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Our plastic problem

July 11, 2018

If you are a sailor or live near a shore, you likely are well aware of the ever growing amount of plastic debris in the oceans. Big things being big, fishing nets and gear make up 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Cite.) But small things are more numerous, and when you take away the big stuff:

Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1–3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area.

It’s hard to know which is more damaging. It is the small stuff that enters the marine food chain:

Microbeads are commonly white or opaque in colour, and research has found microbeads to be commonly mistaken for plankton by many surface feeding fish species. Ingestion of plastics by aquatic organisms is one of the major deleterious environmental impacts in the marine environment. Due to their small size and presence in pelagic and benthic ecosystems, contaminants associated with microplastics are potentially bioavailable for many organisms. Persistent organic pollutants sorbed onto microplastics can accumulate at concentrations several orders of magnitude higher than in ambient seawater. A growing concern related to microplastics is that they can also enter the human food chain through ingestion of fish, shellfish and filter feeders.

Because they are such a tiny part of the problem, a recent Bloomberg editorial dismissed the recent move to decrease the use of plastic straws. Vox is more sympathetic and goes into more detail. I am not as hopeful as that author about a spillover effect.

The real problem is that most plastic doesn’t decompose. The common materials throughout human history — wood and fibers — all came from plants, and all are readily recycled by sun, rain, worm, and fungus. Much to the chagrin of wood boat owners and archaeologists. Plastic replaced much of what formerly was made of those materials, because it is cheap to fabricate. Alas, plastic will be with us forever. What we really need is a material science revolution that provides us decomposable materials that are nearly as cheap to fabricate as plastic.

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