The newsletter to fuel — and thrill — your mind. Read for deep dives into the unmissable ideas and topics shaping our world.
Jul 12, 2022
Dreaming of a summer beach holiday? Take note: Approximately 12 million tons of plastic waste find their way into the world’s oceans each year. This humongous volume of rubbish, which weighs as much as two million Asian elephants, counts among the worst environmental pollutants of our times, threatening the health of humans as well as innumerable marine species. Dive into today’s Daily Dose to find the culprits and to learn about innovative strategies for reclaiming and recycling some of our accumulated waste.
– with reporting by Anirban Das Mahapatra from Kolkata, India
Know your trash
Nothing cuddly about this PET
Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is among the most abundant forms of plastic waste that makes its way out to sea. Think bottles of soft drinks or water, plastic food jars, or even that ketchup bottle sitting on the breakfast counter. All these containers are made from PET, a thermoplastic, which means it melts when reheated and can thus be easily recycled.
PET’s insidious sidekick
If PET is a villain of the oceans, polypropylene (PP) is often its sidekick. The caps of PET bottles are typically made from PP plastic. Or, you might drink soda from a PET bottle using a single-use straw made from PP plastic. PP is also a thermoplastic, although not as easily recyclable as PET. Drinking straws are virtually unrecyclable. Moreover, they can easily disintegrate over time into minuscule fragments called microplastics and nanoplastics, making them much harder to retrieve from the environment.
Watch out for nylon
Widely used to make fishing gear such as nets and lines, nylon waste can persist in the environment for centuries. Like PP, it is also notorious for breaking down into micro and nanoplastics. Consumed by unsuspecting marine animals, it can find an easy entry into the food chain, leading all the way up to humans. One study indicates that you may be ingesting up to five grams (0.17 ounces, or the weight of a credit card) of micro and nanoplastics every week.
The highs and lows of PE
High-density polyethylene, or HDPE plastic,is commonly used to package consumer goods. Milk jars, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles and cosmetic containers are common examples of everyday goods packaged with HDPE. Low-density polyethylene, or LDPE, is used to make items such as garbage bags or single-use grocery bags. HDPE can be effectively recycled, but processing LDPE waste is costly and can present significant challenges. This means LDPE is often low on the priority list when it comes to collecting plastic for recycling.
Deemed a household favorite for being both inexpensive and durable, PVC is used for made-to-last objects such as shower curtains, pipes, tubes, toys, serving trays, chairs and tables. However, it’s not biodegradable and is extremely hazardous to recycle. Any amount of PVC that flushes out to sea will eventually break down into microplastics over time and remain suspended in the environment in perpetuity.
Where does it all go?
Oceanic garbage patches
Gargantuan open-air vats of floating trash, known as garbage patches, typically form in the middle of open oceans, at the vortex of swirling water currents called gyres. Similar to a whirlpool, these rotating forces suck in floating debris brought in by the currents from distant landmasses. This process results in the accumulation of thousands of tons of marine plastic waste in a concentrated area. As many as five oceanic garbage patches exist around the world, the most infamous being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Twice the size of Texas, it’s located in the North Pacific, between California and Hawaii.
Innumerable beaches, lagoons, marshes and coastal wetlands around the world are cluttered with plastic waste, and many regions see a seasonal increase in trash. Some surges coincide with the rainy season in various places, when inland rivers and their tributaries come to life and wash out volumes of plastic waste that accumulates in urban sewage systems over the preceding months. Garbage blooms, on the other hand, are triggered by a change in wind patterns. Driven toward the coastline by strong winds, debris floating freely in the sea is deposited on beaches and coastal areas by the incoming tide.
Floating ‘ghost nets’
Also known as derelict fishing gear, or DFG, ghost nets refer to a deadly jumble of fishing equipment — including lines, floats and nets — that have been lost or discarded by fishing boats at sea. These free-floating traps entangle large numbers of fish, turtles, marine animals and sometimes even birds, often amassing so much weight that they sink to the ocean floor with their haul. Once the carcasses of dead creatures decompose, or get eaten by predators, the nets regain their buoyancy and rise to the surface again. What follows is a cycle of trap, drown and kill. Around the world, some 600,000 tons of ghost nets are estimated to enter the ocean every year.
The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit, has developed technology capable of skimming thousands of tons of plastic flotsam from the ocean’s surface, and trapping plastic waste in river channels before it reaches the sea. Meanwhile, Switzerland-based non-profit the Jan & Oscar Foundation has partnered with out-of-work coastal communities in Thailand during the pandemic to collect recyclable plastic waste from the sea. Some families collected more than a ton in a single month. The plastics were then purchased by local recyclers at fair price, thereby offering the communities a source of income during a time of economic uncertainty.
Offset your plastics with ‘plastic credit?’
Business entities can attempt to offset their use of plastics by funding efforts to remove existing plastic waste from the environment. One so-called “plastic credit” is earned for every ton of plastic waste that a business helps reclaim; the core idea is to direct funds from businesses to subsidize the operational costs of gathering marine plastic, thereby making it a viable economic enterprise for collector communities. Second Life, a project based in Thailand, acts as an intermediary between corporate donors, plastic aggregating communities and regional recyclers in Southeast Asia, all through the system of plastic credit.
Striving for a circular economy
Circular business models aim to put recycled material back into the chain of human consumption in the form of up-cycled products that would otherwise require virgin material to produce. However, just how much recycled material goes into making such products is sometimes overestimated; some companies engage in greenwashing, which means they put more resources into marketing themselves as green than they do actually minimizing harmful practices. Yet some companies do make a difference. Swiss firm Tide Ocean SA, for instance, produces a patented raw material made entirely of recycled marine plastic waste, which is then used by partner companies to make consumer products ranging from coffee mugs to designer swimwear.
OZY is a diverse, global and forward-looking media and entertainment company focused on “the New and the Next.” OZY creates space for fresh perspectives, and offers new takes on everything from news and culture to technology, business, learning and entertainment.