By Amogh Narain Agarwal
Imagine the size of your neighborhood. Imagine the size of your city. Imagine the size of your state. Now imagine that area to be covered with plastic. Seems impossible, doesn’t it? Except, it isn’t. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a 1.6 million sq. km. area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with plastic floating across its surface. For reference, that’s approximately half the area of India or three times the size of France.
The largest of the world’s five offshore plastic accumulation zones and nestled between Hawaii and California, the GPGP contains more than 80,000 tonnes of plastic (about the weight of 500 jumbo jets). Over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic debris float in the GPGP, which roughly translates to 250 pieces of plastic for every human on the planet. 94% of these pieces are microplastic, smaller than 0.5 cm in size, while 92% of the patch’s total mass consists of objects larger than 0.5 cm.
Most of the plastic that ends up here enters the oceans through rivers in which populations across the world throw their trash. Through a process called bioaccumulation, a lot of this plastic waste makes its way back to us, in our stomachs. When ocean animals feed on plastics, the toxic chemicals entering their bodies eventually enter ours when we feed on them. In fact, plastic debris in the stomachs of marine life has become an increasingly common sight across shores where whales, turtles and fish wash up dead on beaches. Turtles caught in the vicinity of the GPGP can have up to 74% of their diet (in dry weight) composed of plastics while Laysan albatross chicks from the Kure Atoll and Oahu Island in the Pacific Ocean have nearly 45% of their wet mass composed of plastics.
A United Nations Ocean Conference estimated that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastics (by mass) than fish. The world, at large, is irresponsibly disposing plastic from the land and making even the oceans inhabitable. Over generations, our lands have become strewn with waste and now, our waters too. The economic cost of this disaster has to borne as well. The UN Environment Programme estimated that environmental damage caused by plastic to marine ecosystems is valued at 13 billion USD. To put into perspective, that’s more than the GDP of over 60 countries in the world.
As versatile and useful as plastic may be, the fact is that it has put all life on the planet at risk. The sad irony being that the very qualities that plastic is known for — durability, resilience and versatility — are also the reasons why plastic has become a growing concern for people at large. We’re using a material designed to last forever, for products designed to last minutes. While ambitious projects such as The Ocean Cleanup are striving to mitigate the impacts of plastic pollution at sea, for our efforts to make the greatest impact, the problem must be addressed at its root - unsustainable consumption patterns. As individuals, this is where our role begins.
Economically, the simplest way to tackle the issue is to reduce plastic production, which in turn means reducing demand for plastic. For us, this means reusing plastic products and using plastic substitutes. Given the durable and versatile nature of plastic, food containers, water bottles, and polyethene bags are the most commonly found items which can be reused again and again for different purposes, for storage, if not for anything else. While products in cardboard and cloth packaging may be pricier compared to their plastic-packaged counterparts, the environmental cost that they carry is significantly less. Either way, it’s an investment we, as consumers, are making: an investment into a marginally easier and cheaper lifestyle, or an investment into a safer and a more secure future.
The environmental responsibility is one we all bear and in the true sense of the word, the future lies in our hands. Take a moment and again imagine your entire city covered with plastic; that dystopian reality is not so far away. A miraculous government policy or an engineering marvel won’t stop that, collective individual action will. After all, a different world cannot be built by indifferent people.