«Happy Hallowgreen»: Acting Against Scary Plastic Now
If you walk along the beach early in the morning, you will now find not only shells, but also a fair amount of trash—sometimes more, sometimes less. Like a ghost ship, the perception of plastic waste in the sea is fluctuating. Action is needed now, whether you live near the ocean or not.
Nowadays, the sound of the waves is unfortunately accompanied by annoying finds: plastic parts and plastic bottles. Whether it's a tourist resort or a remote bay, plastic finds its way into the sea and onto beaches. Initially interpreted as a purely Asian-Pacific problem, plastic waste in the oceans is now unfortunately, on closer inspection, a global reality.
Five garbage continents in the ocean
About 25 years ago, oceanographer and sailor Charles Moore and his crew discovered the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" between Hawaii and California. Instead of water and waves, the sailing crew suddenly saw only floating plastic garbage as far as the eye could see. There are now five giant garbage whirlpools worldwide - two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, one in the Indian Ocean. The garbage continents are all located near the equator because this is where the ocean currents from the north and south meet and bundle the garbage in the sea. And these are only the visible plastic pieces. Most of the trash is very likely to sink to the bottom. Fifteen percent of the trash still floats on the surface, while more than 70 percent sinks to the ocean floor.
Conventional plastic is a zombie
During said beach walk, we notice another 15 percent of plastic trash floating in the ocean. This washes up on the coasts with the tide. And the amount of garbage in the sea is increasing. As much as if a truckload of plastic were dumped into the sea every minute, calculates the British Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is staggering and requires immediate action, because once the plastic is in the water, it takes centuries to decompose. The garbage mix in the ocean consists especially of plastic bottles, packaging and other plastic items. These float or store in the water for many hundreds of years, releasing microparticles. These particles end up in fish and thus in people's stomachs, with disastrous medium-term outcomes for disease and mortality scenarios. The reason for the non-compostability of plastic is simply its composition: plastic consists of crude oil and natural gas. Chemicals are added during production to create a stable compound. This mixture is not degradable by nature and can only be made recyclable by professional plastic recycling.
Waste prevention is development work
Another important element in solving this problem is the lack of infrastructure in many developing countries to collect and properly dispose of waste. Via wind, rivers, poorly constructed landfills or a lack of wastewater management, plastic waste ultimately ends up in the sea, sometimes in whole streams. This is particularly the case in Asian countries, above all China. Various research reports cite the Yangtze River as one of the largest sources of global plastic pollution, as it is responsible for more than half of all plastic pollution in the oceans. However, recent studies have found that the Philippines is responsible for more than one-third of plastic pollution in the oceans, while China's share is estimated at 7%.
China recycles 17% of its plastic waste, the U.S. 7%.
In 2020, the People's Republic of China produced about 60 million tons of plastic waste. About 16 million of that was professionally recycled, according to the China National Resources Recycling Association. On average, 17% of all plastic waste in China is recycled. That's far from high, but the recycling rate in the U.S. is just 5-6%, according to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. In Germany, 65% of all waste is recycled. In Switzerland, the total recycling rate is around 55%. About 20% of Swiss waste is plastic waste. According to SwissRecycling, Switzerland consumes 125 kg of plastic per capita per year, and the trend is rising. Everything that is not recycled ends up somewhere else, unfortunately also in the sea.
China recycles 17% of its plastic waste, the U.S. 7%.
Waste tourism — a billion-dollar business
In addition, there is the problem of waste tourism. Wealthy industrialized nations simply export their waste as far away as they can. According to EuroStat, the EU exported about 1.4 million tons of plastic waste to China in 2016. In 2017, China was still the top trading partner for plastic waste. However, in 2018, exports of plastic waste to China decreased to 50,000 tons and in 2019 to 14,000 tons. This decline has led to a shift in flows mainly to Malaysia (24% of total EU plastic waste exports in 2019), Turkey (17%) and Indonesia (6%). On a hopeful note, total exports decreased from 2.6 million tons to 1.5 million tons between 2016 and 2019. Among EU countries, Germany is the largest exporter of plastic waste (as of 2021) with more than 720,000 tons, followed by the Netherlands with 630,000 tons, Belgium (443,000t) and France (341,000t). In Germany alone, exports generate around EUR 260 million from recycling companies. Turkey has become the most important export destination for EU plastic waste in recent years. Globally, the USA is one of the largest plastic waste exporters.
UN sustainability goals often not yet effective
Waste prevention has clearly become a global challenge. In its 2030 Agenda, the United Nations (UN) agreed on a global plan to promote sustainability with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since 2016, all countries have been working to translate this shared vision into national development plans. One of the SGDs (No. 14) relates to marine conservation. Specifically, it reads "Conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development" and is divided into ten sub-goals. After initial euphoria, however, the topic of marine protection has increasingly fizzled out. One of the original sub-goals is to significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025. Unfortunately, nothing has been achieved in this regard at the political level apart from lip service. Therefore, private initiatives are needed to significantly reduce marine pollution as soon as possible and to start restoring the oceans. The first steps are closer than you think: plastic recycling and plastic avoidance.
11 practical tips for avoiding plastic
- When you're out and about, and plastic can't be avoided, take all trash home for proper disposal.
- Use glass or metal bottles instead of plastic bottles. Drinks in plastic bottles (PET or not) are spooky because the plastic particles can eventually end up in your stomach.
- At parties or other celebrations, death to plastic dishes and plastic cups!
- Put shopping bags in the car, use your own recyclable containers for fruits and vegetables.
- Keep-fresh foil is a relic of the 90s! A keep-fresh box can be used up to 4000x.
- Email vendors who wrap too much plastic outer packaging around their products to their liking - activism starts small.
- Consistently throw all plastic wrap in a recycling bin (not household trash). Ask their local recycling center or waste disposal company specifically for offers.
- Write the address on the paper and do not use mixed-material envelopes (plastic-paper composite).
- Handle transparencies and plastic folders with care in everyday office life - a cardboard folder protects documents just as well as a plastic envelope
- Stop binding plastic-metal-paper presentations together!
- Don't buy nice-to-have plastic items for the household or as cheap toys with a short lifespan - in the end, everything beckons us back from the plastic island in the ocean.
These tips are for adults and children – and as «Halloween» is just around the corner, here some usable tips for nearly plastic-free «Hallogreen»: