“Plastic pollution has emerged as the second most ominous threat to the global environment, after climate change”
The planetary problem of plastic waste pollution is now generally known. However, we believe it is useful to provide some details here and underline some aspects, in order to better understand their extent, absolute gravity and prospects. In particular for the plastic found in the seas and oceans.
From the Start
Since the beginning of its production in the 1950s, about 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced, and of these about 170 million (source EU) are now found in the seas and oceans. Plastic production in 2019 alone was around 400 million tons. Practically, except for the small part burnt in incinerators and some biodegradable bags, ALL the plastic produced from the beginning always exists: in fact, plastic, in its various types of common use, is not biodegradable, and can only physically disintegrate until it is no longer visible, but this after hundreds of years, or even more. For some types up to 1000 years. In fact, it happens that, due to the action of light (UV rays), salt, and the movements of the sea, the plastic become fragments, in smaller and smaller pieces, up to the very small which are defined as “microplastics”.
Use and throw away
Our lifestyle has been for decades now: “more and more consumption +disposable,
for an alleged convenience. Plastic lends itself perfectly to this. We live in the illusion that these objects and solutions are very cheap. But in the real life, for the human society the costs of the “after use” phase are devastating. (costs of collection, treatment, possible recycling, but above all the costs of NON – collection, in now very serious terms of heavy global pollution often irreversible, economic, ecological and biological damage)
For example, five thousand billion (5,000,000,000,000) plastic bags are produced every year around the world, that is 160,000 per second, 24 hours a day, all year round.
Unfortunately, 90% ends up in nature, in the sea, in landfills, and remains there.
Foto Sandro D’Onofrio
Fate of the plastic trash in the seas
The picture is getting worse and worse, because every year another 8 million tons of plastic waste are ‘dumped’ into the sea (some estimates reach 12 million tons). It is as if every minute a big lorry of waste is unloaded into the sea, every day, every month, every year.
80% of the plastic that reaches the sea comes from the land. The rest from marine sources (navigation, fishing).
Once it reaches the sea or the ocean, the waste, whole or broken up or shredded, or in general macroplastics and microplastics, is carried by the currents and accumulates at every level, from the surface of the sea to the greatest depths, because, in general , plastic is heavier than water, floats as long as it contains air, then sinks to the bottom.
(source: Pubblicazioni ONU)
Of all the plastic found in the sea today, 0.5% float on the surface, 26.8% are found in coastal waters, 33.7% are scattered along the coasts or lying on the ocean floor, and 39% are submerged in any depth. It can be deduced that over time the floating plastic, broken up and disintegrated, for various reasons, already known or under study, tends to no longer float gradually descending towards the bottom, replaced on the surface by other “new arrival” floating plastic
If the current pace and trend were maintained, in the seas and oceans there would be one tonne of plastic for every three of fish in 2025. By 2050, the total weight of plastic waste will already have become greater than that of all fish in all oceans. In reality, unfortunately, the trend is instead upward, and it is already estimated that in 2025 the world production of plastic will be 600 million tons.
(source: UN publications)
What plastic is found in the oceans?
The most represented articles are:
- Cigarette filters
- Plastic bags
- Plastic bottles
- Disposable plastic plates, glasses and cutlery
- Straws for drinks, cotton buds, toothbrushes
- Containers for other drinks and detergents, with their caps,
- Trays and containers for food packaging
- Abandoned fishing nets (very dangerous because fish, birds, mammals, and turtles continue to get entangled)
- Plastic film, in particular from agriculture and industrial packaging
- polystyrene boxes for fish
- Textiles and garments
With regard to the latter item, it should be noted that, during the washings or in the crumbling at sea, the synthetic fibers of plastic clothing and textiles produce microplastics and especially microfibers. The latter, together with those of other origin, are those we later find everywhere, at sea and on land. Being so small and not even visible, a breeze of wind is enough to make them travel hundreds and thousands of km, remaining then in the air or settling on agricultural land, pastures, snowy expanses, glaciers, and everything else. Many of you will have read about “discoveries” of nanoplastics or microfibers in drinking water, coffee, salt, food, polar or alpine glaciers, in the air we breathe, and in other unlikely places. But in reality these are only logical consequences of the situation described.
Where does it come from?
Unfortunately, mainly from densely populated areas of the earth and with almost nonexistent waste management. But in particular they come from 8 major rivers, of which 6 are in Asia: Amur, Blue River, Yellow River, Mekong, Ganges, Indo, Nile, Niger. For the Mediterranean, most of it is produced by the Nile and a couple of Turkish rivers.
And where does it go?
We remind you that the plastic that we can see, on the surface, is only 0.5% of all the plastic present in the seas.
With winds and currents, plastic travels thousands of km, eventually ending up on coasts and beaches, especially following storm surges.
A large part ends up in some ocean areas where the currents converge creating slow eddies: there are two in the Atlantic, one in the Indian Ocean, and two in the Pacific Ocean. In the latter, the one to the north, is three times the size of France, and contains about 80,000 tons of waste.
As for the depth at which plastic is found in seas and oceans, there are no limits: it is found at all depths, and in general, with the slow process of crushing, it gradually moves towards the bottom, with enormous accumulations of microplastics on the seabed, even bigger than what was still believed until recently.
CONSEQUENCES AND DAMAGES
– Coasts and beaches full of plastic waste, with connected:
-> costs to clean up (and hopefully to recycle, where possible, or dispose of properly)
-> damage to coastal and island tourism, yachting and recreational activities
– Damage to fishing activity
(accepting the hypothesis that the huge amount of abandoned fishing nets is the result only of fortuitous and involuntary circumstances)
– Damages to maritime transport activities, and danger to their safety
– Damage to marine ecosystems due to the enormous quantity of waste, of all sizes, which now covers and suffocates large areas of the seabed, where fish and marine animals feed
Furthermore, plastic waste is used as a “hitch-hiking” by invasive species (algae), which can thus settle thousands of miles from their areas of origin, damaging or destroying local species.
– Dangers and damage to the life of marine animals, which, unable to distinguish plastic from food, now eat more plastic than food. But plastic cannot be digested and produces, starting from plankton and up to the largest birds and marine mammals, a perverse effect:
with the stomach full of plastic,they feel sated and therefore they do not look for more food. The little real food present cannot provide the necessary energy supply, with the consequent decline in physical efficiency, the inability to move, swim, fly, etc., and the unavoidable death.
According to UNESCO, over 100,000 mammals die each year due to plastic pollution
Cetacean dead of starvation. He had 22 kg of plastic waste in his stomach
The albatross returns to the nest with the stomach full of “food”, and feeds the baby by transferring part of the contents to it. But if he ate more plastic than food, the fate of the baby albatross is sealed (as the parent’s one).
At the same time there is very serious damage caused by the plastic encountered: suffocation by plastic bags, entanglement in abandoned nets (with consequent death by drowning, hunger, strangulation, etc.), wounds with infections or impediment to development caused by rings or other plastic shapes and objects.
– Dangers to the food chain. At the beginning of the marine food chain there is zooplankton, which feeds by sucking in water and retaining phytoplankton as nourishment. But now along with phytoplankton it also eats nanoplastics, with consequences ranging from negative to lethal. The problem is renewed and amplified at each step of the food chain, as the big fish will eat plastic as food, and will eat the smaller fish, and the plastic it contains.
And so on, up to the fish eaten by man.
And for the man?
That the plastic that can be found (and is found) in the human stomach is in itself harmful to humans is still debated. In any case, the nanoplastics that enter the human body can deposit and accumulate in organs, including the brain. The necessary further research will tell us. But it doesn’t seem like a good reason, in the meantime, to keep eating it, only to discover later that: Yes, it is actually very harmful.
This is to speak of “pure” plastic.
On the other hand, the toxicity for animals and humans of the additives that are normally used for various purposes (flame retardants, plasticizers to make products more elastic, antioxidants, UV stabilizers, etc.) is well known.
For animals it has been found that they adversely affect reproductive function and are carcinogenic. They are dangerous for humans by ingestion, inhalation or even just by contact with the skin.
And, in this regard, are of concern the characteristic of many types of plastics which consists in attracting and absorbing, for chemical-physical causes, the so-called POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), highly toxic and carcinogenic, such as PCB, DDD (formerly DDT), and other.
These substances are present in the waters of the seas and oceans in a very rarefied way, but the ability of plastics to attract them could lead to the formation of concentrations up to a million times greater than that in the surrounding waters, and therefore no longer harmless. Substances harmful to hormonal function, such as additives to make plastics more elastic, have been associated with clinical problems such as breast cancer, infertility, early adolescence, excess weight, allergies, diabetes.
Not much better are the extemporary and uncontrolled waste treatment activities: toxic substances, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen, dioxins and furans, are generated by burning plastic in the environment. These substances have been associated with a whole range of dysfunctions. The ashes from combustion can contaminate soil and water.
To sum up, it may turn out that the risks to human health and all forms of marine life are even worse than what has been ascertained to date.
Finally, remember that plastic is one of the elements taken into consideration by the “Chemical pollution and release of new substances” process of the “Planetary Boundaries”, or Planetary Limits:
“chemical pollution and the release of new entities, ie radioactive compounds, heavy metals, and a wide range of organic compounds and biological organisms, produced by man. Chemical and biological pollution negatively affects the health of humans and ecosystems, and is caused by the uncontrolled spread of plastics, the use of herbicides and pesticides and pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and hormones in livestock “.
Already in 2009 an article was published in the scientific journal Nature, signed by 29 of the leading scientists in Earth sciences and in the science of sustainability, which identified the main processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the earth system. proposing – for these processes – quantitative limits within which humanity can continue to develop and prosper for generations to come. These limits were dubbed “planetary boundaries”, and exceeding them increases the risk of generating sudden or irreversible environmental changes on a large scale.