PLASTIC: SMALL STUFF TO SWEAT
Single-use plastic products are clogging up our waterways, eventually breaking down into micro particles and ending up back on our plates
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.