500 Times More Plastic Microparticals in Oceans than Stars in Our Galaxy

BLOG: Protecting Land & Ocean from Plastic Waste

As waste plastics break down into microparticles they form the marine equivalent of smog. Adrian Griffiths explains why it's everyone’s problem, but not “all doom and gloom”.

Andrew Griffiths, recycling technologies, plastic recycling Opinion blog Adrian Griffiths
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As waste plastics break down into microparticles they form the marine equivalent of smog. Adrian Griffiths explains why it's everyone’s problem, but not “all doom and gloom”.  

Global plastic production has topped 300 million tonnes per annum and this figure is expected to double in the next twenty years. This level of growth, from practically nothing in 1950 shouldn’t be surprising. After all, plastic is part of everyday life, and mostly a positive part. It keeps our houses warm so consuming less energy, it keeps our food fresher from field to fork, cars lighter and so more fuel efficient, I could go on.

So why is so much of this amazing material lost each year, where does it all go, what can we do about it?

Since getting involved with plastic waste as part of a project at the University of Warwick in 2010 I’ve opened a few crumpled plastic bags in search of answers and uncovered the grubby truth behind many recycling claims, frequently asking “Surely you can’t be serious?” (from the 1980’s film Aeroplane if you are wondering). But it’s not all doom and gloom, there is a lot to be excited about and to get involved in. Plastic waste is everyone’s problem and together we can make a difference.  

So why should we care? Just Google “Plastic Oceans” and have a read of a few of the many articles or watch the very depressing videos on the subject. By 2025 there will be 1t of plastic in oceans for every 3t of fish, by 2050 more plastic than fish.

Intuitively that does not feel like a good thing! (See New Plastics Economy report) But then this plastic “leakage” into the oceans [around 8Mt per year according to many reports but a number than is frequently considered to be massively underestimating the true scale of the problem] is believed to generate a further phenomenon known as microplastic.

It is well known that plastic does not degrade spontaneously, however, when continuously exposed to salts-rich marine waters, light radiations from the sun plastic breaks down into microplastics, an aerosol of particles smaller than 1 millimetres floating on superficial waters and generating a marine equivalent of smog, the air pollution problem we are all very well familiar with.

According to the United Nations as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy – litter our seas.

These particles act as magnets for the pollution already in the oceans, such as the chemicals that used to be used in insecticides and industrial equipment, DDT and PCBs respectively. These particles are ingested by plankton, then by fish, then by, well you’ve got it you and me, so we have to care!

Thankfully, people are waking up to the problem and things are beginning to happen. The UN announced the launch of its ‘Clean Seas’ campaign at the Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali last week.

The goal is to eliminate major sources of pollution by pressuring governments and individuals to rethink the way goods are packaged and their own shopping habits.

Work is underway to make sure that the principles of the circular economy – where we keep resources in use for as long as possible and extract the maximum value from them - are being applied across the plastic supply chain.

For example, The New Plastics Economy, inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, is a three year $10 million initiative to build momentum towards a plastic system that works.

It brings together key stakeholders to re-think and re-design the future of plastics, starting with packaging. Participants in the scheme include leading players from across the value chain including M&S, Borealis, SUEZ, Tomra Systems, WRAP, Amcor, Coca-Cola, MARS, Unilever, Veolia and our own company Recycling Technologies.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, Founder, Ellen MacArthur Foundation said herself: "The New Plastics Economy initiative has attracted widespread support, and across the industry we are seeing strong initial momentum and alignment on the direction to take. The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action provides a clear plan for redesigning the global plastics system, paving the way for concerted action.”

Action is certainly what is needed and initiatives like these are essential if we are to effectively deal with the problem of plastic waste. It is a global problem requiring everyone to do their bit!

The good part is that the solution is not an idle dream or vague hope, over 90% of plastic could be recycled given the technologies available today.

Adrian Griffiths is founder and CEO at Recycling Technologies

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