Picture this: In November 2018, a rotting 9.5-metre-long sperm whale carcass was found beached in Wakatobi National Park in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Employees of the park’s con- servation authority identified roughly 5.9 kilograms of plastic in the animal’s stomach, including 115 plastic bottles,
25 plastic bags, two flip-flops, a nylon sack and over 1000 other pieces of plastic. World Wildlife Fed- eration Indonesia stated that the whale’s cause of death was undetermined, although one representa- tive described the scene as “truly awful.”
Think about this: A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal reported that nine out of 10 seabirds most likely have pieces of plastic in their guts, with alba- trosses and shearwaters seemingly most prone to eating plastic pieces. Once ingested, the plastic is lodged in birds’ digestive tracts, interfering with their ability to eat. And if they regurgitate to their young, they too face the same fate. The study’s author, Denise Hardesty, PhD, of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s Ocean and Atmosphere, used computer forecast- ing to predict that 99 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in them by 2050. The areas of greatest con- cern are in the southern hemisphere, particularly Australia and New Zealand, which have the great- est number of bird species.
The location may seem surprising, given that EcoWatch reported that 60 per cent of marine plastic comes from just five countries, all in east and southeast Asia: China, the largest producer; the Philippines; Thailand; Vietnam; and Indonesia. Roughly 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, of which 236,000 met-
ric tonnes are microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic smaller than a human fingernail. Synthetic fibres have been found as deep as 11 kilometres below the ocean’s surface—70 per cent of ocean plastics are at the bottom of the ocean—and by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans. And there are the five known gyres of plastic, large islands of plastic swarming around the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, perhaps the most famous, exists at the meeting of circular ocean currents formed by the planet’s wind currents, which move in a clockwise direction over a 20-million-square-kilometre area. The 80,000-metric- tonne gyre, three times the size of France, contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, most microplastic sized (less than five millimetres long) and is 80 per cent derived from land activity in Asia and North America.
As one study noted, it means that most of the ocean’s plastic “is not abandoned fishing gear but plastic bags, milk and water bottles and consumer goods like flip-flops dumped into waterways and washed out to sea.” It’s problematic on multiple levels: The plastics leach out and absorb pollutants; they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, which are at the bottom of many food chains; and, of course, many marine animals apart from birds—think turtles and seals—eat them, mistaking brightly coloured plastic pieces for zooplankton. The problem isn’t limited to just animals: A study presented at the 26th United European Gastroenterology Week in Austria in October 2018 reported that people have microplastic in their defecation.
Most plastics produced today are fossil fuel– derived polymers, usually carbon combined with oxygen. The problem is it doesn’t biodegrade; instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming microplastics. But plastics pose challenges unlike other waste material not only because it doesn’t biodegrade but also because there isn’t one single kind of plastic. Polyethyl- ene terephthalate (PET) and (HDPE) are typically recycled by most municipal recycling programs, yet polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and low-density poly- ethylene (LDPE)—think of your standard plastic shopping bag—can be recycled but typically aren’t for a variety of reasons, including market demand and municipal sorting technology.
“Rigid plastics like PET and HDPE, used for laun- dry detergent or beverage containers, are valued, as they have more applications for recyclers,” says Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO), a 40-year-old non-profit organization whose members represent the “entire value chain of production, manufacturing, retail- ing, distribution and consumers.”
RCO specializes in policy development, research and programs that bring awareness to waste issues and works with private and public organizations to create solutions. RCO began with a focus on recycling operations in the 1980s and expanded its mandate to “support governments [in developing] more effective policies that focus equally on reduction as they do with recycling.”
St. Godard speaks further of the difficulty deal- ing with plastic:
“Most of the plastic on the market today is derived from fossil fuels, which is a non- renewable resource.”
She recognizes the diversity of plastic material in so many everyday items and points out that the lack of recycling options for some plastic types has made them prevalent in landfill and as litter in waterways. Although CPIA says that the light weight of plastic makes it more fuel friendly to ship than other products, St. Godard notes the energy- and resource-intensive nature of plastic production and observes that the solutions to plastic waste should include reduced consumption, as well as designing products and packaging with material that can be successfully collected and recycled. In other words, reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order of preference.