Nature’s Voice: An Epidemic of Plastic Waste
Plastic is at our fingertips all day and every day; the keyboard, the mouse, kitchen utensils, drink bottles, and of course plastic bags.
More plastic has been produced during the last decade than over the previous 100 years. The production of plastic uses around eight percent of the world’s oil production and plastic products make up about 10% of the waste we produce.
On average, each plastic bag is used for just twelve minutes, and yet it takes from 10 to 1000 years to decompose. Huge amounts of plastic bags now end up in the ocean so if we continue to abuse plastic, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050!
Around 80% of pollution enters the ocean from the land. A recent scientific paper states that the Arctic Ocean, the northern most sea, closely hemmed in by Asia, Europe and North America is choked with 300 billion pieces of floating plastic. Perhaps we should change its name to Plastic Ocean? The plastic has been carried to the pole over decades and from there has nowhere to go. For a long time, its remoteness has been an advantage to the ecology of the region, very few ships passed through so environmental disruption and pollution has been minimal. The plastic has been drifting by itself, but at the same time causing substantial damage to the marine environment.
No matter where we live on earth, we are dependent on the oceans as they generate most of the oxygen. Oceans are also vital for life in the way they regulate the climate and turn water into clouds that provide the rain, as well as a ‘home’ to 80% of living things. Our oceans depend on us to turn the tide and reduce waste ending up in the “lungs” of the world. We are destroying marine health, and we urgently need to cure it.
The solution is relatively simple, the use of plastic bags could be hugely reduced without great effort. It isn’t hard to take bags or baskets to the supermarket and some supermarkets make cardboard boxes available for packing groceries. If shopping is done by car, the trolley can simply be wheeled to the car, and goods loaded into crates or boxes in the boot. There are already various initiatives around the country to reduce or avoid the use of polluting plastic. Wanaka has a goal to be plastic free by 2019 and it promotes an effective campaign.
Not only plastic bags make their way to the ocean though. Microbeads, generally made from Polyethylene, added as an exfoliating agent to soaps, shower gels, facial scrubs and tooth paste also end up in our seas. Microbeads get washed down the basin and end up in waterways. Small fish, amphibians, birds, turtles as well as larger animals then mistake microbeads for food with often fatal results. There are solutions though, natural, biodegradable alternative products exist such as salt, ground nutshells, apricot kernels and jojoba beads. Plastic chemicals such as BPA known to interfere with human hormonal functions, can also be absorbed by our bodies in different ways, from drinking contaminated water to eating fish exposed to broken down toxins.
Earlier in the year, the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith announced that cosmetic products containing microbeads will be banned in New Zealand from July 2018 because of concerns about their impact on the marine environment. However he stated: “There is not the evidence in New Zealand that a substantive portion of the plastic bags that we use in shopping and other uses end up in the marine environment.” Smith said he wouldn’t rule out changes in relation to plastic bags in future, but the Government’s focus was currently on a nationwide recycling scheme.
Another angle on this plastic pollution problem is that research from the University of New South Wales has recently found that the source of 85% of human debris on shorelines around the world is microfibre. Although many companies recycle plastic bottles to make microfibre cloth, the fibres eventually still end up in the waterways and ocean. Recycling plastic bottles and breaking them into millions of fibrous pieces might in fact be worse than sending it to the landfill. However the bottom line is that avoiding plastic in the first place is better than cure as future generations won’t thank us for leaving them with costly “tidy ups”.
Ines Stäger is a landscape architect based in Geraldine, a board member of the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society and a committee member of the local branch.