Ocean Pollution

In the early 1960s, a man journeyed into the unknown: outer space.  Yuri Gagarin was first human to view our planet from afar, liberated from the surface – “I see Earth!  It is so beautiful.”  Science, literature, and cinema converge in their fascination for space.  We flirt with the idea of other habitable worlds and intelligent life in the universe; however, the last century has demonstrated largely one thing – Earth is special.  But what is it that makes Earth so unique?

According to Geoffrey Marcy (a reputable astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley), the secret of Earth begins with water.  “The most impressive attribute of the Earth is the existence and amount of liquid water on its surface.”  Earth’s water not only enables life, but is conducive to life evolving.  It’s the reason finding water on Mars was so momentous – water is the lifeblood of… well, life.  It’s the reason Earth is the only planet known so far to foster life.

For something as treasured as the world’s water, society has done a miserable job of preserving this singular gift, in part by polluting it with plastic waste.  In fact, since Yuri Gagarin’s monumental trip to space, there has been an increase of plastic production of nearly 20X.

Plastic

A report released by the World Economic Forum proclaims that by the year 2050...

Earth’s oceans may have more plastic debris than fish

Vast amounts of plastic are turning our oceans into a polluted, inhospitable mess of synthetic garbage.  We’ve all seen the images of birds, whales, turtles, and other marine life unable to move, eat, or breathe due to plastic pollutants.  The effects do not stop here; as we consume fish, the long-term impacts of plastic toxins in the food we consume can induce potential risks for human health as well.

The Ellen MacArther Foundation found:

  • 1/3 of all plastic packaging escapes collection systems, finding its way into natural ecosystems
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic waste are discarded in the ocean each year - that is equivalent to a dump truck of plastic rubbish being emptied into the ocean every MINUTE
  • Only 5% of plastics are efficiently recycled

This is no easy problem to solve.  Plastics are ubiquitous; functional and cheap, they enter most business platforms and are near impossible to avoid.  Nonetheless, the need to implement change has encouraged some ambitious ideas and designs to resolve this global challenge.

Recycling

1.       Better Recycling
Yes, not a particularly exciting or new topic, but the barrier to initiation is almost entirely on you.  On average, each person produces 210 pounds of plastic waste a year.  Take the extra couple of minutes to separate your garbage and encourage your place of employment to do the same.

2.       Plastic Alternatives
Innovators are trying to develop eco-friendly plastic substitutes or additive technologies like prodegradant concentrates (PDCs) that can be used to manufacture biodegradable materials.  Some scientists are even exploring the potential use of chicken feathers, milk, and corn to make durable, biodegradable plastics.

3.       Beach Cleanup
Current theories suggest that a sizable fraction of plastic pollutants follow ocean currents wherever they lead.  The destination is often beaches, where plastics can be removed by volunteers before it is washed back out to sea to gain a second wind in wreaking havoc on our ocean ecosystems.  If you aren’t convinced this can make a difference, on one beach cleanup day in California, volunteers collected 564 TONS of trash.

Source: Ocean Cleanup Project

Source: Ocean Cleanup Project

4.       Ocean Cleanup Floats

This is a fairly controversial idea that has gained social media attention.  The concept introduced by Slat implements a two kilometer float with proposed trash collectors that can rid oceans of plastic pollution at minimal cost and effort – essentially by mopping up surface debris.  Critics’ are concerned whether the project’s benefits will actually outspan the potential pitfalls (damage to wildlife and broken pieces contributing to pollution).  Nevertheless, the first system is aimed to be deployed later this year.

It cannot be overstated how important the ocean ecosystems are for the health of the planet and everything living on it.  It's very easy to toss your plastics into the garbage, but at the same time - it's super easy to toss them into a recycling container.  The US does an okay job at recycling, but most developing countries don't.  Innovation and global cooperation are needed to truly hamper plastic pollution.

Happy Earth