What Are Plastics Doing To The Ocean?
Plastics are a wondrous group of materials. They can be as soft as a pair of nylons or as solid as a sewer pipe. What’s more, they’re pretty easy to create – but hard to break down. This, as a result, is great for manufacturing and durability but it is hard on our planet. Now we find ourselves trying to reshape our relationship with disposable plastics through changing what they are made from, how they are used, and where they end up. Technological breakthroughs promise ways that we can make the most of this miracle material without it harming the environment.
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is in the oceanic dead spot – a calm eye at the heart of currents flowing around the vast ocean. It’s also the last stop on an oceanic spin cycle, trapping any debris that falls in or floats away. Old shoes, milk jugs, grocery bags, and more create a plastic and seawater soup. Our love of plastics has changed the Pacific gyre into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a virtual sea of abandoned plastic. Clever engineers are developing new technologies to gather and isolate this floating debris to help clean the ocean – one important step in the worldwide process of reducing plastic waste in our landscapes and seas. The best method to reduce the garbage patch remains the simplest: Use less plastic.
Plastics aren’t just all around you. They’re also in you and on you. They come from plastic microbead ingredients in commercial products – toothpaste, exfoliants, and other items – that have been on the market for decades. Some countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are now banning microbeads in personal products but leaving commercial and industrial use untouched. As such, the oceans receive a dump truck’s worth of plastic pollution every minute. Other microplastics from when plastic waste breaks apart into small pieces in the environment. Unlike larger ocean debris, these microscopic pieces can’t be collected by any net, and they often wind up entering the food chain.
But here is some good news: Scientists have discovered species of bacteria that can break down petroleum-based plastics. BioPlastics might just be the next material of the future. Plastics are a key by-product of the world’s oil and gas industry.
Over 4 percent of all global and gas production goes to make plastic products, many designed for disposability: straws and spoons, cups and wrappers. It’s a troubling paradox of our modern world: The things we plan on throwing away are made of the material least likely to decompose. Scientists believe they have an answer to this: bioplastics.
Made from pulped plants instead of fossil fuels, bioplastics use the sugar in corn, beets, or sugarcane to create the long chain of molecules needed to make plastic. Because they are made from organic plant material, they can be composted after use and turned into soil. Bioplastic cups, cutlery, and even trash bags are already on the market – and making a difference.