When in Vietnam recently we stayed in a fabulous little shack on the beach and every morning we would go for a walk. It was lovely – except for the plastic everywhere. I took the shot below – it shows an ecosystem of barnacles (crustaceans) and other organisms hitching a ride on a plastic bottle.
I’m not one for banging on about saving the planet. Gaia will ultimately determine the fate of humanity not the other way around. But we have a big problem circling in the oceans at the moment – and that’s plastic. About 8 million tonnes of the stuff goes into our oceans every year; much of it end up in giant gyres.
Plastic doesn’t readily break down, so it’s useful for countless things. But this characteristic also makes it a huge problem.
Turtles mistake plastic bags for their lunch. Smaller pieces of plastic are eaten by sea birds. But the insidious bits of plastic are the micro pieces (microplastics) building up in our ocean and waterways. Trillions of them. And it’s actually not the microplastics that are the biggest problem to human health but the chemicals that bind to them.
Here’s how it goes down.
Larger pieces of plastic floating around the ocean break down into microplastics. These tiny pieces have an electric charge and they attract and bind to chemicals. It has been shown from recent studies that these include a lot of nasty human made chemicals called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides (e.g. DDTs and HCHs) and flame retardants.
What happens is smaller animals inadvertently eat the microplastics. Then larger animals eat the smaller animals and these chemicals, having a high affinity for oils and fats, build up in their flesh. (As I understand it, the plastic itself does not end up in the flesh of these animals but the chemicals do). And therein lies the problem for us when we eat fish or anything out of the ocean: we get a dose of those chemicals as well.
We all should use less plastic where we can. Every little bit helps. And while recycling can be good – it’s not the solution. Using less is best.
Now I’m not saying that you or I will make any real difference to the planetary ecology. But using less plastic can be an affirmation of our willingness to clean up our own lives. And that I believe is important.
Aside: Best to avoid molluscs (oysters, clams and mussels) as when you eat these, you eat the gut of the animal – so you will be not only ingesting the POPs but also the microplastics.