The multidimensional plastic matrix is continuously expanding into the world’s most remote places
I just tried to put in a single blog all the recent facts and figures about plastic pollution – the result is astonishing!
In May 2018, it was revealed that 38m pieces of litter had polluted the uninhabited Henderson Island in the South Pacific. With 99.8% of the litter being plastic, it represents the highest density of human-related debris recorded anywhere in the world. In February, scientists reported “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution in the Mariana trench, with plastic waste carrying industrial chemicals to one of the most remote and inaccessible places on the planet.
Beaches on remote Arctic islands are heavily polluted with plastic, a new expedition has found, demonstrating that the region is the dumping ground for waste carried northwards on the Gulf Stream. The shorelines of islands in the Svalbard archipelago and of Jan Mayen Island were found to be littered with much more plastic waste than on European beaches, despite tiny local populations. The cause is plastic drifting northwards up the Atlantic from Europe and North America, before being stranded in the Arctic. Plastic waste dumped in UK seas is carried to the Arctic within two years, according to a previous study.
At least 1 trillion pieces of plastic have already been frozen into the Arctic ice over past decades, according to other research. This makes it a major global sink for plastic pollution, many times more concentrated than the well-known great Pacific garbage patch. With global warming causing rapid melting of the ice cap, plastic is being released and making the problem even worse.
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”.
We produce as much plastic each year as the entire weight of humanity
New figures obtained by The Guardian reveal the surge in usage of plastic bottles, more than half a trillion of which will be sold annually by the end of the decade. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change. The demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second, is driven by an apparently insatiable desire for bottled water and the spread of a western, urbanized “on the go” culture to China and the Asia Pacific region.
More than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300bn a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3bn, according to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.
Most plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water are made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which is highly recyclable. But as their use soars across the globe, efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans, are failing to keep up. Whilst the production of throwaway plastics has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, the systems to contain, control, reuse and recycle them haven’t kept pace.
Major drinks brands produce the greatest numbers of plastic bottles. Coca-Cola produces more than 100bn throwaway plastic bottles every year – or 3,400 a second, according to analysis carried out by Greenpeace after the company refused to publicly disclose its global plastic usage. The top six drinks companies in the world use a combined average of just 6.6% of recycled Pet in their products, according to Greenpeace. A third have no targets to increase their use of recycled plastic and none are aiming to use 100% across their global production.
The amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity, while plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050. The problem of plastics requires a rethink not just about plastics but also about our dominant economic model, our development strategies and the future of consumption . This is why it’s one of the most difficult challenges of our world that deserves more attention by all of us.