The world’s oceans are teem­ing with plas­tic waste

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Louis Weisberg Staff writer

Global cli­mate change isn’t the only hu­man-made catas­tro­phe threat­en­ing the Earth.

Plas­tic pro­duc­tion has in­creased to 418 mil­lion met­ric tons in 2015 from 2 mil­lion met­ric tons in 1950, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Roland Geyer, a pro­fes­sor of in­dus­trial ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. Only 14 per­cent of plas­tic pack­ag­ing is cur­rently col­lected for re­cy­cling.

Much of the rest of it ends up in the sea, pos­ing a crit­i­cal and grow­ing dan­ger to the fu­ture of the oceans and the wildlife that they sus­tain.

In 2010 alone, be­tween 4 mil­lion and 12 mil­lion met­ric tons of plas­tic en­tered the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment. Four-fifths of it was car­ried by wind or rivers into the ocean, while the rest was dumped from ships. The U.N. En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram es­ti­mates that each square mile of ocean to­day car­ries 46,000 pieces of plas­tic lit­ter.

The Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion high­lighted the is­sue last year in a re­port that said the weight of plas­tic in the oceans would equal that of fish by 2050 if cur­rent trends con­tinue.

Much of the plas­tic lit­ter col­lects in five key ar­eas known as “garbage patches,” where winds and cur­rents col­lide to cre­ate gyres of trash. The largest is the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch, which bobs along a stretch of ocean be­tween Hawaii and Cal­i­for­nia.

Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non­profit, re­cently re­ported that if all the garbage in

If all the garbage in that patch were heaped to­gether ... its to­tal vol­ume would amount to twice the size of Texas.

that patch were heaped to­gether — in­clud­ing all the plas­tic bot­tles, bags, pack­ag­ing and con­tain­ers — its to­tal area would amount to twice the size of Texas.

Al­ready, the patch con­tains at least six times more plas­tic mat­ter than plank­ton biomass, the bot­tom of the food chain.

Even­tu­ally, plas­tic de­grades into mi­croplas­tics, tiny par­ti­cles smaller than the width of a hu­man hair. Mi­croplas­tics al­ready ac­count for 8 per­cent of the de­bris and could in­crease to 50 tril­lion par­ti­cles, ac­cord­ing to Ocean Cleanup’s study. The plas­tic ma­te­rial kills and maims wildlife as it makes its way into the food chain.

High lev­els of mi­croplas­tics al­ready are found in fish for sale at su­per­mar­kets. The ef­fects on hu­mans who con­sume mi­croplas­tics are un­known.

Tack­ling the prob­lem will re­quire ac­tion on mul­ti­ple fronts, and lead­er­ship from com­pa­nies that use plas­tic, ex­perts say.

“It’s not about one in­no­va­tion, one reg­u­la­tion, one ac­tion. We need all of them at the same time,” said Rob Op­somer, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion’s New Plas­tics Econ­omy project. “We need to have more and bolder am­bi­tions.”

SHUNNING PLAS­TIC AS ‘VIRTUE SIG­NAL’

Mar­ket re­search group Min­tel says we may even­tu­ally see “so­cial stigma­ti­za­tion” of plas­tic cups and cling film, with firms de­vel­op­ing sol­u­ble pack­ag­ing and more re­tail­ers shunning prod­ucts en­cased in plas­tic.

“There is money to be made, but more im­por­tantly there’s money to be lost,” said Ben Pun­chard, global pack­ag­ing an­a­lyst at Min­tel. “It is be­ing used as a virtue sig­nal. It’s show­ing you are do­ing the right thing.”

Gov­ern­ments and other in­sti­tu­tions have

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