Our Plastic Lives

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Our Plastic Lives Are Spelling Death in Oceans Awash In Tonnes of Indigestible Waste

“Staggering 8m tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans every year”, reports the Financial Times; “plastics now one of the most common pollutants of oceans worldwide”, writes the New York Times; the stories are unrelenting even apocryphal.

Plastic bottles for recycling (Credit Mike Alexander)

Plastic bottles for recycling (Credit Mike Alexander)

In January the French government banned the free plastic bag: a move that was well overdue when you consider that is estimated that Europe produce between five and eight billion bags annually.

Quite how detrimental they are to both our environment and to us is almost impossible to estimate. The average EU citizen produces 503 kilograms of plastic waste each year and plastic bottles and bags are two of the major culprits. Most of the plastic man has ever produced will still be with us for the next 500-1000 years. It kills one million sea birds and 100,000 marine animals each year and forms vast islands that accumulate in the oceans. One of these, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, lies off the coast of California and is said to be more than twice the size of Texas. Some scientists estimate that plastic pieces outnumber sea life six to one.

Where France is concerned we are far from being the worst polluters on the continent though we are also a long way from being up there with some of the front runners. In recycling terms we come tenth in Europe, recycling 62% of our domestic plastic. Not bad but a long way behind the Swedes and the Swiss who recycle 99% and 99.8% respectively. The Danes and the Finns use an average of 4 plastic bags per person per year compared to 441 on the part of the Portuguese and the Slovaks.

Most of the plastic waste we produce comes in the form of packaging, much of which will eventually make its way to the ocean where it will be carried for thousands of miles on ocean currents if it is not ingested by some sea creature. In Los Angeles ten metric tons of plastic fragments are carried to the ocean each day. Unless we can find some way to get rid of it, most of it will still be with us for centuries.

The quantities of waste plastic we produce are so enormous that I could write realms of statistics all as shocking as those I have already bombarded you with. Rather than look to all of those frighteningly negative aspects perhaps I should highlight some of the positive steps that are being taken around the world to reduce the size of the problem. One person to start with might be Beth Terry who, in 2007, saw a photograph of a dead baby albatross, its body filled with plastic waste that its parents had inadvertently been feeding it. Beth began trying to remove plastic from her life and started a blog to demonstrate just how difficult this would be in our twenty first century lives. The problems she encounters in her quest to live plastic free demonstrate how dependent our world is on plastic and  Beth campaigns and gives lectures to try to awaken the public to its effects as well as offering some useful ways to reduce this dependency.

Kamilo Beach, Big Island, Hawaii,USA (Credit Wiikipedia Algalita dot org)

Kamilo Beach, Big Island, Hawaii,USA (Credit Wiikipedia Algalita dot org)

In London the Skipping Rocks Lab just received a sustainability grant from the EU to further develop its seaweed derived membrane that may give us an alternative to the plastic water bottle, whilst collaboration between researchers in China and engineers at Stanford is having promising results with meal worms that can eat and biodegrade some types of plastic. Here in France we lead the way with plastic recycling on farms. The non-profit organization A.D.I. VALOR brings together farmers, industrialists and distributors to recycle up to 95% of farm plastics.

Despite some impressive moves on the part of governments, voluntary groups and concerned individuals the staggering amount of plastic packaging we use continues to soar. As Beth points out, much of this packaging is just not necessary. Our eggs were fine in their green cardboard cartons, and does my cucumber benefit in any way from being wrapped in plastic film that will take me time to tear off and then continue to pollute the planet for centuries to come. Beth knows she can’t stem the tide. What she aims to do is create an awareness that becomes a force in itself.

She cites examples of writing to companies about their plastic packaging and having them change their policy within weeks. On another occasion a company replied to one of her letters saying that Americans were not sufficiently interested in recycling for them to change their policy. They soon reviewed that decision when she persuaded 16000 of her followers to sign a petition calling on them to introduce a recycle scheme.

Although science and technological solutions will help alleviate this catastrophe it will almost definitely come down to small changes made by many individuals that will force packaging companies to review their policies.  Perhaps you are not the letter writing, petition organizing type. You can still make you voice heard with your actions. Saving polar bears and tracking down rhino poachers may not fall within the scope of your environmental action plan. Refusing that free plastic knife and fork with a take away meal and carrying your own reusable cotton shopping bag might. It will be little examples like this, that when repeated thousands of times each day will have a knock-on effect that will bring about change. In fact, it may even be good for you health. Whilst convenient, plastics are made from a variety of synthetic substances, mainly derived from petro-chemicals, and their effects on the human body are still not fully understood. There have been several links between some plastics and cancer. Bisphenol A  (BPA) a chemical used in some plastics was banned in France due to health fears. The ban was subsequently overturned by the Constitutional Council in September 2015 to allow manufacturers to continue producing for the export market though the sale and import of the product remains prohibited in France.

Writer: Mike Alexander
Follow Mike on Twitter 

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