In a span of just six decades, humanity has produced over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic as of 2017. Since plastic doesn’t readily degenerate, most of this is in the form of plastic waste today. Together, it would weigh nearly five times as much as the combined cargo of all the world’s ships in 2016.
None of this plastic is going away by itself. And with much of it ‘mismanaged‘ for want of a waste segregation system, many nations end up dumping it in their rivers and seas.
We know that the ocean is increasingly filling up with plastic. A study published in the PLOS-One journal estimated that there were over five trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 250,000 tons in total, in the oceans as of 2014. Giant garbage patches are present in nearly all of the world’s oceans – some patches covering the area of entire continents on the water.
Tackling this non-biodegradable, plastic menace may seem like an insurmountable problem. But a recent study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, suggests that the problem can be tackled by targeting the super-highways of plastic – the rivers that flow into the oceans.
According to the study, ten rivers contribute between 88 to 95 percent of the plastic in our oceans. These are the rivers Nile in Egypt and Niger in Western Africa, the Ganges and Indus in South Asia, the Mekong River across South East Asia, The Yellow River in Western China and the Yangtze River in its heartland, the Hai He River near Beijing, the PearlRiverr between China and Vietnam, and the Amur river between China and Russia.
With most of the rivers in China and none in the entire Western Hemisphere, it suggests that plastic management policies – that differ between states – can have a huge impact on the amount of plastic we allow to choke up the world’s marine ecosystem.
The study suggests setting up waste management systems in river catchment areas which would serve as the first ‘net’ for stopping plastic before it reaches the ocean. To provide a complete recommendation, the authors hope to measure how long it takes for plastic to reach the ocean from the river.
Clearing up these rivers – some of them the largest in the world – is not an insurmountable problem. Waste management in a river is still more feasible than collecting it in the ocean. This was the rationale behind Baltimore’s solar-powered Inner Harbour Water Wheel – a nifty floating barge that rakes up plastic trash from the city’s Chesapeake Bay. Operating slowly, but self-sustainingly, the Water can clear out 25 tons of garbage a day, ranging in size from rubber tyres to cigarette butts.
Collecting the trash at source is the most practical approach to tackling the problem of maritime pollution. But once plastic waste reaches the ocean, there are also initiatives that aim to help the oceans clean themselves.
The Ocean Cleanup project, by 23-year-old Boyan Slat, is one of the most popular crowdsourced initiatives on the topic. They proposed to set up floating barrages, hundreds of kilometres wide, that would use ocean currents to trap floating plastic waste. The project claims a full-deployment of their technology would remove 50 percent of the North Pacific Garbage Gyre within five years.
The technical difficulties are many – such as setting up a floating barrage thousands of kilometres from the nearest human. And the project has inspired criticism from scientists who challenge the feasibility of it all. So far, Ocean Cleanup has modified their approach and scaled down their barrage to a smaller size, so as to deploy it earlier.
While Ocean Cleanup is taking the fight to the deepest reaches of the oceans, it may be worth returning to the source – or rather, nearer the sources. Other studies have found that targeting cleanup efforts to the Chinese and Indonesian coast would have a greater impact in removing microplastics from the oceans.
If plastic pollution can be tackled before it ever reaches the sea, this would present a more sustainable model. Whatever waste the Ocean Cleanup manages to extract in the coming years will only be replenished as today’s plastic reaches the same locations over time.
Plastic is steadily choking the life out of marine species. In Indonesia, up to 55 percent of species surveyed were found to have ingested plastic, with 28 percent of individual fish found with debris inside them. These were fish, not surveyed in polluted patches of the ocean, but taken from a fish market.
Within plastic waste, microplastics are proving to be the worst polluters – as they accumulate biological material around them, making them indiscernible from fish food for many species. You can find micro-plastics in many common products, from shower gels to toothpaste. The UK plans to enforce a stringent ban on micro-beads and micro-plastics products, as giving up these goods would go a long way towards ensuring a safer ocean.
Plastic will outlive every single person using it at the moment. In the long-term, plastic is increasingly shaping up as one of mankind’s worst legacies on earth. Ensuring that rivers don’t become plastic highways to the ocean is the challenge that awaits the world’s largest riparians.
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