PART 1 – THE PLASTIC WORLD
In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, discovering the “New World”. If during his explorations plastic already existed, quite for sure, the same plastic used by his crew, was going to be there today. Luckily, plastic was invented hundreds of years later, at the end of 19° century, and its production has strongly developed from 1950. Plastic was a revolutionary material. It was light, resistant and cheap. Today it’s part of medical instruments, it helps airplanes and shuttles flying and it saved elephants’ lives. Sounds unbelievable but it’s true.
In the 19th century billiards balls, pianos keys and other objects like the common combs, were made of ivory and, in fact, the first plastic items realized from cellulose were billiard balls. After some years, plastic started to be produced from oil. Its production has grown so fast that almost half of the plastic manufactured by the invention of the material to date has been made in the last 15 years.
Around 400 million tons of plastic are produced every year and the main production is related to packaging materials. 40% of this amount is used once and then is thrown away and an average of 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Two other data are, in my opinion, impressive. The first, is the quantity of bottles produced by Coca-Cola, around 128 billion bottles every year, and the second is the average time of “working life” of a plastic bag, 15 minutes.
Photo by Stefano Bellomo
In many developing countries, the waste collection systems are not properly working or are completely absent. Following a research of 2010, almost half of the plastic waste produced globally was generated in five Asian countries: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia.
Rivers are the main carriers of plastic waste to the sea and fifteen of the twenty most polluted rivers of the world are in Asia: Yangtze, Gange and Paisig. Especially the last one, the river Paisig, that cross Manila, capital of the Philippines, in 1990 has been declared “biologically dead”. It has been calculated that it transports to the sea around 65 thousand tons of plastic every year. Moreover, these over-populated urban centers, face other problems, such us chemicals pollution and disease dissemination.
In 2015 the University of Georgia published an estimate of the plastic that ends up in the oceans worldwide: from 4 and 12 million tons every year. The same research also states that most of the plastic waste is abandoned on lands and rivers and then it ends up into the oceans because of the action of winds and currents. None of us exactly know for how long plastic will stay in the environment: estimates range from 450 years to unknown.
To discover more and have a better idea of what I’m saying, I suggest you watch an amazing documentary realized in 2016: A PLASTIC OCEAN.
PART 2 – PLASTIC IMPACT ON BIODIVERSITY
It has been calculated that almost 700 species of wildlife have been adversely affected by plastic pollution, some of them suffering many other human threats such us habitat loss. About 90% of seabirds are estimated to have plastic in their stomach, and more than 100.000 marine mammals are killed by plastic debris each year. Animals eat plastic by mistaking it for food. One of the reason is that when floating plastic is covered by algae, it has the same smell of their food. Animals that eat plastic can die by choking, they can suffer obstruction of the digestive tract and their stirring of hunger is reduced, affecting growth rates and reproductive capacity and they can suffer lacerations of the digestive tract. In fact, many animals are found dead with a stomach full of plastic.
It’s not all. Chemicals pollutants that float in our seas such us polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals, tend to adhere to plastic fragments.
Waves, sun, wind and heath break the large debris in small pieces of 5 mm or less. These small fragments, called microplastics, affect animals of any size: from the large whales, to the tiny zooplankton.
Risso's dolphin entagled in a large plastic packaging bag - Photo by Stefano Bellomo
Scientists have found microplastics everywhere on our Planet. From the arctic ice, to the deepest trench of the world.
The Marianas Trench is the deepest trench in the world (11.034 meters) but plastic pollution has managed to find its way to the bottom of the trench, where explorers have found it littering the ocean floor. In 2014, a team of scientists discovered a new species of crustacean located about 7.000m below the ocean surface and they found a 0.65mm large microfiber, 80% similar to PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in one of the individuals.
As a result, the scientists called the new species Eurythenes plasticus. PET is a substance found in a variety of commonly used items, such as water bottles. Dr. Alan Jamieson, head of the research mission, said: “We decided on the name Eurythenes plasticus as we wanted to highlight the fact that we need to take immediate action to stop the deluge of plastic waste into our oceans.”
Plastic literally entered in the food chain. Nowadays, no evidence shows that biological tissues of fishes absorb microplastics from their intestines. Most of the debris ingested, tend to remain in their stomachs. Unfortunately, the real problem is what we cannot see.
Chemicals pollutants could pass from the intestines to biological tissues and then to humans that eat those fishes. Some of those chemicals may alter the normal function of the organs and may cause cancer. Moreover, scientists take seriously in consideration the hypothesis that microplastics break into much smaller particles called nano-plastic, but no one has ever found these nano-particles in the environment and the instruments we have at the moment cannot identify them but scientists believe that there are and that they have all the characteristics to be absorbed in biological tissues.
PART 3 - THE ISLANDS OF PLASTIC
In 1997, during a sailboat racing event from Hawaii to California, the sailor Charles Moore found himself surrounded by millions of plastic debris: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, known also as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Estimates states it can cover a surface of at least 700.000 km², the same surface of France. The plastic islands are formed because of continuous circulation of ocean currents and recent studies confirm that exist at least five of these large plastic islands worldwide. The Pacific Trash Vortex is the largest. These patches are mainly composed of plastic, light metals and decomposing organic debris.
In the last years, many scientists focused their attention on the Mediterranean Sea. It covers around the 1% of the sea surface of the Planet, but it contains the 7% of the microplastics of the world. The Mediterranean is an almost enclosed basin, and here the rate of concentration of plastic debris is alarming. According one of the latest report of the WWF, every year end up into the Mediterranean Sea 570.000 tons of plastic waste.
Photo by Stefano Bellomo
The French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea has discovered a new plastic island several km large in the Mediterranean, more specifically, in the north of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The experts state that this plastic island is formed according to the marine currents and it forms cyclically. It can last a few weeks, or at most two or three months, then it breaks, and then it can be reformed, depending on the currents. Plastic pollution has a strong impact on economy. It has been calculated that the economic loss on fishing, tourism and the maritime industry for Mediterranean countries is around 641 million euros each year. Italy loses about 67 million euros every year.
PART 4 - THE SOLUTION
Everyone would like an innovative and fascinating solution, but the truth is that the problem is too vast that we must all participate in the solution: citizens, schools, institutions, industries, communities, governments. It is also necessary to consider this problem globally, starting from the implementation of correct waste collection systems, especially in developing countries.
Luckily, there are good news. Several countries have banned plastic bags, disposable tableware, microspheres in cosmetics, some companies are increasingly adopting reusable, compostable and recyclable packaging and more and more beach cleaning events worldwide take place. In 1982, the percentage of plastic that was recycled was zero. Today, is around the 18%. Plastic bottles are among the most recycled plastic items. Others, such us straws, are more difficult to be properly recycled. Therefore, there is still much to do.
One solution could be the establishment of the Plastic Tax for each Kg of plastic produced. As well as the Carbon Tax for those industries impacting on climate changes, this tax, extended worldwide, could be used to finance waste collection systems in developing countries.
Nowadays is clear that plastic pollution negatively impacts biodiversity and ecosystem services, and this should be enough to take more concrete actions to reduce and mitigate its impact, as it has been for the insecticide DDT in the recent past. Important measures should be taken ahead, in order to prevent, as much as possible, the problem.
"The Plastic Selfie" - Photo by Stefano Bellomo
Countries should ban specific types of plastic, chemical industries should develop more biodegradable polymers, consumers should avoid disposable plastic and governments should invest in waste collection systems in order to reduce the quantity of plastic that ends up into the oceans.
If solutions will be implemented in the next 10 years, tens of millions of plastic will already be in the environment, causing immeasurable impacts to Mother Nature and to near future generations.
The breakthrough will be when we will overcome the “single-use” culture. Biodegradable plastics do not completely solve the problem. First, there are often many doubts about their actual ability to biodegrade and, above all, their use spread the message "throw it away, it will disappear", eventually leading to a possible wrong abandon of waste. We have to develop more responsible economic models, based on the circular economy, where everything must be reused or recycled.
Every single actions count. What can we all do in our daily life? First, avoid disposable plastic such us bags, straws, cutlery and cups. There are many possible solutions. You just have to get used to them: take with you reusable bags when you go to supermarkets; don’t ask for a straw when you order drinks; use a water bottle that you can fill after every use; buy bulk products, avoid food with plastic packaging and choose a bar of soap instead of liquid soap packed in plastic bottles and, in the end, recycle as much as you can.
Photo by Stefano Bellomo
PART 5 - WELCOME TO THE ANTHROPOCENE
The ecologist Eugene Stoermer and the Nobel Prize-winning in chemistry Paul Crutzen, to define the present geological time interval, coined a new word: “Anthropocene”, the Age of Humans, in order to underline that human footprint deeply influence many conditions and processes on Planet Earth. The term was widely popularised in 2000 and even if the “Anthropocene” is not currently a formally defined geological unit within the Geological Time Scale, the currently informal term “Anthropocene” is and will continue to be used by the scientific communities around the world.
Human impact has intensified significantly since the beginning of industrialization, taking us out of the Holocene Epoch. Phenomena associated with the Anthropocene include: increase in erosion and sediment transport associated with urbanization and agriculture; marked anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus; environmental changes like global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, habitat loss and rapid changes in the biosphere both on land and in the sea.
Many of these changes will persist for millennia or longer, some with permanent effect.
How it has been for all the previous epochs of our Planet, scientists, in order to accept the “Anthropocene” as a recognised name to define the epoch we are living nowadays, are looking for a specific geological strata. The deposits of coal are rests of not completely decomposed vegetables of the Carboniferous Era. We have tracks of the large dinosaurs the lived in the Mesozoic Era on our Planet because of their fossils. Unfortunately, what geologists are looking for are the “techno-fossils” that we are depositing in our Planet, and plastic is the main one.
Christopher Columbus didn’t live in the “Anthropocene”. We do. We have the power to control the present and the future of our Planet. We do have the responsibility to live within sustainable limits. We must do it for our future generations. Locally, we have created our campaign to fight plastic pollution, involving local surf and paddle-surf schools: Plastic Pirates.
Every actions count. Join the movement.