So, what is an easy thing I can do that can help our planet?

Get. Rid. of. Plastic.

Plastic takes up to 450 years to decompose, landfills are overflowing, and much of it is ending up in our oceans. Even when plastic decomposes, it breaks down into smaller pieces which ends up in the soil and eventually in animal digestive systems.

How long does plastic take to degrade

When I was 7 my school in Moldova took us to a natural history museum. From the whole trip, I only remember two things.

1) There was an 8 legged kitten in a jar
2) Turtles die because they think plastic bags are jellyfish.

The eight legged kitten was quite a disturbing sight to see, not sure how ethical it was to kill it and pop it in a jar, but the lesson behind it was to not drop any medication on the ground where innocent animals can accidentally eat it. Apparently this kitten’s mother ate a large dose of drugs while pregnant which made her kittens all disfigured. I will never forget that little black and white kitten, about the length of my hand floating in eerie yellow liquid.

Turtles favourite snack!

Turtles favourite snack!

The museum tour guide did spend time on drilling in the fact that you should never throw rubbish into over flowing bins. This is because the rubbish will be blown out of the bin, into the drain system, into a lake, or river and eventually will end up in the ocean. I’m not an expert on rubbish, but I will tell you the lesson stuck, I am very careful about disposing my rubbish in non-full bins. Some turtles feed on jellyfish, and when they see these discarded plastic bags floating about in the ocean they excitedly catch and gobble up what they hope to be a scrumptious meal. To their dismay, instead of delicious jellyfish they get a mouth, throat and eventually belly full of plastic. This unfortunately, leads to suffocation.

Plastic is something animals cannot pass, so even if they do not choke on it while attempting to swallow our invention, it remains in their stomachs for the rest of their lives. This also leads animals to believe they are full, eventually leading to malnutrition and death. The following picture is a really good example of all sorts of rubbish that ends up in our sea life, a scary insight to how our actions influence animals indirectly.

Turtle Snacks

In a study conducted last year, it was found that plastic has been ingested by 79% of Shearwater Species, including H-footed Shearwaters and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. The amount of plastic ingested by turtles varies widely between species, however in  some studies 100% of the jellyfish eating turtle samples, had plastic in their bellies. The plastic leads to long term gut obstruction, mortalities and affects the turtles through all life stages. (Global Analysis of Anthropogenic Debris Ingestion by Sea Turtles).

Plastics contain Polychlorinated Biphenyls which have been found prevalent in seabirds suggesting a relationship between the two. This has been found to have negative effects on breeding, hormone levels and increase mortality. This is how your plastic bags travel to the ocean.

Plastic Waste Management

Our Oceans and Ocean life are dying because of plastic.

Where does all the plastic end up?

Most of these plastics end up travelling along the ocean currents and gathering at one of the five ocean gyres woldwide. An ocean gyre is a large system of circulating ocean currents with large wind movements. These gyres are caused by the Coriolis effect which is the planetary motion along with horizontal and vertical friction. I’m not quite sure what this means, but here is an eat little youtube clip explaining it better than I can. This whirlpool of water in the the five locations in the oceans have existed for millions of years. However over the past couple of decades they have faced an enormous transformation. Instead of circulating plankton and water currents, they have begun to circulate our trash. So instead of “ocean gyres”, they are now quite often referred to as plastic gyres.

Within these five ocean gyres there are now 8 garbage patches, with plastics travelling from every continent in the world. The great pacific garbage patch is described a garbage patch the size of Texas located several hundred kilometres west of the united states. As the video above describes, it is not always an evident floating island of trash on the surface of the sea. Rather, researches have estimated that for every kilogram of plankton in the area, there is 6 kilogram of plastic in these garbage patches. By the year 2050 scientists predict that there will be a greater mass of plastic in the ocean than fish.

That is terrifying.

south pacific garbage patch

I do a lot of scuba diving and on every single dive I pick up at least 2 or three pieces of rubbish. Where I dive here in Australia, the areas are protected Green Zones which means no fishing or any activities which leave behind more than bubbles are allowed. Australia has some of the strictest environmental rules in place in an attempt to protect the reefs. Even in these heavily protected and monitored waters you find plastic debris floating around or nestled between rocks on the sea bed.

Five Gyres is an organisation with a lot of information about these plastic gyres with events, shopping guides and opportunities to help. To start helping on a smaller scale, we can have a look at three options for reducing the amount of plastic ending up in our oceans. Reusing bags, Recycling bags or utilising biodegradable bags.

Plastic Vs Canvas Bags = Reusing bags

When I was still in high school and lived in France, by 2012 there were absolutely no plastic bags available in the supermarket. They finally officially banned them this year! When I moved to Australia, I was shocked that still at the cash registers they placed your items in an alarming number of grey bags. A bottle separate bottle of juice in each bag? Really? Now, it has been four years later, and Australian supermarkets still dispense, hundreds, thousands of these plastic bags daily. In the world 1 trillion of bags are used and discarded every year! Here is a world count of the number of plastic bags produced! I’m sure every household has a collection overflowing a drawer or a whole bag of plastic bags. Why don’t we hardly ever reuse them? There are plenty of awesome websites with reusable bags, lunchboxes and more.

A really simple, easy way to try and minimise the whole turtles-choking-on-plastic-bags-instead-of-enjoying-jellyfish is to bring your own bags to the supermarket.  I think Tim Minchin even wrote a song about it. (Take your canvas bags to the supermarket). The problem is, I used to forget to do this every time. I would have the good intention of bringing a reusable bag to go shopping and leave it at home. Or I would randomly stop at the shops after University and not have any means of carrying my shopping home. I have found a few useful ways to try and repair this problem, discussed below.

An epic little company I just found out about, which takes plastic bags and sews them into new ones to try reduce the amount of plastic in the world! Check them out here they make reusable bags cool.

Recycling Plastic Bags

In Australia, we have recycling bins that accommodate most hard plastics such as bottles and containers, plastic bags however can damage the machines. Many supermarkets however have special plastic bag recycling bins,  making sure your particular bags are accepted there. Here is a handy location finder for plastic bag recycling in Australia.

plastic waste management

Recycling Plastic Bags

Biodegradable Plastics
One of the other suggested alternatives I often hear are bio gradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics require specific conditions biodegrade properly, including micro-organisms, temperature and humidity.  Their name also gives people the impression that throwing them out is not as damaging as other plastics. They still take many years to completely disappear and when put into landfill they will not biodegrade due to the lack of light and oxygen.

Biodegradable plastics are plastics that can be broken down by microorganisms into water, carbon dioxide and some bio-material. It is important to note that biodegradable plastics are not necessarily made from bio-materials. Some are made from oil in a similar way to conventional plastics. A study found that there were high levels of lead and cobalt left over in the soil after biodegradable plastic decomposition. The European Plastic Recyclers Associations argued that the amount of energy and oil required to create biodegradable plastics defeats the purpose of creating ‘environmentally’ friendly options. While these bags can also be reused, producers argue that making them biodegradable is an insurance policy. Further reading can be done here. But honestly, it is not a good solution for our plastic problem.

Biodegradable Plastics are not the way forward, they require a lot of energy to produce and decompose releasing harmful substances into the soil and atmosphere.

So… What does this mean?

1. Reusing Bags is the Best

2. Recycling Bags is second best

3. Depending on them to biodegrade is definitely more laziness than environmental concern.

 

–Three Easy Steps YOU can do to Reduce  your Plastic footprint—

1) Keep reusable bags in your car. Having two or three in there at all times doesn’t take up much room but allows for those unplanned shopping trips to not result in even more plastic bags in the house.

2) Try and shop at fruit and vegetable markets instead of supermarkets. These places generally do not have plastic bags but quite often allow you to grab a cardboard box to bring your produce home in.

3) When buying fruits and vegetables at a supermarket, do you really need a separate bag for every item? Especially with self check out, why not place the fruits and vegetables directly on the scale and then directly into one big bag together. Who needs the separate bags of tomatoes, beans, apples, oranges, bananas? Plus, without the weight of the bag, you might be saving 10grams on the price! But seriously, I personally wash the vegetables when I get home anyway and don’t like many plastic bags in my fridge as I always forget what I actually have.

An Ocean of Plastic.

5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean!

This is probably the first and easiest step I have taken to try and minimise the amount of rubbish I produce for the best plastic waste management. I am extremely interested in the zero waste lifestyle and will be writing up another post about my progress to reduce the amount of my rubbish ending up in the landfills and oceans.

Strategies for fixing the plastic problem?

Bacteria which eats plastic
Earlier this year a team of Japanese scientists have found a species of bacteria that eats a type of plastic found in disposable water bottles. Kohei Oda, one of the team, hopes to solve the severe problems caused by wasted PET materials in nature.This bacteria could lead to products which can save 50 million tons of plastics! The bacteria eat polyethylene terephlate, usually known as PET, which is also included in polyester clothing and frozen dinner trays. These scientists collected 250 samples of PET contaminated with sediment, soil and wastewater and looked for microbes living on the samples to find whether any were using the plastic to grow. They then discovered a bacteria species which they named Ideonella Sakainesis. Yeah, try say that three times fast. Why not name it “bob”?
This false-color SEM (scanning electron microscopy) image shows Ideonella sakaiensis. Image credit: Shosuke Yoshida et al.
Anyway, they found that the bacteria used two enzymes to break down the PET to produce carbon and energy. The bacteria did need six weeks to break down a thin film of PET and a steady 30 degrees Celsius temperature. While this may seem like a really small deal. Potentially with further research scientists can create ways to degrade plastic without letting out many harmful chemicals into the air!
Largest Ocean Cleanup in History – and its energy neutral?
A few years ago there was a 19 year old who developed an ocean cleanup system to clean up more than 7 million tons of plastic from the oceans. The array includes an anchored network of floating booms that could be sent to garbage patches where it would funnel the plastic onto its platform where it could be filtered, separated from plankton and stored for recycling.
ocean cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup by Boyan Slat

Boyan Slat started The Ocean Cleanup which aims to create technologies to rid the plastic found in the ocean. The first prototype system was launched in 2016 with working pilot systems in the works for late 2017. This new prototype is designed to use the natural movements of the currents to its advantage. It would be set up as an artificial coastline to catch the plastic moving through the ocean. Instead of using nets which could prove damaging to the sea life, Ocean Cleanup uses solid screens to catch floating plastic. With the captured plastic, the plan is to extract, store, ship and recycle.

Plastic Waste Management

Conclusion
Plastic is a real problem our world is facing. It is particularly damaging to our oceans, turning the beautiful underwater world into the world’s biggest trashcan. The plastic follows the ocean currents to affect every continent and marine species. We as consumers must take it upon ourselves to Reuse, Reduce and Recycle as much plastic as we can. Luckily there are incredible advancements in science of plastic eating bacteria and young entrepreneurs attempting to help solve these issues.