In last week’s article, I outlined a short history of the discovery of plastic and how today, a mere 70 years after plastic was invented, it has become a problem of global proportions. In the aftermath of World War II, especially since the 1950s, plastic was seen as a cheap, light –weight material which could be used for a huge variety of purposes and which could be thrown away after a single use. The major problem is that plastic does not go away; it lasts in the environment for hundreds of years. This means that almost all the plastic which has been created i during the past 70 years, is still in the environment today.
In September 2017, a British-led expedition to the Arctic Ocean, on the Pen Hadow, included scientists from the US, Norway and Hong Kong. They discovered sizeable amounts of polystyrene lying on remote areas in the Arctic. Much of this is very dangerous for the Arctic’s wildlife. Beaches in the remote Arctic islands were found to be more polluted than European ones due to plastic being carried there from much further south.
Estimates suggest that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating on the surface of the world’s oceans. It has been claimed by Dr. Ceri Lewis from the University of Exeter, who was a member of the team, that there is now enough plastic to form a permanent layer in the fossil record.
The American Chemistry Council, based in Washington, carried out a study of “Production, Use and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made” in July 2017. It estimated that there are now eight billion tonnes in circulation. That is enough to cover the entire country of Argentina. It is now estimated that we are creating a million plastic bottles a minute and that by 2050 the annual production of plastic bottles is predicted to top half a trillion. Most of these bottles are only used once.
David Attenborough points out that “pieces of plastic in the oceans will soon outnumber fish.” And, of course, plastic is dangerous for all marine life. According to Attenborough, “fish eat the plastic debris, mistaking it for food, and can choke and starve to death.”
Five countries – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand – are responsible for half of all the plastic waste that enters the oceans globally each year. In these countries, little plastic waste is recycled. In fact, at the moment, with oil prices quite low, it would not be profitable to develop recycling facilities in developed countries. In developing countries, plastic recycling facilities are very rare. This is why so much plastic ends up in landfills, rivers and in the oceans.
The first global estimate of marine plastic pollution was published in 2014. It found that there were now an estimated 269,000 metric tons of plastic pollution in the oceans and that there were 5.25 trillion particles on the ocean’s surface. A 2017 study for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, found that 95 percent of plastics in the oceans comes from land. Much of this plastic is rubbish from highly-populated cities and also from marine activities such as fishing and shipping.
An Irish Times editorial, entitled “A plastic plague”, lists how plastic is very functional and is used for a wide number of activities. It is important in food safety, transport and even in medicine. Campaigning for the elimination of plastic is probably unrealistic. However, we need to have a more critical examination of our use of plastic. Above all, we need to find more sustainable end-of-life management strategies for dealing with plastic.
Next week I will look at the effects of microplastics on other creatures and on humans. In the oceans, large plastic pieces can break down into “microplastics”. These tiny particles are accidentally consumed by filter-feeding animals. The particles remain in the animals’ bodies and are passed up the food chain, threatening wildlife at all levels from zooplankton to apex predators such as polar bears and, of course, human beings.
 Jamie Doward, “How did that get there? Plastic chunks on Arctic ice show how far pollution has spread.” The Observer, 24th September 2017, page 7
 Editorial, “A plastic plague”, The Irish Times, September 19th 2017, page 13.,