The Plastic Problem


White sand, turquoise waters, glorious sunshine: paradise in its most pure form. Aptly named ‘Ihla Deserta’ or ‘Desert Island’ this exposed shoreline at the Southern most tip of Portugal is home to a single fisherman.

The paradise where we stand is undeniably tainted. Garish plastic is everywhere, littering the beach beneath our feet, an unwelcome reminder of mans’ presence, even in such a remote location. Cotton buds, drinks bottles, even children’s toys, the familiar features of all aspects of our daily lives are all too recognisable here. I drizzle some sand through my fingers and discover that the problem goes so much further than the immediately visible. Amongst the grains are similarly sized granules of plastic, which I later learn are referred to as ‘mermaid tears’ or ‘nurdles’.  The relentlessly powerful waves, starkly contrasting to the tranquil lagoons on the other side of the island, throw down their cargo of all that mankind has discarded into the Atlantic along the beach. I feel despondent as I try to tuck what offending pieces I can fit into my backpack.

The use of plastic was a revelation in the 1950s. It was designed to be durable, to outlive its wooden and paper predecessors; and yet 40% of the plastic we use is single use, discarded within a year. The properties plastic was once heralded for are now it’s greatest downfall. Emily Penn is an energetic entrepreneur, who has launched plastic related education programmes on remote Pacific islands. She describes the use of plastic for single use items such as shopping bags and packaging as a ‘mismatch of product design and material science’. She insists it is not all plastic that is evil but primarily single use plastics.

Plastic is a global problem, affecting ecosystems and communities across the world. The statistics are staggering. The World Economic forum reports that globally we use 320 million tonnes every year, which is set to double over the next 20 years. 32% of this escapes collection systems – much is littered, ends up in sewage systems, then rivers and ultimately runs downstream to the ocean. By 2050 the plastic in the sea could weigh more than all the fish. Once in the ocean, plastic meets ocean circulation and currents. Much of the litter clusters together in dirty soups many kilometres wide, at the centre of ocean gyres. If you run a sieve through these expanses you’ll find many tiny pieces of plastic.

Plastics are broken down by sunlight and churning waves to create smaller and smaller pieces. They take decades or centuries to disintegrate and never completely disappear. Microplastics are defined as fragments less than 5mm in diameter, and are so small they are unlikely to ever be removed even in the most thorough of clean up efforts. Once in the ocean they can act as minute sponges, absorbing the soup of chemicals in the ocean, before entering the marine food chain.  Many of us have seen that emotive but gory viral video of a straw being pulled from a turtle’s nose. This is not an isolated incident. Albatrosses soar over the Northern Pacific ocean, searching for food to feed to their chicks. Midway island, where many albatrosses reside, comes into contact with the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. Of the 500,000 chicks born there every year 200,000 of them die, many due to being fed plastic mistaken for food. Globally over a million birds and marine animals die each year as a result of either consuming plastic or being caught in debris. Microbeads found in cosmetics cause starvation of ecologically important zooplankton by clogging up their guts. The smaller the fragment, the higher the diversity of organisms that can ingest it.  When we eat seafood we eat the plastic they consume too.

So what are the implications for us and our health? Scientists estimate that everyone alive today carries at least 700 contaminants within their bodies, the majority of these have not been well studied. It doesn’t matter where we live in the world, the concoction of chemicals we eat, drink and wash with will make it into our body. In a demonstrative study conducted by the organisation ‘Exxpedition’ in conjunction with the UN, a group of British women had their blood sampled for contamination in analysis known as ‘body burden analysis. They were tested for 35 toxic chemicals, and found 29.  What impacts could this have? A study by Harvard university found that BPA, a chemical  found in plastic bottles, may interfere with reproductive processes. They found it could play a role in up to 20% of unexplained infertility. Furthermore BPA has been linked to behavioural problems in children, cancer and heart problems.

The conversation on plastic is gradually becoming louder with continuous steps being made by a variety of organisations to improve the problem.  Countries across the world have introduced a fee on plastic bags. The UK 5p bag charge introduced in 2015 saved the use of 6 billion plastic bags in the first 12 months. Wales plans to take plastic legislation further. Welsh environment minister Lesley Griffiths revealed that a plastic tax and deposit return scheme will be introduced by 2019. Even international chain Wetherspoons have  recently announced their boycott of plastic straws in all 900 restaraunts. Technological advances are being made too. Japanese scientists have discovered a bacterium (Indonella sahaiensis) which feeds exclusively on PET plastic.

What differences can we make on an individual level? Many people are part of a growing community to advocate a ‘zero waste’ lifestyle. Whilst extremely admirable, drastic lifestyle changes like this are unrealistic to expect of the majority of the population. Emphasis on them can have an opposite effect, alienating people from a problem, preventing them making any action at all. We cannot all spend time and money shopping at farmers markets, making our own toiletries and completely eliminating packaging.  The Marine Conservation Society promotes taking responsibility simple, easy actions. Their successful ‘stop sucking’ campaign encourages people to refuse straws, unless medically required, when buying drinks. They also launched the ‘Great British Beach Clean’, bringing together 6000 volunteers to clean 364 UK beaches. A recent app launched by ‘The North Sea Foundation’ called ‘Beat the Microbead’ facilitates conscious consumerism and can be used to scan the barcodes of products to check for harmful microbeads.

Back on that Portuguese desert island beach, we round a corner. As we do, a structure rising out of the ground becomes visible – two large branches of driftwood adorned and decorated with many plastic items found on the beach. Someone has made a sculpture from the things they’ve found on the beach and we add to it, as undoubtedly others have. A thing of beauty made from something ugly. It brings me optimism as I consider the future of the plastic problem and all that is being done to alleviate its effects.


Marine Biology with Oceanography student | Interested in the environment and sustainability

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