To maintain the lifestyles of many first world populations, the act of producing and disposing goods is something that has become necessary. One major problem in the way we live is the use of plastics and our inability to find permanent solutions to the disposal of plastics. Plastic is something that is so much a part of our daily lives whether it be through the food industry, medicine, and most other consumer products. Every plastic that has been made is still in our environment today. A specific example of negative influences imposed by our production of plastics includes the plastics that fill our oceans, 90% of the trash in the ocean, that will cause tremendous issues for the future of our planet. Plastics that pollute our waters cause immediate health issues for us and for marine life; this includes compaction of the intestinal tract of animals through ingestion as well as the biomagnification that will allow chemicals to enter our foods. Although these plastics have become a way of life that allows for convenience in many aspects of our lives, it will ultimately affect us in such a negative way. But, “how can a disposable product be made of a material that’s indestructible?”[i]
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, between the coast of California and Hawaii, is the largest garbage accumulation out of five main gyres of garbage in the world’s oceans. About 60-80% of marine debris is composed of plastic,[ii] and it takes up an area of the ocean that is three times the size of France,[iii] There are more than 80,000 tonnes of plastic in this zone of garbage,[iv] Plastics in the ocean are particularly persistent as they do not break down easily; many items of plastic have been found that were manufactured decades before. And there is much more than meets the eye. The majority of the plastic that pollutes our oceans have sunk to the deep ocean floors. These garbage zones of the ocean show more clearly to us how much nonbiodegradable plastic has really been accumulated. But, how will that affect the environment? How will that affect us?
This is obviously harmful to marine life, including sea birds and turtles that feed at the surface and other marine animals that consume plastic. Microplastics have become a problem as plastics break apart through waves, salt, and sunlight and microbeads are released into marine environments through our use of microbeads in cosmetics and toothpaste. Animals that confuse plastic for food and consume plastic suffer from malnutrition that is often fatal. Not only is it directly harmful to the marine animals, but plastic waste also ends up creating an abundance of chemicals in the ocean that marine life feeds on. These Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxic (PBT) chemicals[v] eventually end up on our tables, causing humans to consume harmful chemicals as well. This process of chemicals going up the food chain is known as biomagnification These plastic wastes will eventually make their way back into our own bodies.
Waste is currently dealt with in a variety of ways, all of which are not sustainable.[vi] Our garbage ends up in dumps or landfills, with the rest heading to oceans or to be incinerated. These solutions to the disposal of trash is not effective, not environmentally friendly, and hazardous to human health. With the biohazards that could be in dumps and landfills, the areas surrounding them have become more and more uninhabitable.
“Something is sustainable if it’s initiatives, actions or impacts serve to meet the social and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own through:
- reducing resource use, encouraging re-use, and minimizing waste while protecting and restoring the health of natural systems and biodiversity, reducing pollution, and addressing global climate change
- equitable economic development that empowers people to meet their own needs rather than exploiting them
- an elevated and dignified standard of human well-being for all people including but not limited to improved health and access to basic human rights.
Best practices for meeting these objectives include using an inclusive, transparent process; that employs systems thinking; encourages individual action; and assessment using measurable indicators.”
This is our class’ definition of sustainable practice. These qualities of sustainability, including the protection of resources and the environment, economically empowering development, as well as human health and rights, are things that should be taken into consideration when coming up with solutions to these waste-related problems. During the next three months in this class, I hope to address the issues of plastics in our oceans and find out more about how it will affect us, as well as how we can create more sustainable options for our future. I plan to look at specific solutions to the different problems and the barriers to solutions. This will come with research of what has been done to help with plastic pollution and what can be done in the future. Specific industries, such as the health and food related plastics, can be observed to see if there are more sustainable ways to achieve their same goals.
[i] Tanya Streeter, A Plastic Ocean (documentary)
[vi] “Solving Our Garbage Problem,” Sustainable Solutions. Richard Niesenbaum, 2019. d