By George Harvey
The United Nations (UN) has observed World Environment Day on June 5th every year since 1974. Each year, the UN chooses a theme for the event to focus the attention of people worldwide on some specific problem that needs to be addressed. This year, the UN’s theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution.”
The environmental problems posed by plastics have increased at an alarming rate in the last few years. News media have focused a large number of stories on them, both illustrating the problems and showcasing some of the solutions. But people should not be surprised, considering the numbers. Estimates put the number of single-use plastic bags being handed out to customers worldwide at one million to two million, every minute. Plastic bottles are produced at the same rate. As a species, we use about 335 million metric tons of plastics every year.
The problem is widespread. Huge amounts of plastic, concentrated by the action of wind and waves, have concentrated in five remote ocean gyres. This was the subject of the article, “Garbage Patches in our Oceans,” in the August, 2015 issue of Green Energy Times.
Plastics cover streams and rivers. They blow across the land. Plastics kill animals from micro-plankton that form the basis of nearly all animal life in the oceans to some of the larges animals on Earth. Recent news stories covered the autopsy of a pilot whale that died because it was unable to digest food after accumulating eighty plastic bags in its stomach. Plastics kill birds and land-dwelling animals.
A somewhat controversial report said that by 2050 there would be more plastics than fish in the ocean. Interestingly, when reporters checked the facts of the report, they only went so far as to say it might be wrong, and not so far as to say that it was certainly untrue.
One problem is that most plastics do not decompose easily, so the trash just keeps growing. Another is that burning many plastics produces toxic compounds, such as dioxin. But even those that can be recycled or reused are very often tossed away carelessly only to make things worse.
The UN reported that governments ranging from countries down to municipalities have started to take action. In the United States, several cities have taken measures to reduce the use of plastic bags. Countries from Chile to China have taken action on a wider basis. The United Kingdom has already reduced the use of single-use plastic bags by 80% through the simple act of taxing them at five pence each. Scores of other countries have also taken action.
An important problem the UN cited as an impediment to reducing our use of plastics is a lack of adequate enforcement. But we could be effective by finding alternatives to plastics, or by developing plastics that are biodegradable and prohibiting the plastics that cause problems. One thing that is clear is action is needed.