Drowning in plastic
You’ve probably been to a supermarket that has stopped using plastic bags, and a restaurant that no longer uses plastic cups or provides straws with your drink order (or has replaced plastic straws with paper ones). Chances are, the local government of the city or municipality where those establishments are located have banned the use of plastic bags and plastic cups and drinking straws, and for good reason.
Think of this: The average plastic bag will take 10-20 years to decompose, while a plastic drinking straw will stay around for up to 200 years. Plastic water bottles will take 450 years, plastic caps and lids 450-1,000 years, and plastic fishing lines 600 years to break down into their basic elements. In short, these items will persist in our environment, and unless properly disposed of and confined, would eventually find their way into our oceans and spread all over the earth—and they already have.
The world now produces an estimated 380 million tons of plastic every year. Data cited in a recent Economist article indicate that from the 1950s to the present, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. Of this, an estimated 9 percent has been recycled and another 12 percent burned. The rest, some 5 billion tons, have been dumped in landfills or have found their way into the natural environment. These could occupy a landfill 70 meters deep covering 57 square kilometers, or the size of Manhattan in New York. With current trends, it’s projected that there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s waters by 2050, based on weight.
The beautifully photographed film “A Plastic Ocean” starkly documents how bad the accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans has become. From plastic bags, bottles, bottle caps and cotton buds to fishing lines and nets, these wastes just stay on and on, polluting the ocean waters in practically every part of the globe.
Worse, plastic debris has harmed living organisms, externally or internally. Marine animals such as dolphins and sea turtles get entangled in plastic objects like discarded fishing nets or plastic ropes. The same marine animals, along with seabirds, ingest all forms of plastic debris into their stomachs, mistaking it for food. Studies indicate that plastic debris may be found in the stomachs of 9 in every 10 seabirds, and decomposed bodies of such birds with stomachs filled with plastic waste have been found in the remotest islands in the oceans. Among the saddest images in the film is that of grounded seabirds struggling and dying from the plastic weighing down their guts.
The effect on humans is more insidious. Through time, plastics degrade, but not decompose, splitting up into smaller and smaller pieces, leading to tiny particles known as microplastics. Much of these are directly toxic in themselves, containing chemicals such as diethylhexyl phthalate, a toxic carcinogen, along with lead, cadmium and mercury. These have been documented to lead to increased incidence of cancer, immune disorders and birth defects.
Toxic or not, these particles tend to absorb or adsorb persistent organic pollutants in the waters, including toxic chemicals from pesticides. One study estimated that there are more than 5 trillion plastic pieces, ranging from micro to macroplastics, floating in the seas. When ingested by fish and other marine life consumed as food by humans, the microplastics end up in our own bodies, and have been documented to cause the above-mentioned illnesses through disruption of various hormonal mechanisms, among others.
A sobering fact is that the Philippines is identified among the top five sources worldwide of plastic pollution in the oceans, sharing that dubious distinction with China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Being among the most populous nations, we also have a notoriously weak solid waste management system. Banning the use of single-use plastics, which we use only for a few minutes but stay around for many lifetimes, is a small but important step. We have a serious responsibility to the rest of humanity and the earth to do much more, if we are to save ourselves from drowning in plastic.
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