There is so much we don’t know.
When we pollute, when we throw away, when we turn a blind eye, when we allow the corporatocracy to dictate the terms by which we live, we consign creatures we may not even know exist to death.
We need to keep reminding ourselves and others of the extraordinary beauty of the world in which we are so fortunate to live, and do all we can to be part of restoring not wrecking the systems that are essential for life.
Biodegradable plastic sounds like a wonderful idea when you first hear about it. Most plastics are notorious for how long they stick around and how hard it is to break them down naturally, so to think that all those bits of plastics that end up scattered to the four winds could just melt away harmlessly sounds almost too good to be true. And well, once you read the fine print, it kind of is…
A new report by the United Nations looks at these so-called biodegradable plastics and their impact on oceans, and compared to the theory, reality is a lot less rosy. The biodegradable plastics rarely actually degrade because they require long-term exposure to high-temperatures (around 122F, or 50C), like those found in large municipal composters, to actually break-down. Those conditions are not found very often in nature, and especially not in the oceans.
To add insult to injury, once those biodegradable plastics are in the oceans, the water reduces UV and oxygen exposure, so they degrade even slower than they would otherwise… Basically, biodegradable label or not, those plastics will be there for a very long time. And even when they do break down, after years, the small pieces still pose a threat and just add to the existing microplastics problem that we’ve written about in the past.
Lindsay Robinson/University of Georgia/Promo image
On top of all this, biodegradable plastics are less recyclable than regular plastics, and they can contaminate the feed of recycling plants:
“If you’re recycling plastic you don’t want to have anything to do with biodegradable plastics,” says Peter Kershaw, one of the authors of the UNEP study. “Because if you mix biodegradable with standard plastics you can compromise the properties of the original plastic.”
So unless we can somehow make biodegradable plastics that actually degrade under regular conditions fairly rapidly without causing problems, and that can also be easily recycled, or at least kept out of recycling plants, maybe these aren’t the best idea. It might make people feel good when they see the label, but if they don’t work as intended, then it’s just greenwashing.
Scientists have confirmed the worst: Plastic pollution is flowing into the Arctic region, from what may be a sixth “garbage patch” of swirling trash.
According to a study in the journal Polar Biology, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute and Belgium’s Laboratory for Polar Ecology observed 31 pieces of plastic afloat on the Barents Sea and Fram Strait. The pollution was viewed from a distance—a helicopter and observation point on an icebreaker bridge, so smaller pieces were not visible. “Our numbers are probably an underestimate,” said AWI biologist Melanie Bergmann in a statement.
According to Phys.org, computer models indicate a sixth garbage patch is forming in the Barents Sea. It has been widely reported that there are already five of these patches, or “gyres,” circulating in our world oceans. But these areas harbor trillions of tiny plastic fragments that can only be detected by analyzing net tows. 5 Gyres Institute’s director of research and co-founder Marcus Eriksen famously re-characterized the garbage patches as “plastic smog” because most of the plastic contained in them is not really visible.
Arctic Ice Melt Worsens Plastic Pollution | Arctic Plastic ‘Garbage Patches’ | City Scientists in Arctic Pollution Study | Trillions of Tiny Plastic Pieces Reside in Arctic Ice
The rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice is probably the cause of the plastic infiltrating the Arctic region, as fishing operations follow cod that is migrating further north. As the ice melts, cruise lines also travel further into the region. Both fishing and cruise lines expel huge amounts of pollution. “Most likely, litter from the ships intentionally or accidentally ends up in the waters of the Arctic,” said Bergmann. “We expect this trend to continue.”
A study published earlier this year in Polar Biology found that seabirds and sharks on Greenland have swallowed plastic litters. The report indicated that 8 percent of the sharks caught off of Greenland had plastic in their stomachs, while 88 percent of northern fulmars have swallowed plastic.