Contemplating plastic…

Contemplating plastic…

Plastic bags were mentioned in last week’s column as an environmental problem. So often, we read articles and think “But what can I do?” Especially if you live inland and can’t participate in beach clean-ups etc. In truth, every action builds towards a solution and encourages others to do the same… So, this week we’re exploring plastic bags and their impact on the environment. Let’s begin by looking at some horrifying facts.

The first “fact”, which seems to contain much variation, is how long plastic takes to degrade. One source states that “plastic bags can take 20 years to decompose, plastic bottles up to 450 years, and fishing line, 600 years”. Others say any plastic takes around 500 years to decompose. Yet another refers to “plastic never going away”. 

Statistics on how much plastic ends up in the oceans depend on which research you read – the short answer is waaaay too much! Accounts vary between eight and fourteen million tons- every year! As stated last week, turtles eat the plastic (mistaking it for one of their favourite foods, jellyfish), after which they become unwell or die. They are also harmed when their heads, limbs or bodies become entangled in plastic trash, leaving them unable to move freely or feed. Apparently about 34% of dead leatherback turtles have ingested plastic bags. Between 1.15 and 2.41 million metric tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers (figures again vary hugely). More than half of this plastic is less dense than the water, meaning that it will not sink once it encounters the sea.

When the plastic reaches the ocean, it gets caught up in large systems of circulating ocean currents known as gyres. There are five gyres that have a significant impact on the ocean —the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre. These drive the “oceanic conveyor belt” that helps circulate ocean waters around the globe. However, as they circulate ocean waters, they’re also drawing in marine debris, such as the plastic mentioned above – which eventually creates patches / islands of garbage in the ocean.

The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), which covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres – an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. To reach this conclusion, the team of scientists behind this research conducted one of the most elaborate sampling method ever coordinated. There was a fleet of 30 boats, 652 surface nets and two flights over the patch to gather aerial imagery of the debris. Sampling at different locations within the same time period allowed a more accurate estimate of the size of the patch and the plastic drifting in it. After all of this research, the mass of the plastic in the GPGP was estimated to be approximately 100,000 tonnes (which is 4-16 times more than previous calculations). 

Our Indian Ocean’s garbage patch apparently covers a massive area: at least five million square kilometres. Only discovered in 2010, it is still being researched. When I look at “our” garbage patch, it seems to be larger? But I think that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is more concentrated and ‘heavier’, whereas the Indian Ocean one is spread over a larger area but less dense… The joy of ‘stats’, right??

The Ocean Cleanup (founded in 2013) is a project dedicated to removing plastic from our seas, specifically concentrating on the GPGP. The system consists of a floating barrier approximately 2.2 km long, which is towed between two slow-moving vessels. Plastic collected by the ocean system and interceptors is recycled, used in waste-to-energy projects or buried in a landfill. There are some interesting links in the info block at the end detailing what they do. 

One of their partnerships is with the Kia Motor Company, who will integrate the collected, recycled ocean plastic into the design of future cars. Beyond this, the partnership also includes financial support, construction efforts, supply donations, and even a fleet of EV6s for their headquarters to use. In return, The Ocean Cleanup team will also collect and share groundbreaking data with Kia on how to reduce the use of new plastics when it comes to designs of cars. Isn’t that wonderful? If more of the world could come up with such exciting solutions, many of our issues would be resolved.

So, long story short, what can you do to help the turtles? Carry re-usable bags and STAY AWAY FROM SINGLE USE PLASTICS IN ANY FORM (including plastic bottles, bread tags, Styrofoam takeaway containers, straws and, of course, plastic shopping bags. If it’s unavoidable to use plastic, be sure to recycle. 

Another way is not to buy anything made from turtles. One often comes across gift shops selling local souvenirs and jewellery, some of which are made from turtle shells. This trade is a major threat to the survival of turtles. It’s often hard to tell what is real turtle shell, as opposed to fake (usually plastic) turtle shell. To make it simple, just keep away from anything that appears to be turtle shell…

These ‘tortoise shell’ boxes are currently on sale online for R16 000, and the Victorian piqué tortoise shell bracelet, inlaid with silver medallions, circa 1870 is going for R5000. All appear to be genuine turtle shell products.

If you spot fishing line on the beach, be sure to remove it and dispose of it safely. And whilst you’re at it, keep a rubbish bag handy and collect some trash each time you visit the beach. Whilst these measures don’t appear profound, imagine the impact if everyone participated. Education and leading by example are always the way to go.

On a completely different note, we wish you a fabulous Festive Season – may you come back refreshed and ready for a great new year!!

Safe Journeys if you’re travelling,

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


How System 03 Cleans the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:

Read all about The Ocean Clean-up here:

Indian Ocean Clean-Up:

Kia Sustainability Movement | Partnering with The Ocean Cleanup

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