The warm waters of the Indian Ocean lapped at my feet, beckoning for just a quick dip into the sea surrounded by towering limestone rocks jutting out of the ocean. After jumping off the edge of the boat I called home for the day, I found the the underwater world illuminated. My snorkels and fins opened up an entire environment to explore. Yet as I kept swimming, I found myself not exploring, but rather collecting — collecting the hundreds of spoons, water bottle caps and straws floating around me. In reality, I had become Ariel meets Al Gore.
Yet thousands of miles away from the island of trash collecting in the mid-Pacific, my polluted swim didn’t even touch upon the atrocity that has been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In hundreds of articles over the past few years, the GPGP has been a go-to example of how anthropogenic action is affecting ecosystems far and wide, even those hundreds of miles away from human presence. Cited as the size of Texas and forever growing, the collection of detritus has incited many efforts to tackle the excessive amount of waste humans produce each year. The only problem is, it’s not getting any smaller.
A recent study released by Nature shows the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is no longer the size of Texas, but rather larger than France, 16 times bigger than originally thought. Our addiction to plastic is growing and we are paying the price as “global annual plastic consumption has now reached over 320 million tonnes with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before.” The problem lies in the ubiquity and resilience of the problematic substance. When plastic is introduced into marine ecosystems, it is easily transported by currents and winds, slowly degraded by the sun, waves and marine life.
Although trash of all shapes and sizes makes it way into ocean environments, plastics compose almost the entirety of ocean waste that remains — “representing more than 99.9% of the 1,136,145 pieces and 668 kg of floating debris collected by trawls.” The well known enemies such as plastic water bottles and bags are slowly garnering the attention of environmental policy. However, it is the plastics hidden in plain sight that prove to be a growing problem.
So what plastic may be hiding within your own bathroom drawers or kitchen cabinets?
- Tea bags: The wrappers from individual tea bags may contain plastic lining. When buying tea, look for bags made without plastics such as Numi or Organic Tazi.
- Paper cups: Wait, I though they were made out of paper? Yes, but many paper cups have a plastic lining. Best option: use reusable cups and thermoses.
- One-time-use disposable wipes: Convenient, yes. Environmental friendly? No. Such wipes often come wrapped in plastic and are made with plastic themselves. On top of this, they are rarely recycled. Try a washcloth instead.
- Face wash: Microbeads for exfoliation are popular in face washes, but the small micro beads are a prime example of the type of plastic that is hard to dispose of.
With a culture founded on NIMBY (not in my backyard) and trash magically disappearing to a place of “other,” we need to drastically rethink our waste management solutions, reevaluate single use items, do away with excessive plastic usage and recognize that away is simply someone else’s backyard.
Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sainte-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., . . . Reisser, J. (2018). Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports, 8(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w