. To­day, an es­ti­mated 270 thou­sand tons of plas­tic floats at the sur­face of the world’s oceans. Ac­cord­ing to UNEP, it is es­ti­mated that only 15 per­cent of ocean plas­tics float, an­other 15 per­cent hang neu­trally buoy­ant in the wa­ter col­umn, and 70 per­cent sinks right down to the seafloor. As th­ese plas­tics break down in the wa­ter into mi­cropar­ti­cles, they leek myr­iad chem­i­cal ad­di­tives into the wa­ter, from fire-re­tar­dants to bio­cides, which inevitably con­tam­i­nate marine life and ac­cu­mu­late in the food chain, fin­ish­ing their grue­some jour­ney on our din­ner plates as we en­joy fresh­ly­caught wild fish.


The global threat posed by ocean plas­tics raises the ques­tions about our val­ues as a species. We are act­ing as pure con­sumers of the planet’s re­sources, but can we mod­ify our be­hav­iour to be­come en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ards? Can so­cial sci­ences and mar­ket­ing, which have long served the openly as­sumed goal of sell­ing us more stuff, to­day help change our per­spec­tives, val­ues and cul­ture, to care ever so slightly about greaterthan-self is­sues? Eco­nomic in­cen­tives will play a ma­jor role in chang­ing our be­hav­iours, but a change of moral val­ues can have the long-term pos­i­tive ef­fect of mak­ing our de­fault choices re­spon­si­ble. How will fu­ture gen­er­a­tions judge our civil­i­sa­tion, as­sum­ing the sum of our ac­tions doesn’t make this planet per­ma­nently in­hab­it­able for them? Per­haps the so­lu­tion lies in es­tab­lish­ing the con­nec­tion be­tween our un­sus­tain­able use of plas­tics and the ef­fects it is hav­ing on our health, re­al­is­ing that the mi­cro-beads of plas­tic used in cos­metic prod­ucts for in­stance, make a short jour­ney straight to our din­ner plates. Per­haps es­tab­lish­ing di­rect links be­tween ocean plas­tics and eco­nomic im­pacts will help change our be­hav­iours, given for in­stance the es­ti­mated an­nual 13 bil­lion dol­lar dam­age caused by plas­tics to marine ecosys­tem ser­vices.


Hun­dreds of en­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions are con­stantly fight­ing this en­vi­ron­men­tal disas­ter, or­gan­is­ing div­ing and beach cleanups, de­ploy­ing sur­face col­lec­tors, and ad­vo­cat­ing in­no­va­tive ways to pre­vent the plas­tics from reach­ing the sea. Ac­cord­ing to IUCN’s ex­pert on marine plas­tics, Joao Sousa, only cir­cu­lar econ­omy ini­tia­tives will truly have the wide scale ef­fect that is needed to re­verse this mad­ness. A prod­uct of oil, plas­tics can be melted down and made into re­sources again, re-en­ter­ing the eco­nomic cy­cle rather than van­ish­ing be­neath the sur­face of a dy­ing ocean. When th­ese tech­nolo­gies gain scale and demon­strate eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity, no­body will throw plas­tic away care­lessly any­more, and glob­alscale har­vest­ing will be­gin.


To end this grave and over­whelm­ing prob­lem with a quote from Amer­i­can hu­morist Ge­orge Car­lin:

“Could be the only rea­son the Earth al­lowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plas­tic for it­self. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could it be that the an­swer to our age-old ego­cen­tric philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion, ‘Why are we here?’ is ‘Plas­tic.’?” SDOP

Plas­tic lit­ters the beaches of the Mal­dives, as it does coasts around the world, even in places far from hu­man habi­ta­tion Im­age © Pierre-Yves Cousteau

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