Once in a while, we like to take a virtual trip around the world to check in on some of the stories related to the ocean plastic crisis that are making news. This can be anything from research that shows how pervasive the problem is, to new ways of thinking about the plastic cycle, or some of the negative impacts ocean plastic pollution is having on species and habitats. Also, wherever we can, we like to recognize people or organizations making positive progress in the effort to curb the plastic pollution problem for future generations.
These stories are ripped from the headlines and just waiting for us to take a closer look. Let's go!
It's Raining Plastic
In our post, Microplastics: Not Just in the Ocean Anymore, we touched on a study that found the tiny pieces of plastic in remote corners of the French Pyrenees Mountains, presumably carried there by the wind. Now, a study out of Colorado, USA, has found microplastics in raindrops!
The finding came as quite a shock to the researcher who made the discovery. Gregory Wetherbee of the US Geologic Survey was out collecting samples for the purpose of studying nitrogen pollution and came across the result purely by accident.
The rain samples were taken from a number of different locations across Colorado, some as high as two miles (3,000 meters) above sea level in Rocky Mountain National Park –– 90% of the samples had microplastics in them.
The microplastic wasn't visible to the naked eye, but a closer look under a microscope confirmed their presence. While the source of the plastic can't be identified exactly, it's likely that it came from the degradation of plastic in the environment as well as synthetic fibers from clothing and textiles.
This just goes to show that plastic contamination is probably much more widespread and prevalent in nature than we actually truly recognize. These microplastics are now unavoidable in even the most remote places on Earth.
Container Wars: Plastic Bottle vs. Aluminum Can
As more and more people become aware of the ocean plastic crisis, consumers are beginning to demand that companies act more responsibly when it comes to the way they package their products. Nowhere is this shift becoming more apparent than in the world of bottled water.
Bottled water is a $19 billion/year industry and humans buy about one million plastic bottles per minute around the world! It's estimated that over half a trillion plastic bottles will be sold in 2020 and that only about 9% of them will be recycled. Most of what's left will end up in landfills, or worse yet, the ocean.
In response, some corporate giants like Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestle, and Danone are beginning to swap plastic bottles for aluminum cans to hold their water products. Heralded as a greener alternative by some, aluminum cans do have a higher recycling rate and generally contain much more recycled content (69%) vs. their plastic bottle counterparts (3%). But when all factors are averaged out, the process of creating an aluminum can emits about twice the amount of greenhouse gases as the same size plastic bottle.
So, are aluminum cans really a better alternative than plastic bottles? The jury's out. But we do know the answer may not matter if you opt for an even more sustainable solution like a 4ocean Reusable Bottle. Just one reusable bottle can prevent an average of 156 plastic bottles (or aluminum cans) from entering landfills or the ocean annually. That seems like the real winner.
The Maldives Ambitious Plan to Phase-Out Plastics
The Republic of the Maldives, located to the south and west of India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, is actually made up of more than 1,000 islands. The Maldives is known as a world-class tropical paradise for travelers. With posh resorts, crystal clear water, blue lagoons, white sandy beaches, and reefs teeming with life, a trip to the Maldives is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that most people only dream about. However, if you dig a little deeper, there is a dark cloud that hangs over the islands...literally. And it comes from the unregulated burning of trash and plastic across the archipelago.
As one approaches the capital city of Malé by air, the view is stunning. An incredible mosaic of blues, greens, and turquoise that looks like a master artist hand-painted them in a dream. But then you see it, just four short miles away –– the island of Thilafushi, the world's largest garbage island, smoldering, afire, and belching out a choking black smoke. It's like something out of Dante's Inferno, a real hell on earth. And during the many months of the monsoon season, winds carry this toxic smoke right over the capital city.
Plastic bags, plastic bottles, disposable diapers, and every other type of trash you can think of is dumped on Thilafushi. It's estimated that 774 tons of trash and plastic make their way to the island every single day, which just adds more fuel to the ever-burning fire. About half of this waste comes from the capital city of Malé and the rest comes from resorts throughout the island chain.
Unfortunately, the burning of trash and plastic is not isolated to this one island. On almost every inhabited island there is a place where they burn the garbage and plastic waste created there each day. In fact, the word for "beach" in the local language, Dhivehi, roughly translates to "rubbish dump."
Not so long ago that wouldn't have been a problem because everything would have been biodegradable. But in the age of plastic this simply is not the case. With a general lack of funds to send the garbage to Thilafushi, it's burned in open pits, sometimes right on the beach. With few municipal waste facilities and limited land space, this has been their only option. There is hope, however...
After more than 30 years of strife in the political sphere, a win by now-President Ibrahim Solih and the Maldives Democratic Party in the 2018 election shifted the focus of the government to a low-carbon agenda. On September 24th, President Solih addressed the UN General Assembly to announce their participation in the Climate Smart Resilient Islands plan. He also laid out a new commitment to one of the most ambitious goals of any nation in the world for the phase-out of plastics on the island chain by 2023. The fight to accomplish this is just now beginning so we will make sure to follow any developments and keep you posted on their progress in the coming years.
Meet Afroz Shah: Leader of the World's Largest Beach Cleanup
Afroz Shah is a rather unassuming man just blending into the crowd on the bus, heading to his next beach cleanup. You would never know that this is the man responsible for what is being called the "World's Largest Beach Cleanup."
A lawyer by trade, he moved to a community in Mumbai named Versova Beach in 2015. It was a familiar setting to him as he had played there as a child. But, to his overwhelming dismay, the beach he once knew was gone, hidden under layers of plastic five feet thick. It disturbed him so much that he began to clean the beach himself with just a few of his friends to help.
Using social media, the cleanup mission spread and more and more people joined the effort. Weekend after weekend the numbers grew. It has now been 210 weekends straight that Afroz and his band of over 200,000 volunteers have been cleaning up Versova Beach. To date, they have cleaned more than 60 million pounds (20 million kilograms), most of it plastic. And they have now moved on to India's longest river, the Mithi, and other beaches as well.
Afroz not only cleans beaches but he also speaks at schools and to other groups, educating the youth about what plastic pollution is doing to our ocean. At just 33 years old, his mission is not only to clean the ocean but to raise awareness with the younger generation so that they can take better care of the planet than we have in the past. His international recognition is also giving him a platform with world leaders to help develop policy change and real solutions for the problems plastic pollution poses.
He has been named the UN Environment's Champion of the Earth, Indian of the Year in 2017, and even made the cover of GQ Magazine's Men of the Year edition. At 4ocean, we salute his drive and determination and support him in spirit from the other side of the world.
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The ocean plastic crisis may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon with how much attention it's received over the last decade. However, this situation extends decades beyond modern-day — and the inception of plastic itself stretches even further. Understanding the history of ocean plastic pollution gives us a glimpse into how this material became so pervasive and how we might learn from past behaviors.