Plastic waste – more dangerous than global warming
We have all seen those graphic photos depicting the fate of marine mammals tangled in discarded fishing nets. And the sight of a soft drinks bottle floating by while we are canoeing in our local lake or river of choice is not a rarity.
But the real problem with plastic pollution in the world’s waters – the fact that it never, ever, degrades – is more or less invisible to the naked eye, and is more immediate than anyone thought. And some argue that companies have the potential to alleviate the crisis in a big way.
Stephan Becker, founder of Beautiful Oceans, a for-profit corporate framework that offers courses in marine conservation to scuba divers and snorkelers, is one of those people who believes the corporate world can have a tremendous impact on reducing plastic pollution.
According to Becker, who studies plastic pollution in oceans, the biggest problem concerning industry and plastic waste is that not enough is being done to ensure that products can be reintegrated into nature.
More than a drop
Plastic is particularly damaging because it is not biodegradable, he says, and plastic particles, although invisible, remain unmoving in the water and eventually become part of the food chain.
In oceans, areas called gyres, which have strong currents facilitated by circular wind movement, pull in waste and become densely populated by a stagnant surplus of plastic. Becker says that in some gyres, there is five times more plastic than zooplankton. The plankton, he says, have plastic debris in their bodies, which means plastic has entered the food chain, since zooplankton are at the core of the marine food chain.
Unfortunately, that is not the worst of it.
Plastic is a bigger danger than global warming, or at least it is in the immediate sense, considering it is snuffing out the lowest common denominator in the food chain, says Neil Seldman, a waste recycling expert and president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, an organisation with a long track record of promoting sustainable communities.
Seldman, like Becker, also sees potential for companies to ease the problem, both by creating public awareness of a not-so-highly-publicised issue and by greatly downsizing the use of plastic altogether.
His organisation, along with the Earth Resource Foundation, an environmental education non-profit, is campaigning for stores to stop using plastic bags at checkout counters and to instead hand out or sell reusable burlap or canvas bags.
So far, he says, companies have been extremely receptive to the idea.
Although most of the talks are still in the works and Seldman has not yet released the names of the companies involved with the campaign – which is aptly titled “Zero Waste at the Checkout Counter” – he says that one of the stores that recently implemented the policy has already reported saving thousands of dollars by eliminating its use of plastic bags.
Beyond the checkout
Saving money through the alteration of plastic consumption is not limited to supermarkets and retailers through the elimination of plastic bags, according to Seldman. “There is a lot of money to be made in alternative plastics and in managing refillable reusables,” he says.
Becker also says that companies are taking notice of the issue. For example, Daimler Chrysler and General Motors Canada are two of many companies that are part of a huge collaborative effort to create environmentally friendly cars in Canada.
The collaboration, known as the Auto21 project, was developed to research the possibility of the creation of a largely biodegradable vehicle.
Seldman says that although companies are making changes when they become aware of the plastic pollution crisis, the changes are not coming fast enough. Industry, he says, will have to make major alterations in the near future, both to keep up with the evolving and rapidly growing sustainable community and to pull the world’s oceans out of a state of desperation.