There are reportedly 170 trillion - yes, trillion - plastic particles currently floating around our oceans, finding their way into marine food chain and, ultimately into us. One hundred and seventy trillion. In other words, a million x milllion. Or, 170 followed by 12 zeros! That's a scale that's hard to conceptualize. How do you even put that into perspective?
The scientists estimate that those170 trillion plastic particles present in the oceans have a combined weight of about 2 million tonnes. If you had a train with a standard freight boxcar that was carrying the entire 2 million tonnes of plastic it would be pulling around 26,000 cars and be nearly 420 km long. That's a train as long as the distance from San Francisco to San Diego, or London to Edinburgh!
The study by the respected 5 Gyres Institute and reported in the science journal Plos One evaluates trends of ocean plastic from 1979 to 2019. The authors noted a rapid increase of marine plastic pollution and blamed the plastics industry for failing to recycle or design for recyclability. It has now reached unprecedented levels and, at this point, they gloomily forecast that "clean up is futile".
Without urgent policy action, the rate at which plastics enter the oceans could increase by around 2.6 times between now and 2040, the study also found.
Plastics tend to find their way into our oceans from the land via rivers, storm drains and littering. Once plastics enter the ocean they tend to break up into tiny particles rather than decompose. Once they're nano-particles they're practically impossible to clean up. So they float there, leaching toxic chemicals or gobbled up by unwitting marine life and thus entering the food chain.
Despite this pessimistic outlook, humans can make a change and stem the tide of plastic entering our oceans. But, individual efforts at the consumer level is not going to be enough with more single-use plastics being created than ever before. Real change is going to take immediate enforceable international standards and corporate responsibility,
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