Great plastic garbage patch?

August 16, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Jeanne-Marie Palermino (OSAT)

Plastic is versatile, convenient and durable…but is it safe?

The world produces 299 million tons of plastic annually. A staggering 8 million tons and 10 thousand tons of plastic enter our oceans and Great Lakes, respectively, each year and the amount produced is increasing. Currently, the World Economic Forum states that for every three tons of fish there is one ton of plastic in our oceans and by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish. The top three plastic pollutants found in the ocean in 2008 were cigarette butts, plastic bags and food containers.

How does so much plastic from land end up in our water? Some litter blows away during transport to landfills and at landfills. Tourism at beaches is another significant source. Other culprits are microbeads in cosmetics, microfibers in our clothes (e.g.  fleece) and “flushable” wipes that we end up directly putting into our waterways. Some industries inadvertently release large quantities of the ‘building blocks’ (i.e. chemicals) from which plastics are made, into the environment.

Although plastic is durable, UV light and other natural elements can break it down, to a certain degree, into tiny fragments, some smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Known as “mermaid tears”, there are millions of tons of them in our waterways. Since plastic is synthetic, it cannot be entirely digested by nature and so it accumulates.

Due to ocean currents and vortices, these millions of tons of rubbish merge into so-called Great Garbage Patches. Each ocean has its own, but the North Pacific patch is the most studied. In one expedition, Project Kasei, at the forefront of researching the Great Garbage Patch, covered 1700 miles and found mermaid tears along the entire way, even 10 meters deep. Their eight-minute documentary is eye-opening ( Even where the ocean looks pristine, it is a plastic soup. Studies of our Great Lakes also show alarming amounts of mermaid tears. This type of pollution is extremely difficult to quantify and to clean up.

Because it is so pervasive, plastic is ingested by creatures at every level of the food chain which is noxious and can be fatal. Ninety percent of seabirds have plastic in their digestive tracts. Sea turtles confuse plastic bags and balloons for jellyfish. A recent study even found microplastics in all mussels caught off the UK coast. Plastic is everywhere in the environment, so we are consuming it too; microscopic pieces are found in seafood, tap water and salt, to name a few. The health concerns associated with the ingestion of microplastics are still being uncovered but there is definitely growing concern. If you are disgusted about finding someone’s hair in your food, you may be unknowingly eating plastic fibres from someone’s old underwear!

The other sad news is that out of 17 industrialized nations, Canadians produce the most waste per person per year, according to the Conference Board of Canada. On average, each Canadian generates 1700 pounds of waste annually. Plastic is extremely challenging to recycle and only 10-12 per cent is recycled in Canada.   

As two fellow columnists wrote in this paper recently, all change starts with each individual, as well as the wider community.  Banning certain single use items will help, as will changes to personal habits.  Here are some examples of changes we can all make to reduce our use and waste of plastics:

1. Avoid single use water bottles: Consider a filter and a reusable water bottle.

2. Scrap disposable food storage: Try beeswax wraps (e.g. Abeego), parchment paper (it’s compostable) and glass Pyrex. Make your own food, avoid products with excess packaging, and support your local farmers’ market.

3. Forsake plastic bags: Use reusable cloth totes, cloth produce bags or paper bags instead.

4. Ditch the party favours: They get used for two seconds and then end up in the garbage.

5. Reconsider fleece, nylon and other textiles made from plastic: These shed millions of microscopic particles of plastic every time they are washed. Consider cotton or wool instead or wash them less frequently.

6. Chew less gum: It is made from plastic resin and is a huge source of pollution. Check out the documentary “Dark Side of the Chew.”

We each play a vital role in reducing our use of plastic and its resulting pollution – if you do it not for the environment, then do it for your own and others’ health.

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