As summer is in full swing, and COVID-19 restrictions are relaxing, there is a pressing issue on most beach goer’s minds: why is there so much plastic waste on our beaches and in our waterways?
The COVID-19 pandemic increased use of single-use cutlery, take-away packaging, and discarded PPE (e.g. masks and gloves). In addition to the increase in single-use plastic, weather patterns have become more extreme, with increased flooding, storms, and heatwaves. More extreme weather means natural and developed areas overlap more frequently, spreading our waste further into previously pristine environments, flooding our waterways with plastics.
There are essentially three fates for plastic waste: recycled or reprocessed, thermally destroyed (e.g. incineration), or discarded (e.g. landfill, open dumps, or in the natural environment). There are issues and challenges to all fates. Recycling delays final disposal. It reduces plastic waste if it displaces primary plastic production; however, contamination and mixing of polymer types generates secondary plastics of low or limited technical and economic value. Incineration of plastics has environmental and health impacts, the extent of these impacts depends on emission control technology, as well as incinerator design and operation. Finally, discarded plastic often makes its way into the environment. Plastics do breakdown, but very slowly. For example, plastic bags from shops can take 10–20 years to breakdown, and plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to breakdown. Unfortunately, plastics cannot decompose. Plastics can only breakdown into smaller pieces until they are microplastics.
Microplastics have already been observed to affect marine organisms. Over 660 species ranging from zooplankton and bivalves to cetaceans, seabirds, and fish have been affected by plastic debris. Fauna can get trapped in plastic, from the rings in beer loops, to discarded fishing gear. Organisms also mistake plastic for food, and if many organisms at the bottom of the food chain have ingested plastic, it can bioaccumulate in fauna higher up the food chain. This leads to a decrease in quality of life and can lead to death as the animal is prevented from foraging.
What can be done to improve this? Try following these easy steps listed below:
- Cut down on plastics by turning down plastic bags in the supermarket or choose plastic free options;
- Stop buying bottled water;
- Use re-usable cutlery or Tupperware; and,
- Pick up three pieces of litter while out on your daily walk or trip to the beach.
If everyone followed these simple tricks, plastic waste in the environment will reduce.
Luckily, more and more people are becoming aware of the plastic issue and most want to help. An OSC employee recently started to clean the beach after a storm, and everyone already on the beach joined in the effort. Within a short time, the entire beach was clear. Many hands make clearing easy, try it out in your local area and see the difference.
If you want to know more about how to reduce your plastics usage, please explore the links below, or find your own journey to zero waste and plastic-free options: