World’s Largest Landfill is Not On Land

posted in: Posts | 2

I came across a wonderful bit of tidbits from one of my go-to hubs for environmental news, Grist.org.  (Note: Feel free to cheat on me with Grist; they’ve got staff and stuff!)

Their headline got my attention: “More plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 — and other fun garbage facts!”  Please click that link for a quick scan of some insane facts and then pop back over.  Welcome back.

I already published a bit about recycling, titled “Sorting it Out” (another great headline, right?).  The big newsflash from both of our articles is, wait for it: recycling is good and necessary – curbing your excessive, but recyclable waste from your excessive consumerism (too harsh?) not only curbs its drastic and nasty effects on our earth, but it also creates jobs; you should do it.

Since most cities have options for recycling (at the very least, a place for you to drop them off) and most of you reading this are probably recycling gurus, let’s move on to an issue, somewhat related, but in a gyre all its own – or should I say, in 5 gyres all their own: our plastic oceans.

That’s right, plastics are floating, sinking and being eaten from sea to not-so-shining sea, and ocean currents have been amassing them for decades, in 5 swirling gyres of junk.

gyresjpg

Plastics are everywhere.  Many of us don’t think twice about how much plastic is in our shopping carts after just one trip to the store.  In fact, I’d love for you to take note during your next trip and share your experience in the comments.  I’m an eco-nerd, so I started paying attention a while ago, but I STILL can’t steer clear of single-use plastic.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis published a cumulative analysis of plastics in our oceans (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768), and found that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic is dumped in the oceans worldwide EACH YEAR – and that is the conservative estimate (the high, topping off at 12.7 million metric tons/year).

Since we all love to hate the metric system, let me break it down a little: 1 metric ton = 2,205 pounds.  Research author Roland Geyer illustrates that the midpoint of their estimates (8 million metric tons) would cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan, ankle-deep in plastic waste.  He also shared that, shockingly, 8 million metric tons is the entire amount of plastic PRODUCED WORLDWIDE throughout the year in 1961.  Now, we are dumping that much in our oceans every year, and that number’s on the rise.

While plastic is the most popular material used for packaging:

  • almost 1/3 of it doesn’t even get collected for trash or recycling, but just ends up tossed overboard, out the window, down the drain, you get the picture
    • and only 14% of what’s left is collected for recycling (compared to 58% for paper and up to 90% for iron and steel).

Plastics end up in the ocean due to good ole’ fashion litter (people still do this!), or from leaky landfills, open dumps, or down the drain, as in the case of microbeads (which are too small for water treatment facilities to affect).

Since plastic is so darned sturdy, it doesn’t biodegrade – it just gets tinier and tinier. This piecemeal process creates toxic, bite-sized pieces of meal for marine species of varying sizes.

So those microbeads you washed your face with, or that plastic straw you tossed in that bin, which then blew into the storm drain, into the river and out to the ocean, might make it back to you in the form of dinner someday!  And, due to bioaccumulation – your dinner has acquired the toxins of all the prey beneath it before it becomes your prey.

bioaccumulation_graphic
Graphic by Sustainable Societies

Circling back, Grist.org’s headline warned there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. They got this fun fact from the World Economic Forum (WEF), who stated it a little more like economists (think: boring, but important): By 2050, the amount of plastics produced globally will increase to 1,124 million tons (about 3 times what it is today).

Don’t forget that all that plastic requires oil to produce (and to trash or recycle, and transport, and package – because we, of course, package our plastics in plastic)!

160119113151-plastic-worlds-infographic-custom-1

The average depth of the ocean is 14,000 feet, and most of the plastic in it is the size of plankton, creating quite a clean-up conundrum.

Innovative engineers and entrepreneurs continue to seek crafty ways to deal with what’s currently out there and find a new “plastic” that is not so plast-icky.   While we wait for the smart people to come up with solutions, we need to do our part to stop adding to the problem.

The best we can do is make every effort to buy in bulk, choose unpackaged or non-plastic packaged products as much as possible and reduce, reuse, recycle (wow, that has a nice ring to it – should be slogan or something).   Please share your ideas in the comments!

BeFunky Collage

 

Sources:

http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2015/014985/ocean-plastic

http://www.5gyres.org/the-plastic-problem/

http://www.popsci.com/researchers-find-just-how-much-plastic-were-putting-ocean

http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/19/news/economy/davos-plastic-ocean-fish/

http://grist.org/living/recycling-by-the-numbers/

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768.abstract?ijkey=BXtBaPzbQgagE&keytype=ref&siteid=sci

 

2 Responses

  1. Jennifer Marvin

    The challenge with buying in bulk for most people is that we are, in general a society that is so often in transit. Culturally, we have been spoiled by convenience, thus, the majority, do not plan. Incremental shifts in conciousness can make big differences over time. To quantify how many are required to make such changes by geoterritory with a strategic plan can help in actualizing such a shift in a way to thwart the eminent 2050 danger we are facing. I imagine these studies are obtainable, tI a degree. The question is are they complete for a global launch? As it is such a polarized subject, this puts us back to a doing our collective individual part perspective. As I sit in a park on Earth Day watching people eating processed food and drinking from plastic bottles, it makes me ponder such matters all the more. This, however only further solidifies the need for education. I appreciate you starting the conversation. The breakdown of how these plastics end up in our food was particularly important. If more people were truly aware of what actually is in the food they eat, at least some percentage would make changes. The phrase ignorance is bliss became popular for a reason. Similarly, knowledge is power is equally popular and speaks to the cause.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Jennifer. I agree completely that, as you so elegantly state, “incremental shifts in consciousness can make big differences over time,” and that awareness is the first step. Your point about witnessing waste produced at an earth day event is what led me to change my daughter’s school’s event (I volunteer on the earth day committee) to one of giving back instead of “celebrating.” We are not yet at a place where we should be celebrating our treatment of the earth! Thanks again for reading and writing!

Thoughts, opinions, anecdotes? Please share!