Sin­gle-use plas­tic prod­ucts are clog­ging up our wa­ter­ways, even­tu­ally break­ing down into mi­cro par­ti­cles and end­ing up back on our plates

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

BY 2050, it’s pre­dicted that there will be more plas­tic waste (by weight) in our oceans than fish.

It’s a sen­sa­tion­al­ist claim to make – and nigh im­pos­si­ble to ac­cu­rately de­ter­mine fish stock num­bers, or project how much plas­tic there will be – but it does point to a very real prob­lem be­cause plas­tic is not biodegrad­able. In­stead, it breaks down into smaller par­ti­cles that end up in the food chain.

It’s car­ried in our wa­ter­ways, form­ing swirling garbage patches of sus­pended mat­ter, com­pris­ing bot­tle caps, cig­a­rette butts, dis­carded fish­ing nets and lines, Sty­ro­foam con­tain­ers, plas­tic pack­ets, sweet wrap­pers and tiny mi­cro par­ti­cles, bro­ken down over time by the sun. Marine life then mis­takes the plas­tic for food.


In South Africa, an es­ti­mated 2kg of waste is cre­ated per per­son per day – sec­ond only to the US, John Dun­can of the World Wildlife Fund SA’s marine pro­gramme said at last month’s panel dis­cus­sion on plas­tic pol­lu­tion at the Two Oceans Aquar­ium in Cape Town. And con­sumers are largely to blame for con­tribut­ing to marine waste, by feed­ing de­mand for sin­gle-use plas­tics: the ear buds, wrap­pers, bot­tle caps, straws, and take­away cof­fee cup lids, which com­prise the top five plas­tic pol­lu­tants found on our beaches, Dun­can said.

The prob­lem of plas­tic waste shouldn’t only con­cern coastal dwellers, be­cause 80% of that pol­lu­tion is gen­er­ated in­land – and most of it is ei­ther not man­aged prop­erly by lo­cal author­i­ties, or car­ried by wind, rivers and storm-wa­ter drains. Once that gets to the sea or other wa­ter bod­ies, it suf­fo­cates plank­ton (the ocean’s lung), kills lo­cal fish­ing economies and re-en­ters our food sys­tem. Com­pound­ing the dan­ger to hu­mans and an­i­mals, plas­tics leach out harm­ful chem­i­cals such as bisphe­nol A (BPA), and ab­sorb (or even con­cen­trate) tox­ins such as PCBs and DDT.


The tim­ing of the dis­cus­sion couldn’t have been more apt. Last month, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists marked Plas­tic Free July (an ini­tia­tive to raise aware­ness about sin­gle-use plas­tic) and the sixth an­niver­sary of the “Be Straw-Free” cam­paign (launched by a nine-year-old Amer­i­can boy, after he saw a dis­tressed tur­tle with a straw up its nose) – coin­cid­ing with dra­matic images of ice­bergs calv­ing in Antarc­tica and the Arc­tic. The month be­fore, Don­ald Trump with­drew the US from the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment. But while cli­mate change still seems de­bat­able in cer­tain cir­cles, plas­tic pol­lu­tion is un­de­ni­able.

Marine pol­lu­tion’s been at­trib­uted to cre­at­ing islands of garbage, but it’s said to be more of a “dif­fuse soup” than large patches of de­bris that can be seen from space. Here for the African Marine Waste Con­fer­ence in Port El­iz­a­beth, Pro­fes­sor Jenna Jam­beck from the En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gi­neer­ing Depart­ment at Ge­or­gia Univer­sity ex­plained ocean de­bris is com­posed al­most en­tirely of plas­tic – but most of it, mi­cro-plas­tics. “Once mi­cro-plas­tics en­tered the pic­ture and it was be­ing in­gested by marine life, it was a whole new ball game,” Jam­beck said. “That’s when the alarms started go­ing off (for sci­en­tists).”


Tony Rib­bink, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Sus­tain­able Sea Trust, warned: “Ev­ery­thing that we eat from the sea is now con­tam­i­nated. It’s a re­flec­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing on land be­cause most of the pol­lu­tion that en­ters the sea comes from land. Waste is made of a valu­able re­source (oil) that we can utilise, but we are los­ing mil­lions of dol­lars a year around Africa, wasted into the sea. So we are look­ing at find­ing so­lu­tions and op­por­tu­ni­ties for har­ness­ing the cir­cu­lar econ­omy. Op­por­tu­ni­ties for ed­u­ca­tion, ca­pac­ity build­ing, en­ter­prise, cre­at­ing jobs, pro­mot­ing tourism.

“Let’s not let this oil-pro­duced plas­tic float off: let’s put it to use.”

Be­hav­iour change was re­quired, Shan­non Hamp­ton, the project co-or­di­na­tor for the In­ter­na­tional Ocean In­sti­tute, said. “Beach clean-ups cre­ate aware­ness, but what about the small stuff? Sin­gle-use plas­tic is a huge is­sue and we need to re­think our con­sump­tion.”


Hamp­ton’s pet project, Beat the Mi­crobead, was launched in 2015, to high­light the en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of mi­cro par­ti­cles – the tiny beads in fa­cial and body scrubs, tooth­pastes and some do­mes­tic clean­ing prod­ucts. “Mi­cro beads are con­fused for food by plank­ton, which are filled up by the beads which have no nu­tri­tional con­tent and at­tract tox­ins. In South Africa, we con­ducted a study in sar­dines – the sam­ple size was small (73) but it gave us a fair in­di­ca­tion of what’s go­ing on.

Of those, 11 con­tained small plas­tic fi­bres and one had a 6mm piece of white plas­tic rod inside it.

“Any­thing that ends up in a


WASTE­LAND: In South Africa 2kg of waste is pro­duced by one per­son a day.

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