EDITORIAL: Reduce plastic use, save our oceans
THE Pacific Ocean attracts attention from researchers not just because it is an ecological treasure trove, but also for its accumulated discarded plastic bits of garbage. The northern collection of litter has been well known for several years and – with comparisons to the size of Mexico – raised the alarm on how much trash we discard in our oceans and how long it sticks around; unfortunately, a second patch in the southern Pacific was documented in April.
Ocean and wind currents around the waters of the world will steer any items in their way along a particular path. These gyres are the result of the global wind patterns and forces caused by Earth’s rotation. It is why garbage discarded in the ocean will eventually “meet up” with other trash and eventually form into larger piles, though often in various stages of decomposition. Most of the items in these Pacific garbage patches are smaller particles that resemble confetti, with few larger items such as fishing gear or buoys in tact. The man who discovered both, Charlie Moore, sees himself as an “ambassador” whose job is to convey the urgency of the situation. The area, he notes, is “being destroyed at an enormously accelerated rate”.
At first blush, one might believe this has little to do with Barbados, despite the fact that there is a North Atlantic garbage patch as well. But the ocean is one giant organism, all interconnected and particularly vulnerable to the activities of humans on sea or on land. The reality is that plastic as a substance never fully disappears; instead, it becomes microscopic enough to be eaten by marine life. The life cycle of marine creatures is affected because of the plastic in their bodies; we in turn consume marine products, which means it’s passed on to us. As an island nation, we depend heavily on our seas. Clearly, any effect on them – such as what happened with the sargassum seaweed – will have a deleterious impact on tourism, fisheries and our livelihood.
Plastic as a compound is so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine that its mass production only began in the 1950s. A study published in July that was led by ecologist, Roland Geyer, was the first to analyse all global plastic production ever done. Researchers found that more than 8.3 billion metric tonnes have been produced around the world since mass manufacturing of plastics. By 2015, of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes produced, only nine per cent was recycled, 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent disposed of in landfills or other areas. A previous study conducted by the same team found that approximately eight million metric tonnes end up in the ocean annually, and given that plastic is expected to take hundreds of years to break down, one can see the undue strain on our planet.
In Barbados and around the world, some action has been taken to reduce plastic usage. Just this week, Chile has moved to ban plastic bags in 102 coastal villages and towns with internal villages allowed to join in should they wish. Kenya recently enacted the world’s toughest laws on plastic bags, where the use, production or sale of plastic bags can carry a fine of US$40 000 or four years in jail! It certainly puts the reluctance of Barbadians to accept the imposed 15 cent deterrent fee into perspective.
The statistics are daunting and the world has a long way to go before we solve our plastic creation and disposal problem. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for solutions – easily executable decisions – that can reduce what is already produced. Manufacturers locally should look for creative ideas to store their products, such as cardboard, paper bags or reusable bags. But more than this, we need to use this information for the greater good of our oceans. And for a substance that covers almost 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, we would do better to protect it.