The ocean provides humanity with much more than you would think: food, oxygen, climate regulation and a source of income for millions of people around the world. You would think that such a vital resource would be cherished, but the reality is quite the opposite. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. To put this staggering number into perspective, it equates to roughly the weight of the entire population of Spain and the United Kingdom combined. Scientists have estimated this amount to double by the 2025.

A once pristine beachfront, now littered in plastic waste - Image: Dustan Woodhouse
IMAGE: Dustan Woodhouse – A once pristine beachfront, now littered in plastic waste.

Plastic problem

Not only does plastic waste aesthetically ruin our beaches and waterways, but it also poses a much greater threat to our wildlife and humanity as a species. Plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. More than 600 species, including those that are endangered, are known to be affected by plastic waste. Some of the damage can visibly be seen while others are harder to ascertain. Many marine birds, mammals, fish and turtles get strangled in abandoned fishing nets, six pack rings and other plastic waste, while others die from the ingestion of smaller bits of broken down plastic.

These smaller bits of plastic, called microplastics, poses a new and a potential greater threat to our ocean and humanity. These microplastics have been found everywhere in and around our oceans – from our beaches to the bottom of the deepest seafloor, even in the ice of the Antarctic. Perhaps most concerning is the fact that these microplastics are found to be ingested by all marine life. That includes the ingredients of many a favourite seafood dish. Science can not yet prove what the effects are on the animals that ingest these toxic compounds and whether there are any effects transfered to the humans ingesting them, but this is definitely a great concern. The other problem with microplastics are that they are nearly impossible to collect because of their miniscule size and geographical spread.

Another problem with plastic is its lifespan. Studies estimate the following for the most common forms of plastic pollution:

Bar graph depicting the decomposition rate of plastic

History of plastic

But things weren’t always this bad. The discovery of plastic provided breakthroughs in many aspects of our lives as we know it today. From helping the Allies win World War II, with the invention of lightweight nylon parachutes and airplane parts, to making travel into space possible, as well as changing medicine forever. Its use in vehicles and commercial air travel helped lighten the load, which in turn saves fuel and reduces pollution. Even delivering clean drinking water, in the form of plastic bottles, to people in areas effected by drought and natural disasters. It can be said that plastic also helped save wildlife. In the mid-1800’s many novelty items were made from elephant ivory. With the invention of plastic, a new, cheaper and much more abundant material replaced ivory and inadvertently saved the lives of countless elephants. Watch the video below for a brief history of plastic.

VIDEO: www.nationalgeographic.com

Positive change

There is still hope, many countries, companies and individuals are making a stand against the plastic onslaught:

Kenya have banned the use and distribution of plastic bags by imposing fines and even jail time on any violators. France has pledged to ban the use of plastic plates and cups by 2020. Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and four other countries are said to ban the use of microbeads (exfoliants) in cosmetic products within this year.

Coca-Cola, one of the largest producers of plastic bottles, stated that their company aims to collect and recycle 100 percent of its own packaging by 2030. Unilever, PepsiCo and Amcor have pledged to convert all of their packaging to either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Johnson & Johnson is going back to paper stems for their cotten swabs instead of plastic. Lego plans to make all their blocks from sustainable materials by 2030. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, South Africa’s oldest working harbour, provides incentive to all its retail tenants who uses sustainable solutions instead of plastic and announced to be completely free of single-use plastics by 2020.

Many individuals and smaller institutions are also doing their part. British yachtswoman, Ellen MacArthur, created a foundation to promote a “circular economy“, a concept where all materials are designed to be reused or recycled. Actor Adrian Grenier has taken part in a campaign against the plastic drinking straw. Boyan Slat, a 23 year old from the Netherlands, is spearheading the organisation, “The Ocean Cleanup“, that developed an environmentally friendlyocean-sweeping machine to clean up our plastic islands, said to start with the Pacific within this year.

These are only some of the examples that made headlines and hopefully many more will follow.

The first North Sea prototype collecting plastic floating on the ocean - the ocean cleanuip project
IMAGE: The first North Sea Prototype collecting plastic floating on the ocean – www.theoceancleanup.com

How you can help

Here are some ways in which you as an individual can help do your part against the plastic problem:

  • Refuse to use

    The statement means exactly what it says – refuse to use any single-use plastics. One of the simplest ways is to refuse plastic straws from any restaurant or shop. If you really need a straw you can buy your own reusable bamboo, stainless steel or even a glass straw. It doesn’t stop there, you should rethink every single piece of packaging form now on and see where you can cut down on plastic. Some other examples are takeaway coffee lids and containers, plastic cutlery and condiments and even your fresh food packaging.

  • Recycle

    Where possible try and seperate your trash and deliver it at designated recycling drop-off sites. Some companies even provide a collection service for your recyclable trash.

  • Support brands that support the cause

    At Tameless we strive to use other natural materials for all our packaging and only concider plastic when there is no other option. In the case of plastic we urge our clients to PLEASE recycle. Many other companies are also behind the cause, all you need to do is have a look at their packaging and make the call if you want to continue the relationship.

  • Spread the word

    Do everything you can to spread the word. The more people know, the more impact the change. Share this post, tell the shop vendor why you don’t want a straw, even lead by example by picking up a plastic bottle from the street. As a great man once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi.

References
  • National Geographic. (2018, June). We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we’re drowning in it. [Blog post]. ]. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/
  • World Economic Forum. (2018, March 02). 8 steps to solve the ocean’s plastic problem [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/8-steps-to-solve-the-oceans-plastic-problem/
    BBC. (2017, December 10). Seven charts that explain the plastic pollution problem, [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-42264788
  • Two Ocean Aquarium. (2018, July 16). The plastic problem: How much plastic pollution is in our ocean? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.aquarium.co.za/blog/entry/The-plastic-problem-How-much-plastic-pollution-is-in-our-ocean
  • Cape Town etc. (2018, April 19). Cape Town’s big fat plastic problem. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.capetownetc.com/news/woolies-helps-curb-plastic-waste-problem-not-ready/
    IOL Business Report. (2018, September 08). Lego’s billionaire owners want to ditch plastic. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/international/legos-billionaire-owners-want-to-ditch-plastic-16904092
  • The Ocean Cleanup. Retrieved from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/

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