A life less plastic

Jul 21 2011

Over a decade ago a sailor returning from Hawaii ventured through the North Pacific high en-route to California, what he saw and reported spawned a whole new environmental issue; plastic, man-made synthetic waste floating in abundance in our ocean.

Our own research expeditions have taken us through the global gyres (debris accumulations zones) where we have found plastic trash in all of our oceans; littering the natural environment, negatively interacting with wildlife, absorbing toxins and potentially threatening our food-chain. The exact scale of the issue is hard to determine, the fact that it is out here is enough to know that action needs to be taken.

Plastic is a fantastic product, cheap, easy to produce, strong, versatile, it can be made in any colour, any shape and replicated on huge scales, an example of mans technological development and achievement. Manufactured from oil it is very often single use, the ultimate consumer product; it does not shatter like glass, rot like wood, corrode like metals, or tear like card and paper; it endures forever.

In effect everything plastic ever produced still exists, (conversion rates are low) in landfill, in the environment and out here in the ocean. It would appear there is nowhere left on our planet untouched by plastic; every water course leads downstream, to the ultimate dumping ground, out of sight, out of mind.

And still demand grows, machines the size of houses are churning out record breaking quantities of plastic to match demand. With the emergence of the BRIC economies a whole new global population is finding disposable cash, fuelling the furnace, producing more goods inevitably wrapped in, packaged by and consisting of plastic. Today it is impossible to shop without purchasing it, even products packaged by nature are synthetically labeled, wrapped, cushioned and protected.

Once we are done we discard it, throw it away. The truth is, there is no away.

It is not that I am against plastic; it is an incredible product and we would currently struggle to live without it. But we need to take action be plastic aware; nobody likes waste, pollution or litter. Individually we can all consume less and support initiatives to reduce plastic usage increasingly new technologies are allowing plastics to be converted, manufacturers are developing cradle to cradle solutions, utilising bio-degradable plastics and alternative materials, councils are variously recycling, recovering energy and land filling, things are moving but practical, robust solutions are needed.

The issue is complex, there is still so much that we need to learn and develop. However, taking responsibility we can value it for what it is, treat it as a commodity, be aware of where it has come from and where it is going.

Clive