Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why Is Plastic In The Ocean?
With the rise of plastic production comes the rise of plastic pollution. The amount of non biodegradable plastic building up in our natural environment, and in our oceans in particular, is causing marine population numbers to dwindle.
In this blog, we're going to look at how plastic enters our oceans, and why it remains so prevalent and present in today's world.
How Should Plastic Be Disposed Of?
First thing's first - when we talk about plastic in this blog, we are referring to conventional plastic. Conventional plastic is produced from fossil fuels, and does not have the ability to biodegrade. Common plastics used today include PET, PE and HDPE.
When plastic is used, whether it be for food packaging, a bottle of fizzy drink, or a plastic bag, it has two main ways that it should be disposed of. Recycling plastic is much preferred to throwing plastic in the black bin, but not all plastic is recyclable.
There are ways that plastic should never be disposed of. Littering, fly tipping and flushing plastic down the toilet are quick ways for plastic to end up in the marine environment.
Let's break down the main ways that plastic enters our seas, which are not through proper waste processing channels.
Littering is still a huge problem.
When plastic is thrown on the street, it potentially could be carried by wind or rainwater into drainage systems. These systems eventually end up in our seas or oceans.
In the UK, two million pieces of litter are dropped every day.
As well as the huge environmental cost, this costs the taxpayer over one billion pounds every year. This huge amount of money could do amazing things if it was invested in creating infrastructure that could reduce plastic waste, and create plastic free alternatives.
Fly tipping, or illegal dumping, results in huge amounts of waste being left in the natural environment. Fly tipping is illegal, and could result in a fine of £50,000, or twelve months imprisonment.
It is a hugely damaging practice, and not only hurts the marine environment, but the inland environment as well.
Flushing Items Down The Toilet
Items such as sanitary products, wet wipes and cotton buds are regularly flushed down the toilet. Through this method of disposal, it is an easy route for flushed items to end up in the sea.
A staggering 4,500 wet wipes were found in one 154 square metre patch of the thames shore.
Due to wet wipes being heavy and dense, especially so when they've soaked up water, they sink to the bottom of the rivers they end up in. On the riverbed, they can cause harm to plant life and marine life living at the bottom of the river.
On an annual basis, Major rivers carry an estimated 100,000 rubbish trucks worth of plastic into our oceans.
Microbeads represent a portion of plastic ending up in our oceans every year. Found in cosmetic products such as shower gel, microbeads are manufactured spheres of plastic no larger than 1mm in diameter.
Microbeads do not degrade over time as they are contain no biodegradable content. This leads to toxicity of marine environments.
The good news is that in 2018 the UK government placed a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products. Hopefully, this ban will move to all products that contain microbeads, and other governments on a global scale will follow.
What Happens To Plastic When It Is Thrown In The Bin?
When plastic, and other waste, is thrown in the general waste bin, it primarily goes to landfill.
In the UK, 24% of all waste was sent to landfill in 2016, with the amount of waste being incinerated increasing. From 2017 to 2018, the amount of waste incinerated went up from 10.1 million tonnes to 10.8 million tonnes.
Before plastic actually reaches landfill, or when the plastic is on the top layer of landfill, there is still a risk of plastic getting blown away from landfill by wind. This process can also occur in the transportation process, primarily when rubbish is being transported by trucks, or shipping boats if the rubbish is being sold to other countries.
What Happens To Plastic In Landfill?
In landfill, plastic has no chance of being recycled. Huge amounts of plastic end up in landfill every day, which is completely unsustainable.
On a global scale, we are quite literally running out of space to put our waste. After a layer of plastic enters landfill, it is soon covered by another layer, and another layer after that until the landfill site is full.
At this point, the landfill is capped. This means the landfill is now sealed off by using a material to act as a roof for the landfill.
When landfills are rained upon, the rain seeps down into the compressed layers of waste.
This water then absorbs the soluble compounds in the layers of plastic waste, which are highly toxic. This now toxic moisture moves into groundwater, streams and rivers, and eventually our oceans.
This toxic moisture is known as leachate. It is deadly and harmful to a large proportion of the marine environment.
In landfill, a plastic bottle can take up to 1,000 years to break down. However, the breaking down of the bottle is not a good thing. As it is not biodegradable, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, into what we know as microplastics.
What Happens To Plastic In The Ocean?
So through one way or another, plastic has managed to make its way into our oceans.
Plastic has been found at the bottom of the mariana trench, the lowest point that plastic can reach. Up to 12.7 million metric tonnes entered the oceans in 2010, from 192 coastal countries.
The total amount of waste produced from these countries came to a total of 275 million metric tonnes.
When plastic reaches the marine environment, it does not biodegrade. It will slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, eventually forming microplastics.
Plastic can hurt marine life in many ways, including suffocation, and getting stuck in an animal's digestive tract.
An estimate half of all turtles worldwide have ingested plastic. Turtles have a 22% chance of dying from coming into contact with oceanic plastic debris.
As well as marine animals, marine plants are also hugely affected by plastic pollution.
Coral reefs have a huge risk of becoming diseased when they come into contact with plastic.
Compared to reefs that have not come into contact with plastic, those reefs that had faced an increased risk of disease from 4% to 89%. An estimated 11.1 billion items of plastic are entangled with reefs across the Asia-Pacific.
As well as plastic that is a visible size, a huge amount of plastic strands in our oceans are smaller than 5mm across.
These smaller plastics are known as microplastics. A study has found that from the period 1945-2010, the increase in microplastic deposition in sediment increased exponentially. This exponential increase correlates extremely closely to the worldwide production of plastic over the same time period.
Are There Alternatives To Conventional Plastic?
In order for something to be a viable alternative to plastic and make a positive impact on a large scale, two things need to be achieved. Conventional plastic has two main problems - it is produced from fossil fuels, and it does not biodegrade.
Being produced from fossil fuels means conventional plastics such as PET have a large carbon footprint.
Through the processes required to extract, process and transport fossil based plastic, vast amounts of carbon emissions are released. This all adds up, and is now a significant contributor to worsening the climate crisis.
Because it can't biodegrade, it stays present in the natural environment for potentially hundreds of years. During this time, it will pose a significant threat to marine creatures.
Therefore, we need a material that is produced from renewable bio based resources, as well as having the ability to biodegrade in a controlled environment.
Let's take a look at the graph below showing groups of plastic based on their biodegradability and source base.
As we can see, there are four main segments of plastic.
Bioplastics are similar to conventional plastics such as PET in their characteristics, but they have a couple of big differences. Bioplastics have the ability to biodegrade, are produced from renewable bio based resources, or both.
We are going to be focusing on the 'biobased biodegradable' bioplastic. This sector of bioplastics are created from natural, renewable resources, and have the potential to fully biodegrade.
Biodegradability is a good quality to have, but it isn't everything. Biodegradable plastics are unlikely to break down in landfill, or marine environments. This is because of the lack of microorganisms present, as well as certain conditions not being correct such as temperature.
Ending up in the marine environment should never happen for a plastic material. There should be a large scale, effective way of processing biodegradable waste - this comes in the form of composting.
As well as being biodegradable, bioplastics such as PLA are fully compostable.
Compostable in this sense requires industrial composting facilities, and not what you typically think of when composting comes to mind.
That is the first step complete; the production of PLA is far, far better than the production of petroleum based plastic. The second step requires PLA to leave zero waste. We don't want 'a little' waste, we want zero waste. There needs to be a controlled method of ensuring that no waste ends up in the natural environment.
Just because it is biodegradable, does not mean that PLA will biodegrade in the natural environment within any reasonable time frame. There needs to be a way of processing waste properly and efficiently.
We have teamed up with an industrial composting partner to ensure that any gift you buy from us, with compostable items included in it, can be fully composted. This means zero waste goes to landfill. LFHP Zero can be applied to any of our gifts with compostable items in them, such as our Eco-Friendly Picnic Set.
PLA and bioplastics like it are currently the best chance we have of swapping to a green economy, which treats the environment with respect.
We hope we've given you a good insight into how conventional plastic ends up in natural marine environments around the world. We also have talked about what happens to plastic in the ocean, as well as what alternatives conventional plastic has that could prove a greener, more sustainable future.
Gifts For Eco Warriors
Behind our range of gifts for eco warriors are the ideals that led us to starting our shop.
Through our range of gifts for eco warriors, we want to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill with every order, as well as having no single use plastic in any of the gifts, as well as the packaging they come in.
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