A problem that has been lurking in the dark for a long time is now washed ashore and is presented out in the open: Plastic is everywhere. The concern most openly addressed is the damage plastic is causing the environment, the sea and human beings. Questions concern the effect microplastic has on the species living in the oceans, critics discuss the alternatives to plastic and are addressing the problem of what to do with all the plastic waste that is already on the planet. Bans on some plastics are discussed by politicians, soap without microplastic has been introduced a long time ago, and recycling schemes are examined regarding their usefulness. Why and when has the plastic problem become a permanent guest in today’s news? A brief history of the plastic problem.
The word plastic with today’s meaning has been used since the early 20thcentury. But even before that, from as early as 1800, plastic was known to be a substance that can be moulded easily, but becomes solid once it cools. In the context of biology, the word signifies the ability adapt to environmental changes; today plastic is known for its’ opposite effect. It is causing problems in the environment because living species cannot adapt to its’ presence in the food chain. Microplastic – those are extremely small pieces of plastic that present the result from the disposal and breakdown of plastic items – is everywhere, even plankton, the smallest sea creature in the food chain, feeds on microplastic.
One of the first plastic whales died on the coast of Norway in February 2017. A plastic whale in this context is not a whale made out of plastic, but a whale whose death has been entirely or partly influenced by plastic. The whale that died on the island of Sotra in 2017 had 30 plastic bags as well as small pieces of plastic in its’ stomach. June 2018 saw a male pilot whale in southern Thailand dying with as much as 80 plastic bags in its stomach. Whales are not the only animals that have been known to die because of plastic, but they are certainly the biggest. That a species as majestic as whales is endangered by the plastic oceans comes as a shock to many. Now more and more people become aware that plastic will have an influence on our lives as well. Proving that, scientists from Vienna have now detected microplastic in human bodies.
Numerous organisations started to tackle the plastic problem. Two years ago, the film documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’ has been released. The goal of Plastic Oceans (the organisation behind the film) is to create awareness in the general public and with the #RethinkPlastic campaign, a global movement has been created. Plastic Oceans also provide an education programme, and they support a social enterprise programme with alternatives to plastic and cleaning the world of plastic at its’ heart. Launching the film documentary on Netflix guaranteed access to a global audience.
Global and local initiatives all over the world create awareness of the problem plastic is causing the environment, and numerous events are organised in order to start cleaning the plastic trail. One of them is the Isle of Wight Coastline Clean-Up, an event that mobilises people to engage in activities to clean the island’s beaches. For the volunteers, disposable rubbish bags, gloves and any other equipment is arranged, and it is assured that all plastic rubbish will be disposed safely. It is fair to say that the awareness of the problems that plastic entices has been raised and people are becoming more and more engaged in various movements to clean the planet or in avoiding using plastic in the first place.
The debate centring around plastic is a lively one, engaging all generations. While many agree that plastic might present one of the future’s greatest problems, other fear that our current need to make the world plastic-free leads us to forget that there are other issues equally as pressing, waiting in the queue to be tackled. So why is it than that the plastic project seems to be engaging more people than climate change for instance? The answer to that is simple: plastic is more palpable than climate. It is easier to see how our own attitude changes what is around us with regards to plastic – seeing how our use of electricity, fossil fuels, public transport or water influences the climate is proving rather difficult. Plastic is easy: Picking it up and putting it in a bin – or no longer using any, has immediate effects. Our city, town or village seems cleaner and our bins at home (at least the one for plastic…) seems to be less full.
The next weeks, months and years will show if the plastic project will remain central to the news and to everyday life. Other issues will certainly occur and might take over from the current surge to get rid of plastic. In order to keep up to date with the development, the National Geographic offers regular updates on plastic around the world.
Here is the link to the National Geographic's Planet or Plastic website