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  • Writer's pictureIsa taranto

Us, Plastics and the Oceans

I remember watching, for the first time, a documentary called “Plastic Oceans”. It was seventh grade, and the Portuguese teacher at my previous school gave my class an activity based on it. I was heartbroken that day, as much as that may sound like a huge cliché. I remember the crowded hot room, and each and every one of us silent (a very rare occasion for my seventh grade class), shocked by all of that absurd data and tragic images; and thinking “how in the world have I not known about this for twelve years?”.

Afterwards, for the following week or so, I saw plastic literally everywhere, and, every time I did, a sense of urgency grew inside me, as I felt compelled to do something. I tried to convince my parents to go plastic-free, but the idea was immediately discarded, as it was completely insane and impractical, I must admit. Unfortunately, though, I was consumed back into my world, with upcoming tests and quizzes and responsibilities. And my sense of urgency gradually softened and went away, but in the back of my mind I kind of had that issue there all along. I just avoided paying attention to it.

Two years (and a lot of plastic) have gone by now and, if you are wondering, this matter has not just suddenly resurfaced: I remembered it because of the need to choose a theme for an Environmental Science project. Doing research and watching that documentary once again made all those sensations come back. But they came back ‘gentler’ (fortunately), probably because I understand the matter better than I did the first time I learned about it – do not get me wrong, the situation is way worse than I thought, but there are more possible solutions now as well.

Are you aware of what plastic is causing to our marine environments? Have you ever even heard of this problem? Well, if you haven’t, here is how it works, in a simplified way:

Humanity has been putting plastic into the oceans for about seventy years now, when this industry boomed globally and there was a major lifestyle change. Individuals and families were convinced that, after throwing plastic away, it simply disappeared - but in reality, it “vanished” into the oceans. This innovative product represented practicality, versatility and durability, which was pretty much what people wanted the most in a post-war world. But even back then, in the 1950s and 1960s, there were already major issues with the system. The excitement created around plastic was so big that no one thought much of a way to dispose of it. As plastic is super durable even though it is generally used for a very short time, there is an enormous gap between time of use and total decomposition from nature. A plastic water bottle, for example, has an average of utilization of twelve minutes (as all packaging plastic), but takes 450 years to totally disappear from the environment, according to the UN and, even when It does, the material has already left behind microplastics - little pieces and fragments resulted from the defragmentation of bigger residuals -, which are intricate in the food chain and the environment. Therefore, it is shocking - but logical - to realise that none of the plastic ever produced in the world has ever decomposed, due to its relatively short history and incredible resistance.

Meanwhile, the impacts of plastic are multiple and diverse, not only affecting nature in general but humans as well. Tourism diminishes, as a lot of plastic is taken back to the shores; fauna are jeopardized, as a hundred thousand marine mammals die every year due to plastic-related issues (according to the UN), in addition to countless birds and fish; fishing is prejudiced because of contamination and further loss of market value; coral reefs are destroyed, as plastic can trigger a disease called ‘white syndrome’, which can entirely shut down these organisms; and oxygen-producing microorganisms are impacted and killed as well, which then contributes to climate change issues.

At this point, I am already outraged, as I feel every time I explain it to someone patient enough to listen to me discussing plastic in the oceans. Maybe, just maybe, this whole situation could be justified if this system were the best (and cheapest) option. But, well, it isn’t, as research shows that 95% of plastic packaging material value, around USD 80–120 billion, is annually lost to the economy after a short first use. So, beyond plastic, money is leaking to the environment as well.

Even though the matter is in a quite advanced stage, there are some promising ideas for solutions, such as the New Plastics Economy, launched in 2018. The possibility proposes the use of a circular economy model, which would provide the entire plastic production a way to go back to it, through reusing and recycling. And the curious (yet brilliant) aspect of this initiative is that it does not advocate for a huge diminishing in global plastics production. Even though that would be a great advancement, the reality is that changing the way we feel, use, and interact with plastic would take a lot of time (which the planet does not have).

I am sorry if this theme is not very pleasant to read about, but I believe awareness about it is crucial to ease the situation. I am not suggesting a plastic-free life (that is an awesome act, though), but there are some small actions we can adopt to at least reduce our impact in the oceans. My suggestion for you is that you start using reusable water bottles (instead of having to buy disposable ones), keeping and reusing plastic bags, and avoiding plastic straws. These three actions may seem insignificant, but they are not, because, even though your impact is relatively limited, if this behavior is repeated throughout a region, community or neighborhood, a huge amount of plastic is stopped from entering and hurting the environment.

And lastly, as I already mentioned, being aware of this is particularly important. The New Plastics Economy is still in an initial phase, and this problem is tragic, but as more people learn about it, the closer the chance for a solution is.

If you want to know more about this subject, here are some reliable and cool resources:

  • The documentary “Plastic Oceans”, mentioned in the beginning (it was a little shocking to watch it for the first time, but I was twelve and, strangely, loved it anyway – and still do). Available on Netflix.

  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation website (idealizer of the New Plastic Economy)

  • A National Geographic piece on this matter

  • Article about creative possibilities for facing the plastic overproduction problem

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