Plastic Filled Ocean
Plastic-filled ocean - a 100% human-caused disaster
The disposable plastic bottle symbolizes waste and litter around the world. But it is not just plastic bottles and careless littering that threaten to turn the oceans from life sustaining to life threatening.
Bottles and bags. Discarded toys, product packaging and cheap holiday decorations. Household and industrial waste of a thousand kinds.
Littered, dropped, dumped. Used despite safer alternatives. Carelessly disposed, improperly managed. Not reduced, not reused and not recycled.
Rolling, blowing, floating and flowing into the world's oceans.
Plastic-free ocean - a 100% human-accomplishable goal
Plastic in the oceans is entirely caused by human action and human inaction. It has as much potential to do harm as the worst climate change scenario and is having greater immediate effects, yet it so far receives comparatively no attention, and very little private or government action or funding.
There are a number of ways that marine science, waste management, recycling and materials experts, biochemists and medical professionals might be brought together to work on the interrelated problems from a number of critical angles. But currently, there are no major collaborative efforts among these disciplines.
Changing these situations will require raising awareness and education to motivate changes in consumer behavior. It will take cooperation from businesses to change products and packaging. It will take political action to improve waste management and recycling practices. And it will require financial support for research to find ways to recover and reprocess the millions of tons of plastic already accumulated in marine environments, and other ways to remediate already existing biological and human health effects.
There are many simple and economically practical solutions for reducing the use of plastics, for safely and appropriately reusing certain plastic items, and for improving the handling of plastic waste to make sure that it enters the recycling stream rather than the typical waste stream.
If plastic in the ocean can be safely collected, existing and new technologies can be used to reprocess and reuse it. Research can determine the requirements, risks and potential for commercially viable operations that could turn this environmental disaster into an economic opportunity for the right companies.
Understanding the greater threat
Though we have all long been told that the problem with plastics is that they don't ever breakdown, recent studies show a far more insidious and pervasive threat. Worse than littered beaches and clogged waterways, worse even than the entanglement, suffocation and ingestion deaths of countless birds and sea creatures.
While it is technically correct that plastics do no not biodegrade (i.e. breakdown into harmless organic compounds), the millions of tons of plastic that finds its way into the world's oceans every year do break down - and fast (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/08/090820-plastic-decomposes-oceans-seas.html).
Sunlight, wave and wind action disintegrate plastics into a soup of toxins and carcinogens, and estrogen-like compounds against which no living thing has any defenses. These compounds are having grave effects from the very bottom of the food chain all the way to the very top – effects which may include significantly reduced reproductive activity in key areas of the food chain.
Advancing more quickly and with more serious immediate consequences than any other environmental threat, these same compounds are already having directly measurable effects on humans including feminization of boys, premature maturation in girls, and a variety of serious affects on pregnancy and gestation, cancer risk and aging, and more.
Most of the research to date has focused on the effects of using plastics for eating, drinking, storage and cooking. Reducing these uses is an important step to reduce health problems and plastic waste, but plastics from hundreds of other uses - bags, packaging, industrial materials, decorations, toys - would continue to find a path to waterways and eventually to the oceans where the potential damage is even greater and the threats far more difficult to avoid.
If the existing huge masses of marine plastic in open ocean and tidal zones continue to increase and are left to breakdown at currently documented rates, the result will be a concentration of toxins, carcinogens and endocrine disrupters including estrogen-like compounds that will affect almost every living thing. This, in fact, may already be the case.
How to keep the problem from getting worse
Consumers need to be better educated about how to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. Of these actions, the most important by far is to REDUCE the use of plastic in every aspect of daily living. This is neither as difficult nor inconvenient as it seems, and it can deliver long-term health benefits and immediate cost savings.
Informed consumers can change their habits, get involved and take action. Your voice, and your votes with both dollars and ballots can make companies change products, packaging and procedures, and make government agencies change policies, regulations and enforcement.
Individuals and civic groups, owners, officials and employees should actively push for and support recycling programs - not just in residential trash collection, but in office buildings, factories, hotels, schools and government institutions where recycling is surprisingly not often practiced.
Citizens should also question local and state officials about landfills and solid waste management programs where there is a great need for improved handling and management of plastic waste based on recent scientific data.
Political pressure can be effective, but remember that individuals - not the government - are the solution. It is far more important and more effective to take personal action than to just pursue regulatory solutions.
New laws and new taxes will have less effect than the commitment of you, and your family, friends and coworkers to reduce plastic usage and improper disposal of plastic waste.
For a list of ways to make a difference starting now, see the TAKE ACTION section of this web site.
How to fix the already existing threats
To remediate the already existing situation will require coordinated research among marine science, waste management, recycling and materials experts, and biochemists and medical professionals to work on the interrelated problems caused by oceanic plastic and its breakdown byproducts.
In addition to its awareness-building and education activities, Plastic Free Ocean will fund model collaborative research programs with scholarships and grants to selected academic programs.
It is likely possible, perhaps even profitably, that a significant amount of the existing huge masses of plastic waste already in the oceans can be safely recovered ("mined"). Once recovered, with much of its volume altered by partial breakdown, existing reprocessing techniques may have to be modified so that plastic compounds can be recycled, safely disposed or used as an energy resource.
The most complex and perhaps most urgent problem is to determine what can be done about compounds from plastic already broken down by the action of waves, wind, sun and biological processes. These compounds are already having dramatic effects on marine life and making their way up the food chain to all of us.
Spreading the word
Quantifying and publicizing the past, present and likely future effects of chemicals from plastic breakdown - even beyond spotlighting the harm that solid plastic waste does to birds and marine wildlife - should help motivate private and public action.
Plastic waste, and particularly its accumulation and breakdown in the world's oceans, are a far larger problem than heart disease or cancer, and unquestionably contribute to both of these conditions.
Plastic in the oceans is more damaging and far-reaching than deforestation, habitat destruction and other environmental issues that receive much greater attention. And it is the most directly actionable of all environmental threats.
Spread the word.
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