How does all that plastic end up in our oceans?
By Janine Deane-Dinnis
Suddenly it’s everywhere. A mountain of plastic waste, oceans filled with the debris of 21st century living, fish killed in their thousands from ingesting the stuff… and so on.
The earliest form of plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian American living in New York, which became known as Bakelite. It was used to make telephones, jewellery, clocks etc., It was then heralded as the material of a thousand uses and it changed the world of the early 20th century. The term ‘plastic’ from which it evolved, is derived from the Greek (plastikos) meaning able to be moulded or shaped.
Since then of course, some form of plastic or the other, has found a niche in every aspect of modern life; in plumbing, building, packaging, carbonated drinks and water bottles, even furniture and eye lenses. Just take a look around your kitchen and bathroom for the number of plastic containers you have in your possession, probably without even being aware.
This product of convenience has, however, become a poisoned chalice! By their very nature and molecular structure, plastics are durable and slow to degrade. The manufacture of the many hundreds of different plastic compounds often requires the use of fossil fuels – petrochemicals, and this manufacturing process adds to the CO2 emissions which, as we have all been told, have a detrimental effect on global climate.
At the last count, there were at least 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world, most of which gets discarded and thrown away. But how is it that so much of that plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans? It’s interesting to note that research has found the majority of this seems to come from only 10 rivers: The Yangtze, the Indus, the Hwang Ho, the Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, the Pearl River, the Amur, the Niger and the Mekong (in that order).
These rivers have a few key things in common. All of them run through areas where a lot of people live — hundreds of millions of people in some cases. But what’s more important is that these areas don’t have adequate waste collection or recycling infrastructures. There is also little public awareness that plastic trash is a problem at all, so a lot of garbage gets thrown into the river and conveniently disappears downstream, only to end up polluting the oceans into which they flow.
There are other ways plastic waste ends up in our seas of course; blown there from landfills, discarded from ships, left on beaches, the devastating effect of tsunamis and so on.
But there is hope. As more people and governments become aware of the problem, solutions are being sought. Bio-degradable plastics are being manufactured, recycling has become law in many Western countries and innovative ways to clean the oceans are being explored.
Education, awareness and providing solutions are a key component for those communities who may have had no idea of the damage their unknowing disposal of rubbish into rivers has been.
This is a problem that affects us all, so it is also up to the individual in their own way, to take responsibility for their plastic waste, to recycle, pick up anywhere they find it and buy less plastic containers wherever possible.
Janine is a writer and content creator at the Amathuba Network.