Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Plastic: the silent killer!

It's estimated that around 100,000 sea mammals and sea turtles die of plastic entanglement and ingestion every year!
The problem
In 1997, it was estimated that around 6,4 million tons of garbage were reaching the sea every year. 60 to 80% of all marine debris is made up of plastic waste, due to its widespread use in today’s world:  generic wrappings, food and beverage packaging, bags, etc. Although it is very difficult to quantify how much plastic waste reaches the sea every year, UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) has estimated that there are between 13,000 and 18,000 pieces of plastic litter floating per square kilometre of sea water. Plastic is a virtually non biodegradable product, which means that it will not be broken down by other living organisms. Once it enters the sea, most of it floats for thousands of miles posing a series of threats to sea life:
  1. Ingestion – starvation, blockage of digestive tract, suffocation, poisoning
  2. Entanglement – drowning, suffocation or impairment of swimming and feeding abilities
  3. Damage to coral reefs – nets become snagged on coral heads
  4. Ghost fishing – discarded fishing gear can still continue killing marine life
  5. Spread of alien species – a non native species can be introduced into another habitat with destructive results.
How does plastic debris reach our seas and oceans?
Generally it has been estimated that land – based sources contribute to 80% of the total marine debris, with the remaining 20% being generated by ocean – based sources.
Typical land – based sources are:
  1. Tourism related litter – food and beverage packaging, cigarettes wrappings, beach toys, etc.
  2. Sewage originated waste – in heavy rains street litter may be swept in the drainage and sewage system and carried to the sea.
Typical ocean – based sources are:
  1. Fishing related debris – mainly fishing lines, nets and other fishing tools
  2. Garbage from ships and boats
The solution?
In 2003 the United States Environmental Protection Agency showed that between 500 million and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. Of these not even 1% get recycled. The issue, as usual, is an economical one: it costs 4,000 USD to recycle 1 ton of plastic that is then sold on the commodities market for 32 USD (Jared Blumenfeld - Director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment). So if they are not recycled, where do these bags go? As we said before, they find different ways to the sea posing different threats to marine life. On top of this, it has been shown that plastic debris will break into smaller toxins that will contaminate our water and soil and will enter, eventually, into the food chain. What can one do to contribute to the solution of this problem? It’s very simple: use a cloth bag every time we go shopping! This alone would save:
  1. 6 plastic bags a week
  2. 24 plastic bags a month
  3. 288 plastic bags a year
  4. 22,176 plastic bags in an average lifetime
If 1 out of 5 people in USA did this, we would save 1,330,560,000,000 plastic bags in a lifetime. Some countries in the world have already taken action by banning or taxing the use of plastic bags: Bangladesh, China, Rwanda, Israel, Canada, western India, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan and Singapore. In Europe, Ireland started taxing plastic bags in 2002 and has now reduced the consumption of plastic bags by 90%. In the USA, San Francisco is the only city that banned plastic bags in 2007. Very recently, Los Angeles joined the initiative. Plastic bags are also an oil derived product and by reducing their use we would be able to reduce oil dependency. For example, China will save 37 million barrels of oil every year thanks to its ban.
So, next time you decide to use a plastic product, think at what it might mean for our environment!

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