Look around you. Do you see any plastic? A supermarket or gas station bag blowing in the wind? A styrofoam food container or cup on the side of the road? A bottle or plastic-lined juice box that was just pelted out of a van? What about a snack or other food wrapper in a drain? A straw, bottle cap or condom on the beach? Now what about the not-so-visible plastic – in a cigarette butt, your phone, toothpaste, cosmetics and clothes? Unfortunately, plastic is everywhere and many of these items are single use – only used once and then thrown “away”.
Plastic is a synthetic polymer made up of hydrocarbon material often derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal. The material is cheap and convenient, qualities that have contributed to a boom in global plastic production in the past century. However, these same properties that make plastics so versatile such as durability and resistance to breaking up also make them difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate. As production increases, this poses a significant threat to a World already drowning in plastic and unable to cope with the amount of plastic waste generated, and bringing with it growing economic, environmental and health concerns.
The seven major types of plastic manufactured that we consume and discard daily will affect the environment and our health for generations to come. When we throw something away, there is no such thing as “away”; it must go somewhere. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists. Do we wish plastic leaching into our soil, food and already fragile water resources? Do we wish our marine wildlife such as sea turtles to be choking on plastic bags? Do we wish to be potentially consuming plastic in some of our favourite fish dishes? Or would you like that cou-cou served with a side of plastic too? Do we want our beaches, where our children play and tourists lay to be covered in plastic?
The frightening Facts
Eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year (That’s the size of 40,000 blue whales – the largest animals on Earth).
Shellfish lovers could be eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. Although less than 1per cent may be absorbed, it can still accumulate in the body over time.
By 2050 (if nothing changes) there may be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans
Most ocean trash originates from land. In the Caribbean, about 90 per cent of the marine litter collected came from land-based sources of pollution.
In 2017, Barbados imported over $100 million in plastic products and manufacturing parts (Source: Barbados Statistical Service).
Before the tipping fee was introduced in Barbados in 2015, over 1,000 tonnes of waste (equivalent to 76 large Transport Board buses) was delivered to Sustainable Barbados Recycling Centre waste management facility daily, of which research has shown that 60 per cent of the household waste can be potentially recyclable.
Since the tipping fee was introduced, the waste delivered to this receiving and processing facility has declined to 350-400 tonnes daily, of which the rest is disposed of at various official and unofficial sites around the island.
Why Should you care?
Human and Environmental Health Concerns
Plastics take thousands of years to break up into smaller pieces contributing to contamination of soil and already fragile water resources, littering gullies, blocking drains and sewage systems increasing flooding, providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other pests, raising the risk of transmission of vector-borne diseases and posing significant threats to the oceans and wildlife.
Plastics contain many chemicals and toxins including phthalates, often found in glue as well as bisphenol-A (BPA), known to act as an endocrine disruptor mimicking the body’s natural hormones. BPA is also a carcinogen and under high exposure has the potential to increase the risk of some cancers. Many plastics leach chemicals if scratched or heated, many of which are especially concerning for men and boys as they have been linked to lower testosterone and male infertility.
Could it really get worse than that? Floating plastic acts as a magnet for pesticides and other chemicals found in the ocean. When plastic enters the oceans in many forms and sizes, the majority of marine life cannot distinguish it from their natural diet. Plastic marine debris has had detrimental impacts on many marine species including sea birds, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and fish either by consumption, entanglement or other associated implications and has also more recently been added to the diversity of threats leading to the decline in coral reef health.
From ocean to plate: how plastic gets into our fish and potentially into us!
Fish eat microplastics* (plastics that range in size from 5 millimetres to 10 nanometres and that have also been found in common table salt and in both tap and bottled water) and then we eat fish. While the actual plastic bits might be in the stomachs of fish, some of the chemicals used to manufacture the plastic may migrate into fish flesh and thus edible parts of seafood making its way into human tissue through consumption in the food chain. Some fish are better to eat than others in terms of potential plastic accumulation. Fatty tissue is known to store higher concentrations of contaminants, so fattier fish, like salmon and tuna, would be expected to have higher levels of contamination from plastic exposure.
Research on what eating plastic-contaminated fish does to a person is still in its infancy. Even though the science is young, there is still a fear that chemicals in plastics and also chemicals which attach themselves to plastic in the natural environment could cause poisoning, infertility and genetic disruption in marine life, and potentially in humans if ingested in high quantities and under high exposure.
Whether on land or in the sea, what is clear is that we are drowning in plastic. However, there is hope. Globally, there are many campaigns, projects and initiatives that are placing focus on tackling the plastic pollution crisis. Regionally and locally, there is a small group of environmentally conscious individuals, organizations and businesses that are leading the way through education and action in the hopes of creating a wave of change.
Solutions to Plastic Pollution – What Can Be Done
More than 60 countries around the world have introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastic waste (Source: UN, 2018). Within the Caribbean region, most recently Grenada and Dominica have announced that specific single use items will be banned in the near future following on from Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago since 2016. In Barbados, the current administration seems to be giving energy to the idea of rethinking the approach to handling single use plastics locally.
Although a ban on importation and retail of specific items will significantly help the problem, it is only one part of dealing with the plastic pollution crisis. Completely eliminating plastic from our life is not an easy task and some argue maybe even one that is impossible. However, we have an unnecessary reliance on single-use plastic items that can be substituted by affordable and environmentally sustainable alternatives.
How Can You Help?
As individuals, we must become more conscious consumers. Ask yourself – do I really need this product in my life or can I do without it? If so, refuse it! After that, think about how you can reduce, and then reuse, recycle and rot (compost). So that it does not become overwhelming, choose one area to focus on and do it well. Whether it is skipping the single use plastic straw, refusing the single use styrofoam container and bringing your own, or recycling cigarette butts (now said to be the worst contaminant for the oceans), start somewhere and start small. Every little bit counts. These are not the solution on their own but they are a start. If every individual refused one single use item per week, this would have a significant positive impact on our environment and health. Why not go back to how items were packaged just a short time ago? Does anyone remember going to the corner shop and getting items in a brown paper bag?
We must also be paying greater attention to biologically-based resources and design. Many alternatives to plastic are now available locally. Whether it is compostable or biodegradable products, these appear better than single use plastic. If you can, opt first for compostable over biodegradable and plant-based plastic and if you must use a straw, choose paper or take your own stainless steel one. But keep in mind that we do not currently have a commercial composting facility in Barbados so items that state that they are commercially compostable in three months will not break down in your backyard compost.
Top tips for reducing plastic
Fighting the war on plastic will require governments to regulate, businesses to innovate and individuals to act. Are you in?
Nikola Simpson is an environmental sustainability change maker. Connect with her: