“The average person eats over 70,000 microplastics per year!”
When it comes to plastic, we are outnumbered on this planet.
I mean that literately.
Plastic started being produced in significant amounts around 1950, and since then, there have now been cumulatively over 8.3 billion tons produced.
You read that right – in less than 70 short years, the world has produced more than 2,000 pounds of plastic for every man, woman, and child on this entire planet.
And also since 1950, cumulatively speaking – we’ve only recycled 9% of that amount!
Even if subtract all plastic since 1950 that was either recycled OR incinerated (EVER!) AND we also deduct all of the plastic still be used today – we are still left with over 5 billion tons of plastic garbage!
So, it should be no surprise microplastics are a global problem.
Microplastics are defined as a particle of plastic 5mm in diameter or less, so basically the size of a sesame seed or smaller – and they are generally formed over time by larger plastic pollution in oceans that breaks down over time due to direct sunlight exposure and weathering.
As we discussed in detail in a past blog past, microplastics are everywhere in our world, from the water we drink, the food that we eat, and the air that we breathe.
In that blog post, we also discussed the history of microplastics, how they are formed, and how bad the problem has gotten.
According to the Surfrider Foundation, studies have conclusively found microplastics directly in our tap water, bottled water, beer (NO!!!), honey, salt, sugar, shellfish and indirectly in dozens of fish that have microplastics in their gut as well as livestock that consumes ground up small fish in their feed.
The problem is bad, and while they are no silver bullets or magic pills to make it all disappear, there are a number of solutions that can certainly make the situation much better.
Equally important, if we COMBINE all of these solutions together (and many more solutions not included here), and recognize that like cancer, we must attack this crisis on all angles. Only then, will we really start to see real and sustained progress and a global reduction
- Beach Cleanups
What excites me most about beach clean ups is that they are something we ALL can participate and volunteer in! River and lake cleanups work too if you don’t live near an ocean and many of these bodies of waters also feed into our oceans.
Now after mentioning 5 billion tons of plastic garbage outstanding on our planet, a beach clean up might feel like giving a homeless guy a quarter in terms of global impact.
But here’s why you are wrong.
According to the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environment Protection (GESAMP),
“The production of microplastics by the fragmentation of larger plastic items is most effective on beaches, with high UV irradiation and physical abrasion by waves. Once submerged, cooler temperatures and reduced UV means fragmentation becomes extremely slow.”
In other words, beach cleanups make a huge difference because the combination of direct sunlight and strong force of waves are nature’s best microplastic creator.
- Ocean Cleanups
While beach cleanups are the best way to PREVENT microplastic in the first place, the Ocean Cleanup Project is the best way (at least the best one I can find) to clean up existing microplastic as well as reducing further microplastic by removing bigger pieces that will break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time.
In case you are unfamiliar with the five great garbage patches, they are basically the build up of UNIMAGINABLE amounts of plastic and other marine litter that floats on the ocean surface and creates floating “garbage patches” the size of states!
Through use of optimal wind and wave energy for system mobility, the Ocean Cleanup Project has created a long system 2,000 feet that floats with 3-foot skirt underneath that acts as a net.
Using data and algorithms to predict ocean currents, The system is able to move faster than the plastic and to slowly encircle parts of these great garbage patches.
This allows the system to slowly capture and envelope the plastic, regardless of whether they be microplastics or much larger plastic structures.
The Ocean Cleanup’s goal is to ultimately deploy 60 systems worldwide, and to clean up 90% of all ocean plastic pollution by 2040.
- Government bans on single use plastic
As we discussed in one of our past blog posts, very recently the entire EU parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban single use plastic.
According to the NY Times, this ban includes “Under the proposal, approved on a vote of 571 to 53 on Wednesday, 10 single-use plastics that most often end up in the ocean will be prohibited in the European Union, as well as oxo-degradable plastics, such as bags or fast-food container packaging.”
This is so critical because, at least for right now, the ban only includes the top 10 items for which “reasonable and cost effective substitutes exist.”
In other words, EVERY government in the world could do this rather easily, and with relatively minimal pushback from consumers.
And we can go a helluva lot further with single use plastics.
The truth is, we really don’t need them.
Similar to how we have pushed out tobacco and cigarette smoking in the United States in the last two decades, we can slowly (but surely) push out single use plastics through a combination of awareness marketing, tax subsidies to make plastic-free alternatives cheaper, punitive taxes for producers and consumers etc.
As mentioned previously, beach cleanups, ocean cleanups, and government bans on single use plastic (that hopefully get progressively more inclusive of many more single use plastics) will not solve the ocean microplastic crisis by itself.
However, if all efforts are done at the same time, in a concerted effort by, we really can make a huge difference over time.
We can use beach cleanups to help minimize microplastics by reducing the microplastic problem at the source of pollution which is often on beaches, we can help cleanup what’s already in our oceans and equally importantly prevent bigger plastics in oceans from degrading further and becoming more difficult to clean in the future.
Finally, by banning single use plastics, we reduce the possibility of “newer” produced plastic from ever getting on our beaches or in our oceans in the first place.
These solutions are not individually, or collectively, a silver bullet. Such is to be expected from such a global crisis that has been rapidly getting worse over decades.
This is a lot more like trench warfare, and will take several years of fighting on multiple fronts with dozens of allies around the globe.
If you’re up for the fight, time to dig in.