South Africa 1.2.2016 11:00 am

The beauty – and hell – of plastic

Picture: Thinkstock

Picture: Thinkstock

In as much as plastic is our friend, it’s rapidly becoming our worst enemy as it literally strangles ecology.

The simple pleasures of plastic bags to carry groceries in or lightweight plastic chairs to pull out for additional guests at a braai are easily taken for granted.

The problem is, in as much as plastic is our friend, it’s rapidly becoming our worst enemy as it literally strangles ecology.

For the most part, plastic passes through a linear economic lifecycle: A product is produced, sold, and then discarded.

It is only when it is recycled it enters a circular economy which could save billions of dollars.

Many have picked up on the news contained in a report that in a few years’ time there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by weight.

“In the Global Ocean Commission’s report ‘From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean’, we identified keeping plastics out of the ocean as one of our key proposals for action to advance ocean recovery,” said our erstwhile Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, writing in his capacity as co-chair of Global Ocean Commission.

“This report is an excellent next step, offering a root-cause solution to the problem of ocean plastics as part of a broader rethink and new approach to capture value in the New Plastics Economy. The economic and environmental case is now clear – I therefore call on governments and businesses alike to take urgent action to capture the opportunity.”

The report Manuel is referring to is The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics by the World Economic Forum which notes after a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the global economy.

It goes on to state, “A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”

It’s the next line in the report which is scary, “In future, these costs will have to be covered”, because it means Jane Citizen will pay more for the branding on the plastic wrap of a plastic bleach bottle which goes into a plastic carrier bag and then in all likelihood is dumped into a big plastic rubbish bag which is then transported to a landfill site.

However, the ocean is far from many of us and statements like “more plastic than fish” – while alarming – are unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t actually seen one of the five ocean gyres choked with plastic, which is most of us.

Yet it’s an undeniable part of the human condition when something affects our pockets, we’ll probably begin to do business unusual.

“Now is the time for implementation,” said president of the UN General Assembly for the 70th session Mogens Lykketoft in his foreword of the report.

“We must now begin to practice what we have preached – changing our production and consumption patterns in order to create virtuous cycles rather than depletive ones and harnessing the global interconnectedness, communications technology and breakthroughs in materials science.”

The beauty – and hell – of plastic

How did we survive without microbeads in our face or body washes for our youthful complexions or in our toothpastes for our gleaming smiles?

There’s a bitter irony in that as much as flawless beauty is punted by flawless models, “A single plastic microbead can be one million times more toxic than the water around it,” claims non-profit organisation 5Gyre.

“Our ocean is a network of currents that circulate water around the world- called gyres,” the organisation states on its website.

“These five massive, slow rotating whirlpools accumulate plastic, and because petroleum plastics are designed to last, the plastic trash will remain in the ocean for decades or longer.”

“In the ocean, sunlight and waves cause floating plastics to break into increasingly smaller particles, but they never completely disappear or biodegrade. Plastic particles act as sponges for waterborne contaminants such as pesticides.”

Dr Shannon Hampton of the International Ocean Institute in South Africa notes microplastics were any pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size.

“Some of it would be invisible to the human eye but no less of a problem because of it,” says Hampton.

“You might expect it in facial or body scrubs used as exfoliators but microplastics are sometimes just used to add texture or shine. Because they are so small, waste water treatments are not able to effectively remove all the pieces before the water is discharged again, discharged into rivers, discharged into the ocean.”

Hampton said microplastics contribute to a “plastic soup” affecting all parts of the ocean.

“The tiny pieces of plastic are mistaken for food by fish which is then caught and lands on your plate – plastic included.”

“The microplastics are scooped up in the gaping mouths of whales or filtered through the gills of mussels and sucked in by anemones,” Hampton said.

“It won’t surprise you there is no nutritional value to plastic, but did you know that some of the dyes used are toxic? Not only that, but plastic absorbs toxins like DDT and so the plastic becomes many times more toxic than that water that surrounds it.”

Hampton said she was hoping to have microbeads completely banned in South Africa, as recently happened in the USA.

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