As global plastic production approaches 300 million tonnes a year, our world faces a growing problem. A third of all plastics are used in disposable packaging that is thrown away moments after use. In the United Kingdom alone, 3 million tonnes of plastic are thrown away every year, over 1% of the total amount of all plastic manufactured on the planet.
‘Plastic Shores’ tells the story of what happens to this plastic when it is thrown away. Most of it makes its way to landfill. Some goes to recycling or incineration. The rest escapes into our environment, and to the world’s oceans… and nobody knows how long it will stay there. Estimates range from decades to hundreds of thousands of years.
Once in the oceans, our trash concentrates in areas called gyres. These are giant currents that rotate between continents, the most well known of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, marine debris washed from the shores of eastern Asia and western North America swirls outweighing plankton, in some studies, as much as 40-1. The Pacific Patch is not alone though with others documented in all the major oceans of the world. Animals mistake plastics for food causing the death of, according to the United Nations, at least 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds a year.
But this isn’t then end of the story. Plastics break down in the water through sunlight and wave action becoming what are called micro-plastics. These smaller pieces act as a magnet for harmful chemicals such as PCBs and DDT, which have been banned for their harmful effects on people and the environment. When micro-plastics are then ingested by marine organisms, the chemicals are released from the plastic and enter the digestive system. As one organism is eaten by a larger one, these chemicals are transferred up the food chain growing in concentration. At the top of the food chain, where human beings reside, toxic levels of PCBs, DDT, BPA, etc. can be very high indeed causing health problems from diabetes to cancer.
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