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Plastic...Friend or Foe?

May 26 2015 - by Dr. David Lee, CLP's Environment Specialist

It is hard to imagine life without plastic. Because of its low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility and impermeability to water, it is extremely popular and useful. Plastic has helped to make life easier for many of us on the planet. The problem, however, is that when we have finished using our plastic products, they often end up polluting land, fresh water bodies and oceans.

Over three hundred million tons of plastic is produced every year, and more of the material has been produced over the past decade than during the whole of the last century. Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, more than one million bags per minute.  Ten per cent of discarded waste is plastic, with enough being thrown away to circle the Earth four times. America alone discards more than 35 billion plastic water bottles every year. Unfortunately, plastic usually takes 500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate, and in the meantime it wreaks havoc on the environment.

It has been estimated that there are 165 million tons of plastic in the world's oceans, with more than five trillion pieces afloat. One million sea birds and more than 400,000 marine mammals perish annually as a result of plastic, and more than 267 marine species are affected by entanglement (which can cause injury and starvation), choking and digestive tract obstruction or trauma. Also, plastic nets can drag along the seabed and physically damage coral reefs. Because of ocean currents many of our oceans have gyres that concentrate any debris on the surface of the ocean. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle there is "a heap of debris floating in the Pacific that's twice the size of Texas." This continent sized debris heap has been titled the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by marine biologists. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is comprised of literally millions of points of trash - most of it plastic. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that in each square mile of ocean you can find 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. It is literally the world's largest landfill, and it is floating in the Pacific Ocean.

North Pacific Gyre

As the plastic breaks down, toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and polystyrene are released, adding a chemical dimension to the pollution, which also has a deleterious effect on sea life, as well as on humans who ingest seafood.  In dumps and landfills, these and other toxic chemicals can also be released into soil and groundwater, contaminating them, while micro-organisms break down plastic to release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  Plastic can pose a risk, even in our homes, as heating plastic containers can liberate BPA into our foods and beverages with potentially damaging effects. When plastic is burnt toxic gases carbon monoxide, and carcinogenic compounds such as dioxins and furans enter our atmosphere. It isn't surprising that these chemicals are slowing working their way through the food chain and into our human diets. Nearly all of us carry in our bodies chemicals present in plastics which raises alarming questions about the role plastics play in human health and diseases such as cancer and autism.

In the Caribbean, our anti-litter laws are not effectively enforced or are absent.  We have no organised plastic separation, collection or recycling programmes, and so plastic and other debris accumulate in drains, contributing to flooding and water stagnation, with the latter setting us up for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and chikungunya.  It also means that our dumps fill faster taking up our limited real estate.


What can we do to reduce the impact of plastic pollution?  We can reuse shopping bags and bottled water bottles, use cloth bags for shopping, carry reusable utensils and refuse straws and disposable plastic cutlery, especially when taking food back home or to the office where cutlery is already available.  We can organise and volunteer to take part in beach clean-ups. We can carry plastic bottles or arrange for them to be transported to collection sites for recycling, and advocate for the establishment of more sites. We can spread the word, especially among our youth. We have to empower ourselves with a waste minimisation and recycling mindset. Our well-being depends on it.

Do you have policies, laws and plans to manage plastic (reduce, reuse, recycle)?

Are these plans and policies implemented?

If not, why not?