PLANET or plastic, once asked the National Geographic magazine. We would think the answer was obvious, but plastic has triumphed over planet since it was invented in the late 19th century. And plastic began drowning the planet since 1950, when its production took off.
The magazine frightens us with some numbers. Since 1950, some 8.3 billion tonnes of the stuff are with us. Of this, 6.3 billion tonnes have turned into waste. Some 5.7 billion tonnes of the waste didn’t make it to the recycling bin, but into landfills, rivers and oceans.
Take the ocean, and that, too, just the Atlantic Ocean. Two scientists, Katsiaryna Pabortsava and Richard S. Lampitt of the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre, writing in the Aug 18 issue of Nature Communications,revealed a slice of the humongous problem we face: between 12 and 21 million tonnes of tiny plastic fragments are floating in the top 200 m of the Atlantic Ocean.
And we have not even considered other oceans. How staggering the number is on an annual basis can only be guessed at.
The National Geographic quotes one such approximation done in 2015 by Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, as being between 4.8 million and 13 million tonnes each year just from coastal regions.
And her middle-of-the-road estimate of what we dump into the ocean every year is 7.9 million tonnes.
Whatever the real number, 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste are going to be dumped on land and in the ocean in the next 20 years if we continue with our apathetic behaviour, according to the Science journal. Our apathy must stop long before that if we want our planet to continue to host us.
Freshwater and marine animals are being killed, perhaps by the millions, every year, by plastic pollution.
There is economic cost as well to fishing, tourism and shipping that the Science journalconservatively estimates to be US$13 billion a year.
In short, plastic pollution chokes in every which way. Not that we do not know what to do about it. We are just not putting in enough effort at the global level.
A comprehensive solution is only possible if a global effort is made at reducing the production and consumption of plastic products.
Reduce and not eliminate because we have grown to depend on them. Also, oil companies are not just going to disappear anytime soon.
Even if they did, shale oil producers will only be too willing to take their place. But the oil and petrochemical companies can help design biodegradable plastic products or recyclable ones as some suggest.
In this way, the industry can help solve the 23 per cent of plastic waste that experts say cannot be recycled economically. If they are not willing, they must be forced to do it.
An old idea of a plastic resin tax may be worth a revisit. Such taxes collected can be used to help manage plastic waste of some two billion people in poor countries, who just dump it anywhere they can.
There is yet another thing that needs a revisit: the United Nations Clean Seas pledge. Though the intent is good, a pledge is just that.
If the world wants to see clean seas, the UN needs to turn the pledge into a treaty that bites.
Anything less means 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste in the ocean in 20 years.